by Steve Bourie Learn more about the author read more »
In early 1998 Jean released her first book, The Frugal Gambler, which was ground-breaking in explaining how the average casino player could get the most for their money. Whether it was seeking out bargains, or choosing the best-paying games, Jean had solid advice to help gamblers make the best choices. In the course of promoting that book, Jean made an appearance on another national TV show, Hard Copy. This time around, however, her video poker luck was a little better as she hit four deuces on a full-pay Deuces Wild machine while being filmed for the segment.
Jean is now a TV veteran and makes regular appearances on many of the Travel Channel and Discovery Channel shows that cover Las Vegas and gambling. In 2003 she came out with her second book, More Frugal Gambling, and she also lent her name to Frugal Video Poker, a computer program designed to aid players in perfecting their play at video poker. Later that year she also co-authored Tax Help For The Frugal Gambler, which helps gamblers understand the various federal and state tax laws which apply to the money they win, plus it gives practical tips on how to possibly lessen the tax bite on those winnings.
I first met Jean and Brad during one of my Las Vegas trips in 1998. We have continued to remain in touch and I try to meet them for lunch or dinner whenever I visit Vegas. For this interview I met them at their at their condo which is located just a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip. As a first-time visitor to their home, Brad put me through his ritual of touring their garage to view some of their casino “treasure.” There were literally hundreds of items neatly stored around the room, including a real video poker machine and dozens of jackets, t-shirts, sweatshirts and polo shirts emblazoned with casino logos. Naturally, most of the other items also featured casino logos, but there were many items, such as small appliances, that did not. Brad took me to one particular table and said I could choose any one item as a gift. I chose a nice-looking t-shirt that sported the New York New York logo. Evidently, Brad does this with everyone who visits their home and, when you read the following story abut their playing exploits, I’m quite sure you’ll agree that they will never run out of items to give away.
Q: Jean, how did you get involved in gambling?
I was raised in a very strict minister’s home where gambling was a sin – however we played a lot of non-gambling games and we played for blood, even if it was only Monopoly or Chutes and Ladders. I was the oldest of three girls and my sisters were 5 and 10 years younger than I was; but by the time they could talk, I was teaching them games, so I would have someone to play with! In my book The Frugal Gambler, I titled the introduction “From Uncle Wiggley to Deuces Wild.” And that’s the kind of transition I made. Growing up, we girls weren’t allowed to have dice or playing cards in the house, so it wasn’t until my mid 30s that I even learned the four suits, and I still think of clubs as clovers and spades as shovels, the way I learned them.
Q: How did you and your husband, Brad, meet?
In the early 1980s we met at the Moose Lodge in Indianapolis where we both played Tonk, which is a Gin-type game played for money. We both were very intense about the game and our common competitiveness attracted us to each other immediately. Brad’s favorite joke is telling people he won me in a Tonk game.
Q: What were the stakes in those Moose Lodge Tonk games?
It was a four or five-handed game and we would play mostly for $2/$4, but sometimes up to $5/$10. Twenty years ago that was considered fairly high stakes. We were both very good at skill games, and we soon realized that we were playing mostly with people who were terribly unskilled. Again, a gaming lesson was reinforced: there was a dumb way to gamble and a smart way to gamble. Eventually, we won enough money at the Moose Tonk tables to buy our condo in Indianapolis.
Q: What was Brad’s background in gambling?
Unlike me, Brad had been a gambler practically since he had been born, because he had older brothers who taught him to play cards when he was very young. He tells the story about when he was just five years old and learned about the skills needed to become successful at gambling. He had saved 11 cents, all the money he had in the world, and joined a Tonk game with his two brothers, who of course were much more experienced and skilled than he was. He soon lost this whole life’s savings of 11 cents and left the game crying. People ask him today, “And you have never lost since?” He answers, “Yes, I’ve lost since, but I‘ve never cried since.” He had learned early in life that you had to have a decent bankroll and that you had to play a lot to gain experience and learn to be skillful.
