The recent $150,000 “Wild Bill Showdown” Blackjack Tournament held June 15th-16th, 2007 at Grand Casino Tunica left many participants shaking their heads in disgust at the way the event was handled by casino staff. The event truly displayed a level of ineptitude and arrogance that somehow managed to exceed this industry’s already normal “Screw the Customer” mentality. Just how did Grand Casino and its staff give themselves this black eye? Well, let us count the ways…
So, does it cost $400, or $500?
The problems with this latest event actually started well before the mid-June kick-off, when apparently the casino marketing department and the tournament director had a miscommunication about the entry fee for the event. Full-page ads went out to local gaming magazines like Jackpot Magazine, showing the $150,000 prize pool event with an entry fee of $400. Yet, when players called to register for the event, they found that the price had increased by $100 to $500.
On the very day of the tournament, you could walk in the front door of the Grand Casino and pick up a copy of Jackpot magazine showing a $400 entry fee, and proceed into the casino to see identical artwork displaying the revised $500 fee instead. Further confusing the matter was the fact that some preferred players were indeed charged the $400 fee, while others paid $500, or $250, or were comped into the event for free.
A Mess at Registration
All this confusion about entry fees led to a long line for registration, with payments handled at just one window of the cashier. The long slow-moving line crawled forward as each player had to work out how much their particular applicable entry fee was to be. And of course, players who were told $500 but overheard others getting lower entry fee amounts wanted to speak to a host about their situation. Couple that with the printed $400 ads, and it was another disaster.
Promo Chip Confusion
Players who arrived on Thursday for the registration process were to receive a $100 promo chip for showing up a day early. These were handed out as four $25 table play coupons which, according to the fine print on them could be used for any table games bet. If the bet won, it would be paid in full and the coupon would be collected. If the bet lost, the coupon would be collected with no payoff. Simple enough, although the “use it once and lose it” provision means that the coupon is worth slightly less than half face value on even money bets like blackjack. These coupons are potentially worth more if a player chooses to use them on a bet that pays more than even money, like betting a number straight up on roulette which pays 35 to 1. However, once players headed to the tables, they learned that the coupons weren’t being honored for anything other than even money bets, despite language printed on the coupon itself that said otherwise. In my own attempt to play them at roulette, I finally had the floorperson agree with me that I was right, but after two phone calls to management, he informed me that his bosses said I still couldn’t use the coupons that way.
During the course of the event, two players were 86’ed from the property. I know all about this, because I was one of them. When I sat down to play in the very first round, all was well as tournament director Rob Winkler came to my table to confirm the identity of each player, including me. My round began, and we actually lost one of our six players to over-aggressive betting on hand two. Things were shaping up just fine I thought, with two players advancing from the five remaining players at the table. As the table is betting for hand four, Winkler suddenly appears at the table again, and this time he pushes my bet out of the circle and says I need to come with him. When I push my bet back in the circle and tell him I’m obviously in the middle of round, he repeats his action. I leave the table with him, and he takes me over to a waiting shift manager who informs me that I’m no longer welcome on the property.
As you might expect, I’m blindsided by this turn of events. I repeatedly ask what this is all about, but the only thing they’ll say is “We don’t like your style of play, and you’ll have to leave the property right now.” By this time, a crowd of curious friends and bystanders has formed. I’m being removed from an event that I was invited to play for free. Yes, I was comped into the event, though I chose to also pay $500 to secure an additional seat in the event for my wife. And now I’m being told that I can’t finish the event I just began.
Now, this isn’t the first time a situation like this has arisen in the state of Mississippi, and I was familiar with a similar event that occurred in the late 90s in Biloxi. I knew that a player in a similar situation had contested the casino actions with the Mississippi Gaming Commission, and had a favorable outcome. (The Mississippi Gaming Commission actually has a pretty good track record when it comes to defending casino patrons against egregious actions by the casinos. In many states, the gaming authorities are pretty much just rubber-stamp operations controlled by the casino industry. Not so in Mississippi!) In the Biloxi case, the casino had 86’ed a player during the event, only to later be informed that he must be allowed to complete the event. In other words, if you start a tournament in Mississippi, you get to finish it.
I knew this ruling would apply in my case. After all, I was already on hand four of the tournament, and furthermore, I had already defeated one player! I pointed out this situation to the casino staff who were trying to get me to leave the property, and I advised them that they should contact the Gaming Commission and I would wait for their answer right here. No, no, I’m told, you’ll have to leave right now, and if you don’t leave right now, we’ll have to contact the Tunica County Sheriff’s Department to have you forcibly removed. At least, that was the story until one of the dimwits actually thought about it, and decided that maybe, just maybe, I knew what I was talking about.
