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April 24, 2014

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Don Johnson shows how to beat the house (and get banned) in a few million easy steps

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John Katsilometes

Don Johnson, CEO of Heritage Development, a Wyoming-based company that uses computer-assisted wagering programs for horse racing, at a pool party at Cosmopolitan’s Boulevard Pool on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013. Johnson’s blackjack winnings include more than $15 million at three Atlantic City casinos in 2011.

XS, as portrayed by Don Johnson and Steve Aoki

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Don Johnson and his entourage of a couple dozen partying friends and associates have taken up nearly the entire cabana area atop Boulevard Pool at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. The man of the moment is wearing darkened glasses, needless on this overcast afternoon, and a super-casual T-shirt-and-shorts ensemble that belies his vast wealth.

This Don Johnson could buy and sell the other Don Johnson, the actor.

Johnson is asked what particular event was being celebrated on this Vegas Sunday afternoon. He grins and says, “We don’t need a reason to have a party.” Then he stops and adds, “Well, I have a new women’s clothing line that’s debuting at MAGIC Convention this week. That’s happening. But who needs a reason?”

Not Don Johnson, a notorious blackjack player and international reveler who was in town over the weekend to celebrate his friend Brody Jenner’s 30th birthday, promote his new Scrapbook Originals women’s apparel line and (chiefly) kick it up once more with his friends in Vegas.

In this cluster of cohorts Sunday was Jenner himself, rolling in after the group “hit Hyde in the face” on Saturday night, as one partygoer termed the conduct of the group the preceding evening. Vincent Crandon was leaning back on a deck chair and noodling on a MacBook Air; Crandon and his investment group 2UP Gaming is moving to invest about $500 million to buy a resort property in Atlantic City, the specifics of that A.C. strategy to be announced at a press conference at the Boardwalk in Atlantic City on Labor Day Weekend. Believe this: The purchase will be a very significant event, watched by resort officials around the world.

Kasey Thompson, founder of the poker pub All In Magazine, was mingling along the deck. So was poker pro Layne Flack, who has won six World Series of Poker bracelets and is one of that game’s top names.

But it was Johnson who was at once the star and host of this party, one of a series of gatherings while he visited Vegas over the weekend and into this week. He hit Hyde Bellagio with Jenner and his crew on Saturday, then the pool at Cosmo on Sunday. The various entourages targeted poker pro Phil Ivey’s home for another party Sunday night.

Johnson is at once unassuming and impossible to ignore — if you know who he is. In the business world, Johnson is known as CEO of Heritage Development, a company that operates out of Wyoming that uses computer-generated wagering programs for horse racing. But he made international news in the spring of 2011 after a holy tear on the blackjack tables in Atlantic City and the partying around the world that ensued.

In a six-month stretch, Johnson took about $15 million from three hotel-casinos in A.C. His own accounting is $4.23 million at Caesars Atlantic City in December 2010; about $998,000 at Borgata Hotel & Casino that month, then $1.8 million in March 2011 and another $2.25 million over two nights in April 2011; and his crowning moment, a $5.8 million win in a 12-hour run at the Tropicana in April 2011.

That summer, Johnson began turning up at nightclubs from London to Vegas, spraying the crowd with champagne, paying it forward in a very boisterous, wet and sticky fashion.

In London, partying with Jon Bon Jovi at the city’s ultra-hip One4One nightclub, he rolled up a $270,000 bar tab. In that spree, he produced a 30-liter bottle of Armand De Brignac Midas, which cost around $192,000 and at the time was the most expensive bottle of champagne on the planet. The bottle was so large, it took three men to haul it into the club.

In June 2011, Johnson and DJ Steve Aoki sprayed the crowd at XS at Wynn Las Vegas with a 15-liter bottle of an unspecified champagne; the brand was less relevant than the fact that it is believed no one had ever sprayed a Vegas club crowd with a bottle of bubbly so large. Johnson had helmed similarly splashy but less-publicized champagne clubs parties in Australia, too.

An individual spraying champagne at such high cost in such a public manner would be newsworthy enough for international coverage. But onlookers began to realize the person at the center of the mayhem was the same man who, months earlier, had battered Atlantic City casinos for more than $15 million in blackjack winnings.

To that point, Johnson was a mystery man known only to the casinos, where he was a consistently coddled high roller.

“Nobody put the champagne and the blackjack together,” Johnson says as the clouds that would soon douse the party creep in. “Finally, somebody said, ‘Hey, wait!