When he went into the Air Force, he found that a lot of the servicemen liked to gamble although few were knowledgeable about the games, so with his experience, it became a lucrative pastime for him. Then, when he was older and back in Indiana as a civilian, he played in the small-town cigar stores where they had card games in the back room.
So, although I learned to play games for money much later in life than Brad did, I too learned many gaming lessons while I was growing up. Scrabble ultimately became our main family game and, of course, that was a skill game. I always knew that skill won over luck.
Q: When did you start going to casinos?
In 1984 Brad and I came to Vegas on our first vacation together. We went to a travel agent and bought a package. It included air and hotel and, because I’m frugal, of course I chose the cheapest package, which had us staying at the well worn Landmark Hotel and Casino. But we didn’t care – we were just thrilled to be in such an exciting city with so many gambling opportunities.
Q: Did you make money on that first visit?
No. Although we were both skilled at many gambling and non-gambling games, we were babes in the woods as far as casino games. I mostly played seat-of-the-pants blackjack; I had never heard that there was anything called good strategy. Brad mostly played the slots. So we lost/spent the whole $1,000 we had brought with us. However, we didn’t feel bad because we had budgeted this amount as “vacation money.” It lasted the whole trip and we had a wonderful time.
Q: Did you want to go back to Vegas again?
We knew for sure we wanted to return to Vegas and after we had been home for about two or three weeks, we got an offer in the mail from the Westward Ho for three free nights with food and entertainment thrown in. We thought – “wow” this is great! But at that time we didn’t have $1,000 for every three-day vacation, so I decided to learn more about casino gambling.
I went to the public library and found out that they had many shelves of books about Las Vegas and gambling. I read them all, soaking up information like a sponge. I was happy to learn that, just like in many other gaming areas, there is a smarter way to approach casino play and blackjack was a good game to choose. So we learned how to play blackjack skillfully, first using basic strategy and then by counting cards.
Q: Did you know how to count cards on your second trip to Vegas?
No. We only knew basic strategy on the second trip. Then, Bobby Singer, a marketer of a blackjack program, came to Indianapolis for a seminar on how to count cards. We attended and while we were there we met a junket rep that saw that we were really interested in playing blackjack. In fact, he bought us the Bobby Singer system, which cost a couple hundred dollars – since I was too cheap to buy it myself. Instead, I was just going to go to the library to learn card counting. I guess he figured we would be good junket people because at this time we were already really keen on gambling.
His investment was not wasted. We started going on junkets all over the world. We went to Atlantic City, Puerto Rico, Santo Domingo, and even to the fabulous Monte Carlo in Monaco. We also took a lot of junkets to Reno and Lake Tahoe. At that time Harrah’s had a private plane that would come and pick up 25-30 gamblers in Indianapolis. We were playing green ($25) chips at this time and were really on the lowest level of the high roller junketeers, but we both gambled. In a lot of cases just the man gambled while the woman shopped, so we both gambled and it helped us to build up a higher average bet rating.
Q: How did you do on those trips? Did you make money?
We just about broke even. I was never really good at counting cards. I liked to chat at the tables, so it was hard for me to keep track of the cards. I am really not a mathematical person; I’m more of a word person – obvious, I guess, since I’m a writer. Brad was always better at the card counting. We weren’t always playing at the casinos that had the very best rules, so about all our card counting did was to help us break even. Sometimes we also had to count on our comps to consider ourselves breaking even, but at that time we were having magnificent, luxurious vacations and we were comped for everything, so we felt that we were having a wonderful time for very little outlay of our own money.
Q: Then what happened? You got tired of playing blackjack?
In 1989, two things happened to change our game of choice. First, Brad decided to retire from his federal Civil Service job. We had been going to Vegas and on these junkets by using every spare bit of extra time we had. Brad had built up a lot of leave time that he hadn’t used for years and we were using it by traveling over holiday weekends and for longer vacations of 10 days to two weeks. However, in 1989 he was eligible to retire and we wanted to spend more time traveling, particularly in Vegas, so he retired. Then, we were looking for a game that would let us stay in casinos for free for long periods of time.
