Dave Stann, better known to most of us as ‘Hollywood’ Dave, grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Kent State University with an Honors degree in Theater. Dave became a member of Mensa in his teenage years, and has passionately pursued his life long dream of a career in acting. First proclaimed “The Bad Boy of Blackjack” during the 2004 World Series of Blackjack, that moniker has since stuck with him. This interview will shed light on the fallacy that Dave Stann and ‘Hollywood’ Dave are one and the same. They are, in fact, often mutually exclusive. We tend to overlook this during the televised events – not only is Dave playing to win like all of the other competitors, but also enacting deliberate psychological strategies, as well as auditioning for future roles in Hollywood. This compounds his thought process with each action he takes at the table.
Dave: Art has been my passion my entire life. That is what I’ve always wanted to do. I received my BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) degree in Theater from Kent State, and soon after, moved out to Hollywood. Everyone always told me to have a back-up plan, but I knew exactly what I wanted and I went for it with every ounce of energy I had. I think a lot of people go through life not knowing what they want to do with it, just doing “something” because they feel like they have to. My whole life I feel as if I’ve been blessed with an uncanny clarity for the path I’m walking, and I’ve always gone with the approach that if I really put my mind to something, then I will achieve it. I’ve never given myself a back-up plan.
RS: What was your first “paying” part?
Dave: I received $100 to be the assistant director on a theater production of the musical “Cabaret” when I was nineteen or twenty. It was at a Jewish Community Center in Cleveland, so it was very compelling to witness the reaction of the mostly Jewish audience to that controversial musical, based in 1930’s Germany. It has always amazed me to see the power that theater, film, and other media has to affect people’s lives the way it does. For good or bad, to make them think, to make them change, it’s just amazing to witness that power in person, and I try to incorporate that lesson in all I do.
RS: What was your first role in front of the camera?
Dave: As an actor, my first paying gig was a commercial in the early 1990’s in Cleveland for Sears Family Dental Centers. I played a punk-rock boyfriend, not a big stretch! The scene featured a man sitting in his living room, talking about how he got his daughter braces to correct her teeth. Then the camera pulls back, and we see his daughter sitting next to him on the couch. She smiles with her beautiful smile that she received from Sears, but the father grows more and more upset the longer he talks. Finally, he says, “If everything went so well, then why do I look so upset? Because now, she’s smiling at him!” Then the camera pulls back to reveal me sitting next to her. I have crazy spiked hair, and I’m doing the whole air-guitar thing with my boots on the coffee table.
RS: What roles have you played in movies or on television to date?
RS: When did you start the theater company, ‘boygirl productions’?
Dave: I started that experimental theater company back in college at Kent State. Mostly post modern, avant-garde work. I don’t get as much time anymore to work on it as I would like, but I still try about once a year to put on a show. I have a one man show I’ve been developing about the prison experience in America today. The androgynous term ‘boygirl’ comes from the realization that ultimately, nothing divides us. We’re all in the human race and start with the same potential, whether we’re black/white, man/woman, tall/short, etc. Wars are started & social issues divide us while we forget that simple fact.
RS: How did you become a member of Mensa?
Dave: Both of my parents and for that matter, both of my younger brothers are all members. My parents took me to the Mensa organization when I was about fourteen; I don’t remember if I took their specialized test or just a normal IQ test to qualify, but basically one must score in the top two percent on any one of these accepted tests to gain admission. My younger brothers are now fifteen and eleven, and the eleven year old is actually a member of Intertel, which means he scored in the top ONE percent so he always makes fun of me by reminding me that he’s smarter than me. I went back home to Cleveland for the holidays and played the board game ‘Connect Four’ with my little brothers. It’s like tic-tac-toe, but you have to connect four in a row to win, either across, up and down, or diagonally. As a professional gambler, I think I have a unique ability to analyze new strategies, whether it’s in blackjack, craps or any game in general. If faced with a new game of skill, I can usually deconstruct it much more quickly than the average person who plays mainly to have fun, not necessarily to win. So when I started to play Connect Four with my brothers, I studied the board to find the optimal placement of each disk, but no dice — my brothers kicked my ass in game…after game…after game!
RS: Did you attend any of the Mensa meetings?
Dave: Oh yeah, when I was still in high school in Cleveland. Mensa has special interest groups, both national and with local chapters, on all kinds of stuff from rocket science, to theater, to basket weaving. I think I attended meetings on fantasy game playing, skill games, and poetry, all of which were cool, but honestly I was so immersed in creating my own identity as an artist and creating works of theater and performance which took up so much of my time that I really just didn’t pursue Mensa as much as I could have.
RS: When did you first start playing blackjack?
