Winners & Losers: Gambling By The Sea

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Atlantic City, a gambling town on the New Jersey shoreline, is a weird place. It’s what I believe. But, then, maybe I’m biased by my first visit there.

That was in 1981, a few years after the casinos opened and while I was attending Glassboro State College – a third-rate institution, located about 50 miles away from AC. I went there to report a story for Philadelphia magazine.

It was about a novel spot called Smith’s Goldmine. The joint bought anything made of gold that a desperate gambler could dream of selling. Deals for wedding bands, wristwatches and cufflinks were common.

My memory is that I saw a guy walk in with a freshly extracted gold tooth and peddle it for the precious-metal content. Either that, or the attendant behind the counter told me that such an incident happened. I like to believe the former is the true story and I’m sticking with it.

AC is that kind of cold-hearted place. During my serious card-counting days, I got backed off from a $100 table in embarrassing fashion. The gap-toothed pit-boss set a sign in front of me that read, “Maximum bet $10.”

Incredulously, I asked, “That’s suddenly the limit for this table?”

“Only for you,” he replied.

Other gamblers within eyeshot appeared confused. Conversely, I knew exactly what was happening. Pissed off, I skulked away, head down, depriving surveillance any additional opportunities to snag footage of my face.

Years later, when a Wall Street analyst who covered the gambling industry told me that Las Vegas is great for a week and Atlantic City is good for a day, I couldn’t agree more. No wonder people bet in New Jersey online casinos instead.

Even the best cheesesteak place in town, a venerable joint called White House Subs, has employees with surly attitudes. Don’t believe me? Try poking your head into the place and asking how long it will take for them to make a take-away sandwich. You won’t love the response.

They’re such sore losers down there that when the skill-based strategy of Kelly “Baccarat Machine” Sun and poker icon Phil Ivey came to light – Sun figured out a strategy for beating baccarat and they teamed up to fleece the Borgata, the best casino in Atlantic City, for more than $10 million – attorneys for the losing casino sued for a refund.

Borgata’s legal eagles were partly successful. The latest legal contretemps in Atlantic City is a push from casino employees to ban smoking in AC gambling dens. The casinos’ reps of course are opposed. No doubt, they believe that snuffing out cigarettes will extinguish profits.

I don’t smoke cigarettes, so it does not impact me one way or the other but, in this case, I think that kyboshing cigs will cause people to stop gambling. Even if you smoke half-heartedly, when you’re losing money at a game you can’t possibly beat, the first thing you want is a drink.

The second thing you want is a cigarette (for exactly that reason, casinos used to give them out for free). If you’re not allowed to light up, you’ll leave the casino and maybe keep on walking with a freshly ignited Marlboro in hand. Good for the money dropping gambler, bad for the house.

That dovetails with a second ruling, which came down in late January, making it clear that AC casinos do not have an obligation to stop problem gamblers from gambling in the NJ betting hotspot. I don’t like to see people blowing money needlessly, but I also have come to recognize that no good will come from telling a losing gambler that he must stop chasing his money.

He’ll find some way to take a shot. And that is life in Atlantic City, as I learned all too clearly during my night at Smith’s Goldmine, where a self-extracted tooth gets you another crack at the tables.

Michael Kaplan
Gambling Author and Journalist
Michael Kaplan
Gambling Author and Journalist

Michael Kaplan is a journalist based in New York City joined Techopedia in November 2023. He is the author of five books ("The Advantage Players" comes out in 2024) and has worked for publications that include Wired, GQ and the New York Post. He has written extensively on technology, gambling and business — with a particular interest in spots where all three intersect. His article on Kelly "Baccarat Machine" Sun and Phil Ivey is in development as a feature film.