After all, I do know a thing or two about tournaments. I’ve been playing in them and writing about them for more than a dozen years. If something happens in the tournament world, it’s a pretty good bet that I’ll know all about it. I also reminded Mr. Winkler several times that I’ve promoted their events on numerous occasions, and many of the people present at this event were likely here due to my efforts. What kind of treatment is this for someone who has obviously been a benefit to their events? Just what is it about my “style of play” that is such a threat to your casino? I got no answers of course. In case you’re wondering, I played no table blackjack while at the casino. In fact, it’s probably been more than two years since I sat down at a blackjack game at the Grand in Tunica. The only game I’ve played there lately is video poker. Some threat, eh?
OK, in the two minutes since the Sheriff’s Department threat, the casino staff has now reconsidered their position and I’m told that I will be allowed to finish the tournament. But they still say I must leave the property right now, and come back for a later round when they’ll find a seat for me to begin play all over again. I leave the casino along with my wife, so we can discuss whether she should compete in the event or go request a refund of her entry fee instead.
We finally decide that she will compete, but by the time all the details are resolved, her assigned round has already begun. So now she too is to be reassigned in a later round. When the tournament staff does eventually reassign our seats, we’re now to be seated at the same table competing directly against each other. No coincidence there I’m sure. When our round finally gets going, there’s quite a crowd of supporters around the table, and I’ve been told by friend after friend that winning this event would be the sweetest revenge. Of course it would have been, but I unfortunately didn’t get out of round one. My wife did advance, and she ended up making it to the semifinals before her luck ran out. At least she collected $500 for her effort, making the tournament a break-even affair for the two of us.
The Other Player’s Treatment was Worse Yet
I mentioned that two players were removed from this event. The other victim was approached before his round began, so he didn’t have the same opportunity as I did to contest the decision. Instead, he was indeed made to leave the property immediately, including a cadre of eight security guards who showed up at his hotel room door moments after he left the casino, to make sure he left the property. As the same non-explanation I received, he was told that the casino didn’t like his “style of play”.
Perhaps the presence of my wife and young son is the reason that no security personnel ever showed up at our hotel door. I guess someone realized that terrorizing a nine-year-old with no just cause sounds like a pretty expensive judgement in the making.
Well, now that the undesirable element has been removed from the premises, surely things will go smoothly for Winkler and crew, right? Ummm, no. Next up is a disastrous rebuy policy. From the outset, it was announced that limited $250 rebuys would be available for players who failed to advance from round one. Only seventy spots would be made available, and those would need to be purchased at the registration window, between the hours of 10 PM and 11 PM only. As the appointed rebuy time approached, players began forming a line at the window. However, at twenty minutes to 10, tournament staff headed over and advised all the waiting players that they weren’t allowed to form a line. Great idea, huh? Of course, the crowd dispersed slightly, but players were still milling about in the area waiting for the starting gun to sound the mad dash to the rebuy window. That wouldn’t do either according to tournament staff, who came over and advised the players “No, no, you can’t just hang around here, you have to walk around.” So, no line, no hanging around, what a joke! Most of the self-respecting players who had endured this event to this point finally threw their hands up and said the Hell with it, we’re not hanging around for any more of these inane power trips of Winkler and company.
And the $100,000 Winner Is…
Finally on Saturday, a winner was crowned in this debacle, and what a fitting finish. It turns out that the first place winner, collecting $100,000, was actually a player who didn’t compete in the early rounds of this event. Instead, he went STRAIGHT to the final table, which he proceeded to win. What in the world could this be about?
Well, well, well. It seems that Winkler and his cohorts have had tournament issues before. A reading of the rules for this event revealed the following item:
One (1) additional participant will be added to the final table by order of the Mississippi Gaming Commission.
The additional participant was Stacy Gall, a player who had been involved in a dispute a year ago during a similar tournament. Gall took his complaint to the Gaming Commission, and after a lengthy process of appeals, the Commission finally ruled in his favor stating that he must be seated at the final table in the next comparable event. So, there he was, and he got some sweet revenge in the form of a $100K payoff. I understand that he’s also pursuing civil litigation in the matter. If you’re interested in the full details of his case and some of the tactics used by Winkler and the Grand during his hearings, I’ll be documenting that in my article in the upcoming Blackjack Insider newsletter, an email subscription newsletter published by Henry Tamburin.
As for the rest of the paying and comped entries that played this sorry excuse for a tournament, they had to split the remaining $50K of the prize pool. Small compensation for enduring this train-wreck of a tournament in my opinion.