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By Sammy Vaughn

Sammy Vaughn is a long-time successful tournament player, who finished first and won a million dollars in a Las Vegas Hilton Million Dollar Blackjack Tournament. In his column, Sammy writes about anything he damn well wants to write about. This month, itís about a legendary blackjack tournament player by the name of Howard Horn.

I will begin this piece with part of a sentence that was once voted the worst to begin a story.

"It was a dark and stormy night" ... when Howard Thorn finally saw the distant lights of the Hacienda Casino. He must have realized his long ride from California was nearing the end but in his mind, he thought, damn, Vegas is still so far.

About then his donkey tripped and suffered a broken leg. Howard cussed extra long at the poor animal, hoping it would die and save him a bullet. When Howard finally shot the beast, his faithful dog for 12 years bit our boy in the ass. Howard, who was even more pissed-off, went and shot old shep, too. Ok, Ok, so I made that up, but that describes his mood and attitude as he entered Las Vegas over 20 years ago. The sad thing is that he never lost neither his mood nor attitude, even when he had good fortune smile upon him.

There are more stories circulating in Nevada about Howard than any other personality in any field. He joins the select few, who are one-name figures such as Elvis, Liberace, Frank, and our boy Howard.

When their names are mentioned, they elicit a different reaction. For example, mention Elvis, Liberace, or Frank, and smiles and comments about their talents are pouring forth. You only need to go to blackjack pits, pit bosses, hosts, video poker machines, tournament areas, blackjack players, and probably restrooms, and mention the name "Howard" and you will see rolled eyes, negative headshakes, and hear groans of agony. He most certainly earned it and I now proclaim him, "King of the Grouch and Bitch."

Howard is a large man that dresses in old casino clothes that were once gifts given to players in the early blackjack tournaments. Howard always looked like he heeded a haircut, and he appeared like a homeless bum.

When Howard enters a casino, the dealers and pit people groan and frantically look for ways to close their table or pit. He will probably gripe about the dealerís shuffle before he even sits down at the table. He believes every off-the-wall theory about how casinos cheat him with their shuffle methods. Every hand dealt to him will bring a negative comment. If other players win more, he will swear the dealer is against him, or even that she is cheating. Pit bosses hover nearby, but not for the usual reasons, but rather they look for grounds to toss him out.

Howard considers himself a great card counter but he has shown scant evidence of it. He always had trouble with math, mainly, the relationship of numbers. This led to confusing statements, and if anyone tried really to help him understand the problems involved, he would be insulted and storm off.

I mentioned the myriad of "Howard stories" floating around, but since they tend to change when retold, I will only mention events that I was personally involved in. Now picture this...

As I mentioned, Howard was a big menacing fellow and whenever he spoke to you, he had to be face-to-face with you. When I say face-to-face, I really mean it. He was so close, in fact, that it was very intimidating.

In 1991, Howard asked me to go with him to look at a new car, so off we went. He fell in love with the first big SUV-type vehicle that he saw. The sticker price was $9,000+ and that rang a bell in my head. I remember reading an article in the Sunday paper about the new import cars and the writer mentioned a Japanese carmaker that offered a luxury model for $9,600 and an economy model of the exact vehicle with a different name for only $6,000+. Sure enough, at the far end of the showroom where Howard and I stood, I found the "economy" model of the same car that Howard just fell in love with, and sure enough, everything except the name was identical. I thought Howard would be happy that he could save some money, but no, not old Howard. The more I tried to prove to him that they were the same car, the madder he got. Finally, he dragged me back to the "luxury model," looked at it lovingly for long moments, and then he got in my face and to prove me wrong, he said, " Look at the wheel covers on this beauty." What could I say? I could only admit, "You got me there, Howard." He then stomped proudly out the door so fast I had to run or miss a ride back to the casino.

A year or two later, another event involving a car showed Howard at his best. At the awards banquet at the Riviera there was a drawing for a new car. I was seated at the front of the large hall with ten or twelve tournament players. Lo and behold, they drew the name "Howard Thorn." I turned quickly to try to see his reaction and saw him begin the long walk from a table in the back of the room. His body language and perpetual scowl screamed, "Why in hell did you call my name?"

I turned back and told my tablemates, "Only Howard could complain about winning a new car." I noticed one couple nodding in agreement but the rest looked at me as if I was nuts.

As Howard walked next to our table, he said aloud something that was in his mind and he may not even been aware that he spoke these words, "Who in hell would drive a car with that damn color?"

Our group was laughing and clapping and banging the table with such vigor that I can only hope Howard thought we were really happy for him.

HowardĎs thoughts often rattled around in his head and fell out of his mouth. At a tournament, I once again drew the dubious honor of sitting next to our hero. Early in the game, he was dealt a hard twelve against a dealerís six upcard. Knowing that he often doubled this hand for no apparent reason, I watched as he tried to figure out how many chips he needed for his double down. As he started to push the second stack out, one of those thoughts tumbled from his mouth: "Fourteen straight times I lost this damn bet." Yep another tough loss, only I didnít say that aloud.

A few years back, Howard approached me with that bewildered look under the scowl. He didnít speak so I was forced to ask him what the problem was. With a sigh he said, "They threw me out of Lady Luck." When nothing else followed from his mouth, while trying not to laugh, I asked how could a classy place like that throw a guy out like you. Of course, that went right over his head. With great sincerity he said," Sam, you know how easy it is to ... break a five dollar chip."

The only reason I ever had for feeling sorry for Howard was his lack of any apparent sense of humor. He was an independent old cuss, who survived for twenty years in a town that chews up many with far more tools than he possessed. He was part of the crazy quilt of characters that made up our blackjack family. After all, weíre all a little nuts, now arenít we?"

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