“Mystery Man Wins Fortune”
March 13, 2019 1:24 PM   Subscribe

posted by wotsac at 1:40 PM on March 13

Not just anyone can be part of a story that involved Benny Binion and be the more interesting part of the story.
posted by Nerd of the North at 1:48 PM on March 13 [7 favorites]

MetaFilter: tough monkeys and weirdos

I was hoping it'd be a DB-Cooper-type story, except with indications that the protagonist might have been a time traveler, but it's much sadder.
posted by XMLicious at 2:11 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

I can't even imagine the mindset going into that million dollar bet, knowing at your core that you're going to lose. Just...wow.
posted by allkindsoftime at 2:18 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

I came in here to mention Benny Binion, too...this book is a hell of a read. His feud with Herbert Noble reads like a Coen Brothers film written by James Ellroy.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:18 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]

That's a pretty sad story.
posted by nikaspark at 2:23 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

A while back I read My 50 most memorable hands by Doyle Brunson, which was mostly pretty boring ("and then I hit my one-outer on the river!", etc.) but there was a story about playing in a big stakes game in which a young guy lost all his money, politely excused himself from the table, went up to the roof of the casino and jumped off.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:36 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

I couldn't help wondering if this high roller, William Lee Bergstrom, was related to the namesake of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Seems possible. The Bergstrom Air Force Base was named after John A.E. Bergstrom, also from Austin, Texas, who died at the beginning of WW2 in the Philippines and was posthumously awarded a purple heart. However, John couldn't have been his father, as William Lee was born in 1951. Perhaps a distant relation or uncle?

Fun fact: the civilian airport in Austin used to be called Robert Mueller Municipal Airport, but it was named after a different Robert Mueller than the one you're thinking of. This one (a city commissioner) died in 1927.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 2:42 PM on March 13

Casinos like to control just how quickly gamblers can ruin themselves. The conventional wisdom is that a slow drain is superior to the sudden flush. The house wants you to lose just enough that you’ll come back and lose again tomorrow. Casinos therefore limit the amount you’re able to bet on a single game—usually no more than $10,000.

I'm pretty sure this is incorrect. The house doesn't want gamblers to lose "just enough"; at best it wants them to retain just enough. Their only real constraint is the law and their desire to not look too bad.

I hope a mathematician will chime in, but the real reason for limiting bets is that the house's statistical edge makes it very unlikely they will lose money in the long run. According to this site, the house has a 1.41% edge on individual bets of that sort. In other words, even though the gambler's expected loss on a bet of $777,000 is around $11,000, they'd walk out with $1,554,000 nearly half the time.

The same expected loss would apply if the gambler was obliged to bet $777,000 in a series of bets of no more than $10,000, but the only way for the gambler to walk out with $1,554,000 is by gambling until they have doubled their initial stake. Unfortunately, gamblers have limited funds and the law of large numbers means they're statistically likely to have a run of bad luck and run out of money at some point. The casino, in contrast, has vastly more money and will almost always be able to call on more funds. This consequence is called gambler's ruin and it's why casinos eventually get almost all the money of almost all compulsive gamblers.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:36 PM on March 13 [16 favorites]

This impulse is a mystery to me. I play games of many types, but they all have a strategic, tactical, or at least imaginative element to them. I like games where you can make a plan, or at least try to guess the game's direction, and try to succeed, or fail, based on that plan or direction. Playing a game that is solely chance seems pointless to me.

Doing it for money makes it even worse, to me. Games, I think, should rightfully be played for the game itself and for coming up with useful or interesting strategies. Adding betting into it just players incentive to cheat, which is antithetical to my pure-gameplay motives.

And yet, people do cheat, even when there's no money at stake. And people do wager large sums of money on what is, to us, pure chance. I've read it's the adrenaline thrill, but there's other places you can get that. Some do it for profit, or its attempt, but there is an equal or greater chance of loss or casinos could not stay in business.