Second, toward the end of the 80s there was a big change in how casinos were giving out comps. The machine players started getting more of the “freebies” than the table players. Junkets were not as popular as they had been and the playing requirements for the luxurious trips like we had been going on for years took much higher play. The golden era of junkets was about over.
One day in 1989, while we were playing blackjack in Vegas, Brad left the table and was gone for a long time. At first I thought he had left because the aces were gone from the deck and the count was negative. I assumed he had gone to the restroom, but he was gone for like half-an-hour and I kept thinking, he can’t be in the restroom all this time, so I went to look for him.
I left our chips at the table for the dealer to watch and said, “I have to find my husband.” I went to look for him and I found him playing a video poker machine. This was before we knew anything about video poker and I said, “Brad, what are you doing? Don’t you know that smart people play the tables and dumb people play the machines?” He said, “But this is so much more fun.”
At this time we had both been backed off blackjack tables at a couple of casinos, and the pit bosses were now watching players much closer than they had in the past. Unfortunately, if you looked like you knew what you were doing, you always had to do some sort of cover-up procedure – like acting dumb. We were just getting tired of the pressure of counting cards and feeling like we weren’t wanted.
Brad said video poker was so much more fun and you didn’t have to worry about some pit boss staring you down. We were at the Westward Ho at the time, but Brad said we should go to the Stardust next door because he had been there in his wanderings and he had played some video poker there.
The first thing I noticed when we played VP at the Stardust was this little sign on the machines that said “Join our slot club and get cash back” – and I thought – well, if we’re going to play video poker just for entertainment, because I knew we didn’t know what we were doing, we ought to at least be joining the slot club; so we did.
About the same time I read in the local gambling publication called Gaming Today an article by Lenny Frome that said video poker could be beaten. He said to “leave the slots and learn to play video poker.” He said it was a good game, that anyone could learn how to play better, and that he had a strategy for playing 9/6 Jacks or Better video poker machines. I told Brad, “If we are going to play VP, we’re going to learn the right strategy,” and then I found out that Frome had written a book with some strategies in it for video poker.
At first we thought, we’ll just play this 9/6 Jacks or better game that he talked about and I’ll wait until we go home to look for his book in the library. Well, his books weren’t in the Indianapolis public library. So the next time we came to Vegas I said, “Well, we must get Lenny’s book. I had called and found out it was sold at the Gamblers Book Club downtown. And so we walked – we still do a lot of walking – all the way from the Westward Ho down to the Gamblers Book Club, which is more than a three-mile walk.
We bought the book, walked back the three miles to the Westward Ho, and I went straight to the room to read it from cover to cover while I was resting my tired dogs. It was then that I discovered full-pay Deuces Wild and I was just thrilled to death because Frome said that the game had an over 100% long-term return if you used the right strategy.
I took the book with me everywhere, and Brad and I would sit down beside a full-pay deuces wild machine at the Westward Ho or sometimes we would go across the street to the Riviera, which also had the same game. Brad would sit at a machine and play and I would sit at the next machine with the book in hand and every time we had a hand that we didn’t know how to play, I would look it up on the strategy chart and then he would play it. We got to the point that we knew the strategy fairly well; even that first day we played hours and hours using Frome’s strategy. But, I’m allergic to smoke and the smoke was getting to me. Finally, I said to Brad, “I’m going to my room. I think we know the strategy pretty well, but I’ll leave the book in the tray and you can check it if you need it.” Anyway, I go to the room because I’m really tired and soon I get a phone call from Brad and he says, “Guess what – I got a royal flush!” That was December 31, 1991.
We actually had joined the slot club at the Stardust in January of 1990, but we hadn’t played too much. We still were playing blackjack most of the time and we just fiddled around with the video poker until I knew that we were using the correct strategies. Then, from the end of 1991 we weren’t playing blackjack much anymore. We were playing full-pay deuces wild exclusively for hours and hours. Brad got his second royal December 13, 1992, which was almost a year later, and I got my first one soon after.
Q: Do you keep track of the dates of all your royal flushes?