“This is the same guy! He’s in London! He’s in Australia! He’s in the U.S.! He’s the blackjack guy!”

Now the blackjack guy, whose self-dubbed nickname is Don M-Fing Johnson, is world renowned. His take from the Atlantic City resorts was verified by multiple sources cited by the Press in Atlantic City. The Tropicana official who authorized Johnson’s high-limit play in April 2011, when he was allowed to play $100,000 a hand, was fired soon after (though Johnson’s run was not specified as the reason).

Johnson single-handedly, as it were, drove the Trop in Atlantic City into the red for the month of April 2011. It was just the sixth time in the city’s 33-year history of legalized gambling that a casino had lost money on blackjack in a single month.

More than a hot run was the reason for the steep losses. The resort had been using high-limit table games to draw a higher volume of play and a higher level of player. The risk is when player hits a torrid streak but doesn’t play back the winnings. Atlantic City casinos also offered high rollers a 20 percent payback on their losses, which could end up totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars in house money for players in Johnson’s class, allowing them to play with house money … and wait for the hot cards to return

“You have a natural collision of interest,” Johnson says, attempting to dumb down his gambling strategy to someone who plays $5 a hand twice a year. “You have the marketing side of the casino, and the actual operations side, and they just started giving away too much. Part of that was the big discounts, incentivizing you to play. … If you give me 20 percent back on $500,000 in losses, I’m going to try and win an unlimited amount and use your money to run it up.”

Since his $5.8 million win, Johnson is no longer offered that 20 percent discount at the Trop. Shocker.

This is not to suggest Johnson hasn’t suffered some significant losses. He was up and down in his famed run in Atlantic City and says, “I don’t wear Kevlar. I’m not bulletproof. There are losses in between.” He pays millions in taxes each year but forever says that he doesn't count cards or use any intricate method of predicting which cards will be dealt. “I have a perfect strategy,” he says, without elaboration. He says that he can figure out things on his own and is not an MIT-trained blackjack scientist, like the guys depicted in the film “21” and its inspiration, the book “Bringing Down the House.”

To better explain Johnson’s blackjack-ian prowess, one Tropicana official accurately stated, “We ran very unlucky.”

Though not as widely reported, Johnson has often flourished at Las Vegas tables, too.

“I’ve actually done really well here. The Venetian was really kind to me, for a period of time, last year and the year before,” he says. “I probably made more money there than anywhere in Vegas, in the millions, and it was really fun, in separate trips. Not one trip. Not like the Tropicana in Atlantic City. My biggest win was there.”

Johnson, 51, has been visiting Las Vegas for 30 years and makes it to town every six months or so. But he has been stripped of some of his Strip flexibility, bemoaning the unwillingness of Caesars Entertainment resorts to allow him to play blackjack at any of their casinos.

“I can’t play anywhere at any of their resorts. Not anywhere,” he says. “This is since I beat them out of $4.23 million in Atlantic City. It’s been three or four years, maybe, since I played Caesars here.” (Caesars Entertainment spokesman Gary Thompson confirmed today that Johnson has indeed been banned from playing that company’s casinos.)

On one of those pre-banning nights at Caesars, Johnson took a table and played $5,000 to $10,000 per hand, running up what was (for him) a modest win of $140,000. Afterward, in a characteristically generous move, he handed out $5,000 chips to a couple of bartenders and a trio of folks in his entourage.

These are called “chocolate chips” because they are brown and look delicious.

It’s the type of move made famous by another renowned gambler, late Australian media mogul Kerry Packer, who was known to tip tens of thousands of dollars as he piled up millions in winnings at Las Vegas resorts.

Johnson, too, is a fairly impulsive sort. He says he prefers the Vegas of a generation gone by, before the giant resorts took hold of the Strip.

“It’s not the fun that it used to be,” he says, as he is hugged by a woman in a slinky two-piece saying she is one of Charlie Sheen’s off-again, on-again girlfriends. “There’s too much expansion of the big, mega-clubs now. … I was here before the Mirage opened — I was at the Mirage opening, actually, and that’s what started it. But the city is all watered down. Every six months you come here, it’s like everything has moved on.”

But he hardly seems one to lead the Complaint Parade. Don Johnson is having the time of his life, all of his life. He’s partying a lot and playing some blackjack, naturally.

“I’m playing little bit,” he says, chuckling, “but I’m just doing it for the comps.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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