Are there any gamblers among MeFi's readers, I wonder? Do any of you do things like this, even if in some lesser form?
posted by JHarris at 3:40 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

The worst part of this story is that the casino used him in their commercials. "This man had some form of psychological disorder, and we absolutely helped him down the path to killing himself! But now he's a legend! You could be a legend too, just like him! Yee haw!"
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 3:41 PM on March 13 [16 favorites]

I've read it's the adrenaline thrill, but there's other places you can get that.

Not adrenaline. Dopamine. The neurotransmitter of pleasure and addiction. It turns out that giving something with a brain a pleasurable reward at a random schedule will drive that thing to perform the behavior that results in the reward compulsively. Even if the brain is really big and complex. Stupid brains.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:54 PM on March 13 [7 favorites]

And there are other places you can get it. Sex. Drugs. All sorts of high-risk behavior. Our brains can take us to pretty messed up places. Especially if we have $1 million to throw away.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:59 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

JHarris, I fully agree. I just don't *GET* gambling, especially, as you say, when it's on games of pure chance. It holds no appeal to me at all - but, then, neither does betting on games of skill. No judging, though. To each their addiction, I suppose.
posted by Dr. Wu at 4:37 PM on March 13 [2 favorites]

> there are other places you can get it. Sex.

Can you please send me the GPS coordinates for this?
posted by glonous keming at 5:06 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Owning Mahoney is a pretty damn good illustration of a banker's/gambler's attempt to manage this dopamine deficiency. And of Philip Seymour Hoffman's craft.
posted by kneecapped at 5:30 PM on March 13

FYI, the $777,000 would be about $2.4 million in 2019 dollars.
posted by Chrysostom at 5:53 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]

Playing a game that is solely chance seems pointless to me.

I've always felt gambling has a lot of similarities to drug use. Of course there's no point, except that winning feels good. Your head gets kind of air-like, all of a sudden the never-ending din of the casino is drowned out by the quiet "clink clink" of chips being pushed towards you. And stacking them back up into neat towers, counting them by feeling the little grooves, you forget why you ever worried about anything at all.

Losing has it's advantages too. It sounds dumb, but sometimes you actually want to feel worse. Or rather, you just want to have a reason. Something tangible so that at least what's in your head and everything else you see is in agreement. You can walk back to the parking lot, past the pai gao zombies, the college bros at the poker tables, and say to yourself, "I knew it, I'm the loser. That's exactly where I fit into all of this."

I guess everyone is made kind of different. For whatever reason, some people grow up and end up liking sports, or cooking, or watching reality television. And gambling, too. And besides, not all of those options are available to everyone all the time.

Is it "worth it"? Well, in roulette the house still only has a 2-5% edge, and that's one of the worst odds in the casino. So you can plop down a couple of black chips on red and it really costs you about the same as a beer in the bar. Either way at the end of the night you'll probably go home empty but it doesn't matter, because you're just chasing (something, it doesn't matter what) and sometimes chasing is all you want to do.
posted by pingu at 6:01 PM on March 13 [11 favorites]

In discussions of "why gamble?", it's interesting to me that the reason I and my friends occasionally visit a casino or buy a lottery ticket rarely comes up until late in the discussion: It's pure fantasy spiced up by a remote chance of fantasy becoming reality.

It's not about what you do at the casino. That's always pretty much nothing in retrospect, unless one of you hits a winning streak. It's about the plans of what you'll do if you win, you know? It's like, Christmas morning isn't just the unwrapping. It's also poring through the Sears WishBook at the end of the summer, the months of daydreaming, the week of agony staring at the presents under the tree taunting you. What happens when you're standing at the slot machine or table is, ultimately, only a little bit of the whole point.
posted by mattwan at 6:47 PM on March 13 [3 favorites]

(bit meta and probably could have said it via mefi mail Etrigan, but cheers for the content warning. Interested, but not in the right mood, bookmarked for another day)
posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 7:26 PM on March 13

Ignorant as I am about gambling in general, I may be making some wrong assumptions.

Is it possible that someone can make a big win at a casino without so much as identifying themselves for tax purposes? Gambling winnings are taxable, are they not? How does someone walk out with that kind of money and remain anonymous?