Q: How many have you had in your gambling career?
At the end of 1999, Brad had 94 and I had 47. I have more current statistics, but I’ll have to look them up and e-mail them to you later. (Jean later e-mailed me a note saying that she and Brad had gotten a total of 305 royal flushes through the end of 2003. She also pointed out that they have hit royals much more frequently since the advent of multi-line machines which allow you to play as many as 100 hands at one time.) Brad’s always played a lot more than I have. In fact, he has always played about twice as much as I have, because I spend a lot of time organizing our life and our casino visits. I try to make sure that we are playing at the very best times at the best places and this takes a lot of reading and organizing. I have an elaborate calendar to keep track of everything. This all takes time – but I say that being organized is the basis for our success in gambling.
Q: How often were you going to Las Vegas after you started devoting your time exclusively to video poker?
Once we retired, we stayed for longer periods. The first time we stayed three weeks and then we just kept stretching that out further and further because we were getting all these free room offers. We would stay three days in my name and then three days in his name at the same casino because we would both belong to the slot club and we would both get the offers.
Q: At some point, you decided you wanted to live in Las Vegas?
Well, we started staying longer and longer. Of course, we lived in Indiana, so one of our longest stays would be in the wintertime. We would drive out in November, usually right after Thanksgiving and we would stay until February. Then we would be staying until March, and then we would be staying until April. Although we were staying for free, we were getting older and we were getting a little tired of packing and unpacking our suitcases every few days. We were always frugal, getting good value for our money, but we had more money saved up now and we finally said we had to get our own place in Vegas.
Actually, two years before that, a friend of ours had a condo in Vegas which we used periodically. So we had lived in a condo and really liked the idea of not having to play for a free room. We could play video poker where it was best to play video poker, rather than where it was best to earn our room. We liked this idea so well that we decided to get a condo of our own. By that time we had gone up in denomination and we had made enough money playing VP to buy a condo of our own. We did that in 1999 and for two years we kept our place in Indianapolis and our condo here.
We thought we would always stay in Vegas in the wintertime and go back to Indianapolis in the summertime. But, after we had our condo, it was the same tiring thing – we had to keep going back and forth. We still had our feet in both places and every month I would see the utility bills coming out of that Indiana home and the upkeep and so forth. We would go back to Indiana and then we wouldn’t even be there very long because we would be packing up and we’d go up to the Joliet, Illinois riverboat casino and play every weekend, or every mid-week for 3-4 days. Finally, Brad said that we could sell our place in Indiana and when we come back to Indiana we could stay at the Hyatt Regency cheaper than keeping up with one condo here and one condo there. So we sold the Indy condo and we have never ever regretted that decision. Our life is here in Vegas.
Q: Are you and Brad professional gamblers now?
We don’t call ourselves professional gamblers. We think that a professional gambler earns his living gambling, or at least a major part of it, and there are very few people who do that. Actually, we could have done that, but we were already retired and had a pension – and besides, we don’t want to play that much. If you have to classify us, you could call us “skilled” gamblers rather than “professional” gamblers.
Q: What is a typical day like for you and Brad, now that you live in Las Vegas?
Once we moved to Vegas, we play less than we did before as far as hours per day because we don’t have to play for a free room. We can choose any casino in town and play just where there are good promotions. I find this is true for a lot of people who move to Vegas. A few people, when they first move here, think “Oh, now I can play all the time!” They may do that for a few months and then they realize, “I don’t have to do this. It’s always going to be here and there is something called ‘life’ outside the casino.” Otherwise, it gets to be too intense. You want to just live your normal life that you lived back when you did not have a casino down the street. Also, with us, we are getting older. I’m 65 and Brad is 72. We play less and less because our energy level isn’t what it used to be. Sometimes, we just get tired and of course Brad had a heart attack one year ago, and I’m allergic to smoke, so we feel like it is not a healthy situation to be in smoke-filled casinos all day. Brad still plays more than I do, because again, I am now at home writing articles and books as well as doing the usual organization. Plus he always liked to play a little more often than I do. We probably play about a total of 20 hours a week. That is about 12 for him and 8 for me. We do not gamble every day. We are in a casino most days to eat or pickup a bounceback cash offer, but not necessarily to play.
