MY FAVORITE WORD: FREE
By Jean Scott
At first glance, Jean appears to be just what she is--your average 60-something retired English teacher from the Midwest. In her secret life, however, she's the most successful casino low roller in the country. Dubbed the "Queen of Comps" by CBS' "48 Hours," she’s developed a technique for getting everything she wants from the casinos, from Las Vegas to Atlantic City. Jean has become a household name to millions of low-rolling casino visitors. She’s in continuous media demand and has been featured on "Dateline," "Hard Copy," "To Tell the Truth," numerous Travel and Discovery channel documentaries, and "48 Hours." Jean is also an accomplished video poker player. She and her husband Brad live in Las Vegas.
Editor’s Note: I’ve known Jean and Brad for about ten years. She was the reason I got into video poker, and I will be forever grateful to her for that. We have become good friends, and on my frequent trips to Vegas, we get together for a meal or two. It doesn’t matter if I have friends or relatives with us in Vegas, Jean invites us all for dinner, and she always graciously uses her many casino comps to take care of the bill. When I get to town and want to know wants going on with video poker, I ask Jean. If I want to know which local casino has the best promotion these days, I ask Jean. Get the picture? She is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to making money at video poker and casino promotions, so pay attention to what she has to say.
For the first 36 years of my life, I was stuck with the strict religious rules I’d been taught while growing up in a very conservative fundamentalist preacher’s home. But even though I never thought about playing for money during those years, I had always approached "games" with a thirst for blood; that even includes the game of "Chutes and Ladders," which I played as a kid before I learned to read, to the cut-throat family competitions in "Scrabble," which I remember playing as I grew older.
In the mid-70s I was introduced to "Tonk," a gin-like game popular in the Midwest. This game offered monetary rewards, and I took to this competition …well, like the cliché says, like "ducks taking to water. " I discovered that I was a "natural" gambler at heart, even though I had to start at square one because I didn’t even know the names of the four card suits. But by practicing with some helpful friends, I quickly picked up the details of the game along with some handy playing strategies. It wasn’t long before I was winning consistently. In fact, Brad and I met in a "Tonk" game at a Moose lodge (his version is that he "won" me in a Tonk game!), and together we won enough money in a few years to purchase our Indianapolis condo with cash.
About the same time I became aware of the "street-rule" crap games that were being played in church-sponsored Monte Carlo Nights all over Indianapolis. They allowed side betting, and this quickly became my private ATM. The mostly macho, male bettors were sure that a little old grandma didn’t know what she was doing, so they lined up to bet with me, even though I would say I wasn’t good at math and gave them even odds on all the numbers! Math wasn’t my strongest suit – I was a high school English teacher – but by this time I had read up on gambling enough to know quite a bit about odds. I had learned you didn’t always win when you had the odds in your favor, but in the long run (and in the case of these craps games, the long run was pretty short) you could make money, sometimes lots of it.
I guess I was a "frugal gambler" long before I played in a casino, or wrote a book about it. In "Tonk," I learned to use skillful strategy and seek out games where other players didn’t know how to play very well. In "Catholic craps," I learned that you needed to have the mathematical edge to be a winner. And in all games, you had to have a big enough bankroll to weather the ups and downs – after all, I didn’t want to be broke when some loudmouth drunk wanted to put $20 on every number at even odds payoff, or wanted to increase the betting limits in a $1 "Tonk" game to $5.
Brad and I first visited Vegas in 1984. We were not exactly "frugal gamblers" on this trip, because we looked at it as a "vacation." We hadn’t studied casino gambling, and besides, we knew that "no one won in Vegas." (Who paid for all that neon?) I had heard someone say that smart gamblers played the tables, and dumb gamblers played the machines. So I played blackjack, although I barely knew what to do, and certainly never heard of basic strategy. Brad hadn’t heard that people who played the machines were dumb, so he played the dollar slots. The first day he kept bringing buckets of coins to me and kept asking where he could get bigger buckets. I was a little puzzled because while he was winning at slots, I was losing my behind at blackjack. Maybe what I had heard about playing the slots wasn’t true!
We had brought $3,000 with us for expenses on that first trip, and it lasted us the entire three days. But we finally got the job done – we lost it all. However, on the plane back we discussed how much fun we had. I was thinking that maybe this gambling trip was a waste of money, but Brad pointed out that we could have gone instead to Florida, run around seeing Monkey Jungle and Parrot Jungle and all the other sights, and still probably spent as much money. We also agreed that if we did so, we wouldn’t have had as much fun for our money. But I remember making this one statement to Brad: "I had so much fun that I want to go back to Vegas, but we wouldn’t be able to afford to do it very often if we always lose that much money. Maybe there is some way I can figure out how to do it for less money."