Maybe things don't work that way in Vegas, or didn't in the mist-shrouded antiquity of 1980.
posted by Flexagon at 7:31 AM on March 14

"I can't even imagine the mindset going into that million dollar bet, knowing at your core that you're going to lose. Just...wow."

I can, I can even imagine how fucking disappointing it would feel to go into a casino with 777,000 of money that isn't really yours, putting it on the line, halfway hoping to lose it for a good excuse to leave, and then... winning instead. I feel like one of the worst parts of the state where you want to die, is the brief period after you've make up your mind to do it, but then someone or something stops you, and you just have to go on a bit more and swallow it. I very much doubt winning the first two times brought him any joy or comfort, and how frustrating would it be to convince yourself of this scheme hinging on impossible odds, then "losing" to them twice in a row.
posted by GoblinHoney at 9:25 AM on March 14 [4 favorites]

I'm not much of a gambler (despite my user name) but I have been playing a usually-weekly game of hold-'em with a group of friends for going on 15 years now. For me the main appeal is the comradery and shared history, but this small-stakes ($20 per buy-in, tournament-style) game scratches a very small itch I have wrt making risky decisions with money. When I win, there's definitely a little hit of dopamine, and when I lose, well, that can be fun, too, because we're all friends and there isn't enough money at stake for anyone to lose so much that they regret coming. We're all more or less at the same level of skill and we're so familiar with each others' playing habits that I suspect in the long run there isn't a lot of money changing hands, anyway. Anyway, most of this would not be applicable if I played in a casino or with strangers, which I have done a few times and generally did not enjoy.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:23 AM on March 14

Geez, you’d have to be some kind of fool to loose money running a casino.

Wait a sec...
posted by misterpatrick at 7:41 PM on March 14

Is it possible that someone can make a big win at a casino without so much as identifying themselves for tax purposes? Gambling winnings are taxable, are they not? How does someone walk out with that kind of money and remain anonymous?

Yes, you should pay taxes on your winnings. But casinos aren't required to issue a W2, and usually won't know how much you've won or lost anyway. You go to the cage, trade some cash for chips, then at some point you do the reverse. They don't know who you are, or record your net win/loss. Some places will ask for your ID when cashing above a certain amount (at my local casino it's $2k) but they claim it's to combat cheating and don't furnish that info to the IRS. I think they are required to report cash outs larger than 10k, but again that's gross, not net. And I think most will issue a W2 for cashing in large poker tournaments.

I'm not sure how it works if you're swinging really big and need to wire money. I guess in that case it would be a pretty clear paper trail. I've never had to worry about that.
posted by pingu at 8:46 PM on March 14

Are there any gamblers among MeFi's readers, I wonder? Do any of you do things like this, even if in some lesser form?

I think the compulsive behaviour you describe - to play games based solely on chance - is pretty common, to the point that plenty of mobile games and MMOs rely on it to retain players.

In MMORPGs, items often randomly drop at the end of a dungeon, and in a bid to chase those items, people are willing to invest hundreds of hours grinding the same dungeons over and over again. That's how MMOs ensure that players don't abandon the game once they finish the dungeon, and that newbie players always have someone to run the dungeon with.

Gachapon (capsule) machines are to an extent based on the concept of the slot machine - you put in money and hopefully you get the reward that you want. There's no skill or strategy involved.

That said, I think that all-or-nothing bets like the type described in the article go beyond this type of dopamine hit, or even compulsive behaviour. The Phantom Gambler didn't even come often to gamble. Significantly, he was superstitious. The article mentions him gambling as a means of obtaining a referendum on his self-worth, but it reads more like a referendum on his future. If I win this, I live. If I lose, I die. It's Russian roulette, which of course is the defining link between gambling and this kind of mentality, for which I lack the relevant vocabulary to define.
posted by satoshi at 9:18 PM on March 14

I was born on the day of the original bet.
posted by VTX at 4:52 PM on March 15

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