Perched on a stool between two slots machines, Tommy T, little by little, is beating the casino.
At least, that’s what he says. The casino is where Tommy, whose name has been changed at his request to protect his privacy, can most likely be found at any given time. But it’s not like there are many people looking for him. Those who know him know where to find him.
Tommy is a slightly hunched 5 feet 10 inches, and mop-topped. He speaks quickly in Malaysian-accented Mandarin. He tends to lean in when he speaks and uses his elbows to nudge himself ever closer. He is eager to the point of aggressive when he wants to make a point, which is typically that he knows all that needs to be known about the casinos.
He strolls along the aisles in the casino’s main floor, hands clasped in front of him, taking in the games around him. He tries to get a sense of what he calls the “prevailing wind” — whether the tides at the tables are about to turn in his favor.
Even though many of the games are played electronically at the modern casinos, and there’s no actual wind from moving cards to detect, Tommy believes he can sense the atmosphere, lucky or not. From the slumped over middle-aged women to the eager tourists smiling gleefully, Tommy studies them all. And when he senses a potential winning streak, he swoops in.
It is a skill few have, he says, but one that he possesses. He can’t explain it in words, or teach it. It comes from years of experience. Tommy’s sense of the room and the moment is so refined that, in his telling, he has been able to get by without any source of income other than his gambling. After all, he is beating the casino, or so he says, one bet, and scam, at a time.
Tommy first tried his luck at a casino six years ago in Atlantic City. He was working in a restaurant where a friend had gotten him a job. But then the restaurant let him go and Tommy, hundreds of miles from his family, needed a job.
Tommy says that he moved with his family from Sarawak, Malaysia, to the United States in late 2006. He worked two jobs in Malaysia to save up enough money to bring his family over. At first they lived with relatives in Kansas. When he discovered that there weren’t any jobs for him in Kansas, Tommy took off in search of work. He went on the road for months, jumping from one odd job to another, moving from Kansas to Georgia to North Carolina and then to Atlantic City.
“Very lonely, it was very difficult,” recalls Tommy. “There was nothing to do.”
What leftovers he had from his earnings, he sent back to his family in Kansas.
He recalls how one day, sitting on his bed in an Atlantic City hotel room, newspaper classifieds in hand, he considered his options. Tired of sitting and staring at his hands, he left to stretch his legs, and decided to walk through the casino downstairs. He didn’t intend to play. “Back then, I didn’t know how to gamble,” he says. “I wasn’t a gambler.” But out of curiosity, he tried a slot machine. It looked simple enough. “Seems like it can be done,” he recalls thinking. That night, he made about $80. He was hooked. Very hooked.
He spent the following week visiting all the casinos in Atlantic City, where he signed up for membership accounts that would allow him to gamble there. Perks came with each account—T-shirts, mugs, souvenirs, and, best of all, food and gambling credit. His traveling bag stuffed, he headed to his next and final destination: New York City.
He says that he was headed to New York because he had heard he might find work there. When he got to the city, he found that people like him were plenty, and jobs were scarce. But then, perhaps he might not need a job after all. Perhaps, he had found his true path.
“What do you want to know about the casinos?” Tommy asks. “I can tell you everything you want to know.” But only up to a point.
He evades questions about his family and where they live. His friends don’t know anything either. “They’re in the West somewhere,” one says. Tommy was indignant when I told him a friend mentioned that he had two daughters. “Oh, he knows nothing,” he says. “I don’t tell him everything.” He then tells me he has four daughters.
They are in school, he says. One is majoring in design at a college in the West. “My daughters always get busy in May because they have exams,” he says. And that is as far as he will go. Other than a visit five years ago by his second daughter, Tommy hasn’t seen his family since he left Kansas. He says he talks to them on the phone from time to time, and sends them pictures of himself.
What few friends he has outside the casino are at once fascinated and amused by him. Xing He, who brought Tommy to the Resorts World Casino in Queens, when he first arrived in New York, six years ago, says Tommy is a gambling addict. “But not everyone can do what he does,” says He. “He can make up to $1,000 a night.” Actually, that only happened once. It was the best night Tommy ever had. Tommy is not a high roller.
Tommy and He got to know each other through mutual acquaintances. “He was a friend of my brother-in-law,” He says. And Tommy says he got to know He’s brother-in-law from back in Kansas, where they both worked as parking attendants, “Since we’re all Malaysian, we would help each other out.”
Tommy goes to the casinos every day—sometimes he goes early in the morning, sometimes his day starts at noon. Most days he manages to go to two casinos. He puts a little money in his wallet and walks from his apartment to Main Street in Flushing, Queens to take a bus to one of several casinos within a two-hour bus ride radius. He feels confident, he says, he is going to make money.
Tommy’s favorite game is Sic Bo, a popular Asian game played with three dice that literally means “precious dice” in Cantonese. He also favors Blackjack, at which, he claims he earns $90 on average a day. He says he can make another $100 from Sic Bo. He says the most he has ever lost in a night is $200, and that when he loses he can make up the loss the next day.
The secret, Tommy lets on, is observation. In Sic Bo, he explains, he will watch the croupiers for signs of “shaking hands.” This gives him a clue as to what numbers will come up next. Every game of chance, he says, has its weakness. And with enough time spent observing the patterns, “they can’t escape.”