Q: Obviously, you keep very accurate records of your casino visits. Have you always made money since you moved to Las Vegas?
We have always made money since we started playing video poker. When I say always, I mean at the end of the year we play enough that we get to the “long-term” in a year. On December 31st when we close our books, we are always in the black, but the dollar amount varies. One year, a couple of years ago, we barely did that. Actually, we did not pick up some of our bounceback cash on December 31st and on the books that resulted in about a $200 paper loss. We didn’t actually lose it; we just had not picked up the cashback from the slot club. There was going to be a TV show in January and they wanted to film us collecting cashback, so we didn’t pick it up in December. But we have really never ever had a year that we have lost money. That year we won just a little bit, but sometimes we make in the five figures. Playing video poker is a long-term game and you have to play many, many hours to realize the average expected return. On the way, however, it is definitely a roller coaster ride for your bankroll.
Q: Are you talking only about cash profits? This is counting only cash that we have won from the game and cashback, which you can collect the same day and bounceback, which comes in the mail.
Actually, the way we have made our money has changed. When we were playing quarter video poker, we were playing full-pay Deuces Wild which had a really high return, 100.7% We made most of our money back then from the actual game and since we were only playing quarters, our cashback was small – but it was steady. Cashback is always positive. Playing a game is not always positive; you lose probably two times out of three on the actual game, but cashback is always a plus figure. Even when we were playing quarters, we always looked for promotions. There are a lot of cash promotions – like a bonus for card of the day. For cashback, we would look for double points. We have always been heavy on the promotions.
We changed from quarters to dollars in 1995 and sometimes we now play much higher than dollars. We will play up to $100 a hand on a $2 10-play machine. Once we moved up in denomination, things changed, especially in the last 2-3 years. There is much less video poker with a positive expectation, especially at the higher levels of dollars and above. Now, we play almost entirely negative expectation games, but when you include cashback and bounceback cash, and most of all, the fact that we constantly take advantage of casino promotions, then that always puts us over 100%. It is not nearly as easy to make money now as when we started in 1991. You have to work harder and you have to be choosier about your plays.
Q: So besides making money, you get all of the comps and other freebies?
We never count comps as profit. We consider it “gravy.” If I get a gift certificate for a grocery store, or for gas, or for shopping at Macys, I will count that as cash. That is what I call a cash equivalent. We get a lot of those. Instead of giving cash back, a lot of casinos are going to cash equivalents such as gift certificates or gift cards. But I do not count any of our meals or hotel rooms. We almost never stay in a hotel now, but we get them for our friends and family because we earn them and it is a waste not to use them.
We get all the food that we can possibly eat and we throw away hundreds of dollars of comps every month that we just don’t pick up – you can only eat so much. Also, we get an awful lot of gifts from the casinos. Some of those have a high cash value, but we don’t count those because, for one thing, we get more than we can use and we mostly just give them away.
Q: What is the best practical advice you can give people that are just starting out learning about gambling, or even people who have been gambling for a while?
Well, for the novice, I would say that you have to get a slot card and always use it, whether you are playing the slots or table games. The key to getting all the benefits is being recognized by the casino – and the only way you can do that is to join the player’s club and then you put your card in the machine, or you give the card to a pit boss at tables, and get rated. That is where all the comps come from. Casinos are not going to give you comps if they don’t know that you’re playing in their casino. A player’s card is the foundation for all benefits.
The second thing is to become more knowledgeable. Read. This is why I wrote The Frugal Gambler and More Frugal Gambling. My first book is especially good for the person who does not know anything about the math and needs to learn that some games are better than others. Most people think that casinos have the edge all the time, but that isn’t true. The people who study are the ones who find the better games to play and the better casinos to play in.
On every book that I have autographed, and there have been a lot of them, tens of thousands, I always write, “The more you study, the luckier you will be!”