Before accepting advice, consider the source

Mar 6, 2001 7:44 AM

A month or so ago, two gents joined me at a blackjack table. One bought in from a thick stash of cash. The other didn’t play. He seemed to be there to help his comrade. For instance, saying whether to hit or stand on close calls such as A-7 versus 10-up or 4-8 versus 2-up. Or suggesting when and how much to vary the bet.

The "coach" advocated flawless basic strategy on playing decisions. His bet sizing advice was aggressive. Press-on-win. An approach that pumps up volatility, yielding substantial earnings when the cards cooperate and big losses when they misbehave.

I left after a while with a modest profit. My tablemates were going hot and heavy, doing quite well at the time.

That evening, the same two guys sat at another table where I was playing. We exchanged pleasantries and introduced ourselves, acknowledging recognition from the previous game. As a staunch minder of my own business, I didn’t ask how they were doing. Identical routine, though. Tony paid and played. Mac attended and assisted. Identical, except that Tony’s wad of bills, while still respectable, was thinner. This didn’t necessarily mean anything. After all, you don’t have to flash everything you’ve got just to show off to the old ladies in the park or impress the dealer.

In this game, neither of us was doing well. The dealer kept making rather than breaking hands that began with low up-cards. At one point, Tony got an A-5 with the dealer showing a deuce. He asked me whether he should double or hit.

"Hit," I replied and, having said this, noticed that Mac was gone. So I added, "Don’t be shy about asking questions until your friend gets back."

"He left," Tony said. "Anyway, he’s not really a friend. Just someone I met today who said he’d help me because he liked the game but didn’t have enough money to play himself." Click!

A half hour later, I’d made a reasonable recovery — behind for the session but ahead for the day. So I colored up and prepared to go. I wished Tony luck. He replied he’d need it because he was almost $20,000 in the hole. Then he asked, "What should I do?"

"I don’t understand what you mean," I responded.

"I only have about $1,000 left," he explained, "so I can’t keep betting enough to get the $20,000 back. Do they have machines where you can get cash advances on credit cards?" Clang! Clang!

That "Click!" a while back was a light bulb switching on over my head. Mac was a hustler. A person who latches on to somebody with a fat bankroll, looking baffled by the action. Hustlers rarely ask outright for payment. And they give personal instruction that helps relieve a neophyte’s intimidation. If the client does well, human nature virtually assures the consultant a sizeable token of gratitude — unbidden, or if necessary with a few subtle hints.

Maybe you think this is OK. Voluntary payment for appreciated services. The catch is that hustlers encourage very aggressive play. It’s how they make good money themselves. A $25,000 winner can be generous. A $25 winner? And hustlers typically do better courting several losers waiting for a big hit than bothering with the nickel-dime crowd. The comps they share are nicer, too.

The first "Clang!" you heard earlier was an alarm confirming the downside of the hustle.

The second "Clang!" signaled that the $20,000 loss was obviously more than Tony could tolerate. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have thought about a credit card loan. Go by the cash and credit card terminals in any casino. Ask yourself how many of the solid citizens in line are rationalizing their way beyond whatever limits they thought reasonable when they left home. Or how few marked the moral in the ageless adage of Sumner A. Ingmark:

Gamblers wise heed those who taught ’em,

Dig no deeper than the bottom.