When we got home, one of the first things I did was go to the library and check out some books about casino gambling. I found out that counting cards in blackjack was the best way to get an edge over the casino. So Brad and I started to learn card counting. We read all about blackjack, took a class sponsored by a local Indianapolis bookstore, and practiced at home. We were anxious to try our fledgling skills in a casino.
Less than a month after our first trip to Vegas, I got mail from the Westward Ho Casino. That was where I had spent most of my time playing blackjack. The pit boss had asked me for my name and address while we were playing, and when I had accused him of hitting on me, he said that I would be surprised what good mail I would get from the casino if I gave him that information. Well, I was surprised all right, at my introduction to the world of casino comps. I (and a guest) was invited to come and stay for FREE at the Westward Ho for three nights. We had coupons for three mini-breakfasts, and an invitation to a party on the last night of our stay.
Wow, "free" had always been my favorite word. Growing up, thriftiness was next to godliness, and I was an old hand at coupons and bargain hunting. Now here was a bargain from a casino, and a chance to try out our new card-counting skills. We immediately booked our flight.
And thus began our journey of casino advantage play. From 1984 till 1988, Brad was still working so we had to plan our five or six casino trips a year during vacations and long weekends. At first we did our card counting at the $5 tables, but soon we hooked up with a junketeer and graduated to green-chip play, and occasionally hit the black chips.
This was a heady time; our blackjack play gave us the opportunity to travel on lavish vacations that we could never have afforded if we had pay to pay for them ourselves. We went on private casino junkets to Reno and Tahoe, and enjoyed luxurious RFB stays in Vegas and Atlantic City casinos. We were wined and dined in Puerto Rico, Santa Domingo, and the ultimate, the real Monte Carlo. Our goal was never to make money, but just to enjoy all the perks, while breaking even on the gambling. That we succeeded in doing, in spades!
1989 was a transitional year for us because of a couple of major changes in our lives. First, Brad retired and we had much more time for casino visits, and we also wanted to stay longer than our usual long weekends. Second, the casinos were changing their emphasis on comping, reducing the rewards for table players, but increasing the booty for machine players. This resulted in reducing the number of junkets because of higher betting requirements.
During this time, Brad and I discovered video poker, and the real possibility of playing it with an edge on our side. It was a welcome change from the grind of counting cards and trying to avoid the attention of suspicious pit bosses. We joined the Stardust slot club in 1990, and realized that playing video poker and getting generous slot club benefits, especially free rooms, would allow us to stay in Las Vegas for weeks at a time. No, quarter video poker didn’t bring all the fancy perks of our junket days, but I was learning how to use the comp system to its maximum efficiency, for all the free rooms and food we needed or wanted. And now, because we had studied the right games and the right strategies, we were able to, not just break even, but to generate a profit as well.
By l992, we had completely deserted the blackjack tables and we were playing video poker exclusively. All our profit at the quarter level was rolled back into our small starting bankroll, and by 1995 we were in a financial position to go up to the $1 betting level. I was an old pro at the comp game by this time, so we were starting to get comps at a much higher level, more like the deluxe comps we received when we were playing green-chip blackjack. In 1997 I wrote The Frugal Gambler to share my ideas on how to be a more skilled gambler and reap more rewards from the comp system. Since then, we have slowly increased our playing levels, often enabled by multi-line video poker, which allows us to put more money through the machines with a reduced risk compared to a single-line video poker game.
In the meantime, I have continued writing about ways to be a more successful video poker player, stressing these key requisites:
I followed up The Frugal Gambler with More Frugal Gambling, expanding on the basics discussed in the first book, and adding a large section on comps secrets that we had learned in our experience at the higher levels of play. Although I had chapters on video poker in both of these books, I found that a step-by-step guide was needed for novices, and even experienced players need a resource for specialized video poker information. So I brought out Frugal Video Poker - and included a "Help" section so those who had the Frugal Video Poker software training program could get the most benefit from it. My next project, The Frugal Video Poker Scouting Guide, filled the need for a take-along resource to help players find good VP paytables, and finally Tax Help for Gamblers was written to help keep you out of the sights of an IRS gun.
In 2002 we made the permanent move to Vegas, and the comps from our video poker play have given us an almost expense-free life. Our profit level has increased, allowing us to feed our bankroll so we can now play video poker for as much as $125 a hand. But the biggest joy for us, as always, has been the perks of the comp system, and if we ever just break even on the financial side, we will still be two happy campers.
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