“It’s like working at a job,” he says.
The work can be tiring. Waiting for the right moment can take hours of watching. Tommy spends eight-hour days at the casinos. His winnings, he says, cover his modest living expenses. He pays $250 a month to rent a bed in a Flushing apartment that he shares. Each trip to the casino costs him between $5 (to Resorts World 15 minutes away in Jamaica, Queens) and $20 (to Empire City or Mohegan Sun about two hours away in Yonkers and Connecticut respectively) for a round trip bus ticket. He eats at the casinos, using free food vouchers the casino provides to playing guests. He doesn’t smoke or drink. He only gambles.
And he is growing weary.
“I have no other way,” he says, “or I wouldn’t keep doing it.”
Tommy has never been to Manhattan. He has seen Brooklyn only from the bus window on his way to the casino.
Tommy is at his scheming-to-beat-the-casino best on the bus, on this night to the Resorts World casino, close-by in Queens. He takes a pen from his breast pocket and scribbles a membership number on a bus ticket. Later, when he gets to the casino, the food and gambling credit will be stored into an account linked to the membership number. This, he explains, saves time later when he is exchanging the ticket for food and credit vouchers. Beating the casino means that nothing should be wasted. Not time, not the food vouchers and not the credit vouchers.
Tommy does pause briefly to ask the driver how he is. “I just saw you last night,” the driver tells him. “Nothing much has happened since.”
“I’m just trying to be polite,” Tommy says with a laugh. He scans the other passengers. Most of the women are Chinese and Tommy avoids them. He says they’re rude and aggressive, and nothing good can come from getting in their way.
He also avoids the scrum that forms when the bus doors open and people rush to board. “As long as we get on the bus, everyone gets there at the same time,” he says, “What’s the point of rushing?” He’s one of the last to board, and when he gets on, seated passengers look up at him and whisper amongst themselves. “He’s always here,” says a middle-aged lady to her friend. “I see him every day.”
Tommy likes to hold forth on all sorts of things and says he reads a Chinese newspaper every day. But the conversation always returns to the casino – the latest regulations, the stars who will soon perform and what to eat.
The bus arrives and Tommy pauses to take in the entrance. “The façade of Resorts World is very beautiful,” he says, “unlike the other casinos.” Now the workday begins. He takes his bus ticket stub, ready to redeem it for $40 gambling credit and $5 food vouchers.
Inside, the passengers form a line in front of the reception desk, where they exchange their ticket stubs for the vouchers. Non-members get vouchers in exchange, while members of the casino get the food and gaming credit stored into an account based on the number written on the stub. Then, one-by-one, the members move over to a new line in front of a row of red-colored machines. They swipe their membership cards, and print out their vouchers. At the same time, they collect rewards points for their visit to the casino.
Tommy is almost impatient, and not only to start making money. He sees someone struggling with a reward machine, and leans over to help. “Press this,” he says, pointing over their shoulder. His help is not always welcome, and when it isn’t, Tommy simply shrugs. “They think they know better.” He also assumes the role of guide, pointing out the grandiose decorations and features. “Take pictures,” he says to me, gesturing at the circular stage in the middle of the casino where elderly couples dance to the lively jazz music played by a sharply-dressed band.
“Will you take a picture of me?” he asks as he moves to stand in front of the casino’s Lunar New Year display. “Can you print out a copy for me? I’ll pay you for it.” He will send the best ones to his daughters
He greets other regulars and jokes with them about how early they’re leaving or how late they’re arriving. Then he enters the gaming area, and goes to work.
The $40 credit voucher he had exchanged for his bus ticket expires in a month unless at least some of it has been used. So the first thing he does is to trick the casino’s machines into delaying the date of expiry. Sitting in front of two slots machines, Tommy feeds a voucher into one machine, hits “Start” to simulate playing, then immediately hits “Quit”. He has not spent any of the credit. The machine returns the same amount of credit and the same expiry date, but on a different type of voucher.
Tommy then feeds the newly printed voucher into the adjacent machine, hits “Start” and “Quit” again, and gets a new voucher. This time, the expiry date has been extended a year. Since vouchers printed out by game machines are different from the ones dispensed by reward machines, the new machine assumed that the credit had been used and updated the date of expiry.
This little “trick,” Tommy says, is one of many ways he is beating the casino.
He has quite a number of vouchers to activate. He frequently gets people to open rewards accounts at the casino and hand over the membership cards to him. This way he gets to collect many rewards points and vouchers to maximize his earnings.
To date, Tommy holds dozens of membership cards to the three casinos he visits most frequently, and spreads out his rewards points between them evenly. When he chalks up enough rewards points on his accounts, he earns free stays at hotels, free concert tickets or free food and drinks. And he makes sure to use them.
He has been barred from two of the casinos in the region for his attempts to beat the rewards systems. Yet he still manages to find his way back and keep playing. “The casino wants you to lose,” he says. “But I’m smarter than them.”
Tommy leaves the casino after midnight. He takes the bus back to Flushing and walks back to his apartment, or rather to the bed in the room he shares. He will be back the next day, and the next, because going to the casino means going home.