Dave: I had a roommate in college who just loved it. He would go off to Detroit and lose all his money, but he loved playing blackjack. He told me that there was this ‘basic strategy thing’ that, when played correctly, would get him to break even with the dealer, and a card counting idea that would swing the edge to him instead of the house. He really didn’t know exactly what he was talking about at the time, but I got tired of working in restaurants, so I picked up “Kenny Uston on Blackjack” and then Stanford Wong’s “Professional Blackjack“, which got me to thinking I may actually be able to make some money at the game. Plus it just seemed like fun to “beat the man”, to take from the rich and give to me, the poor. I tried it out with my three hundred dollar bankroll, playing the “nickel” tables, and saw some results early on that encouraged me to learn more.
RS: When did you start playing blackjack tournaments?
Dave: I played cash games for a good two or three years before I played in my first tournament. I had worked my bankroll up enough to play a spread of twenty five to two hundred and fifty dollars a hand. Still pretty low stakes, but just enough to pay my bills. I was going to Las Vegas so much back then, and I just happened upon a tournament at the Silverton. It was a twenty-dollar entry fee tournament, and after a few tries, I was hooked on tournament blackjack. I think it was in early 2002 when I first started playing tourneys. I had no prior training, nor had I read Wong’s book “Casino Tournament Strategy“, but I really liked the strategy aspect of tournament play. I kind of figured out on my own to bet small through the first half of the match, and I formulated a makeshift end-game strategy. Then I found Wong’s book, and it really opened up my eyes to the total realm of possibilities in a blackjack tournament. I played in a couple dozen tournaments, mostly low stakes events and had a couple wins and a few more final table appearances, but no real money to show for it. I didn’t take it as seriously back then as I do today. Now I consider blackjack tournaments a much more viable source of income. My income back then was mostly derived from card counting, and tournaments were just something to do on the side. It wasn’t until the World Series of Blackjack in 2004 that I played for (and won) some serious money. After that event I started looking at blackjack tournaments as a much more primary source of income.
RS: Who was it that actually discovered you for the World Series of Blackjack?
Dave: Well, Hollywood is a circular place, and the casting director for the first World Series, Kim Holtzman, used to cast a lot of game shows. About three years earlier I won about $10,000 on a game show called ‘Friend or Foe’ (which was also on GSN by the way), as well as a couple other game shows after that one. As an actor, it’s pretty good EV to get on a game show and win some cash, especially if you live in L.A. and don’t have any travel expenses. Kim was the casting director for one of those shows, and when they introduce the contestants, they don’t want to say all these people are just starving actors, they want to give them a normal job description. So I put down ‘professional blackjack player’ on the application because that was the only other thing I was doing in those days. Kim’s father was really big into blackjack, so we had a long discussion on the subject. When the World Series of Blackjack began on GSN, Kim remembered me from the game shows and tracked down my number to call me in to audition for the WSOB. I came in for a ten-minute meet-and-greet with VP Kevin Belinkoff, but we ended up talking for about an hour and a half, and the rest is history. Had I not done those game shows all those years ago, I probably wouldn’t have ended up on the WSOB.
RS: Summarize your experience from the first World Series of Blackjack.
Dave: For me, that’s easy: we were at the final table, and it was down to ‘MIT’ Mike Aponte and myself for first and second place. Mike tried the surrender trap on me, but I was ready for that move. It came down to me just needing to win my hand to become the world champion, but the dealer, who showed a fifteen and was a favorite to bust, ended up pulling a three for eighteen to beat me. It was about two or three in the morning when we finished. It was really a cool experience to be a part of — I read your interview with Mike Aponte, and he was dead on accurate with his impressions of that experience. Nothing like that had ever been done in the past. It was a tremendous gathering of some really intelligent, passionate, motivated, professional blackjack players. The spirit of the entire event was so wonderful. It was almost a rite of passage having it take until two or three in the morning to finish. Rich Cronin, the President of GSN, came out to congratulate us on a great show. He came to shake my hand, and I said to him, “you know Rich, I’m an actor, and this entire weekend has been an audition to host one of your game shows on GSN.” He said, “oh yeah, that sounds like something we can take a look at in the future,” and about a month later, I got a call from GSN. They wanted to do a blackjack show, (‘Celebrity Blackjack’) and told me that Rich Cronin thought I would make a good, smart-ass dealer harassing the celebrities. So I ended up as the co-host and dealer on ‘Celebrity Blackjack’, for two seasons so far.
RS: How were you chosen for Spike TV’s King of Vegas game show?
Dave: They ended up picking six pros and six amateurs for the show. It looked to me as if they simply wanted to pick people from all possible walks of life to make the show as diverse as possible. Many people have wondered why they didn’t just pick twelve professional all around gaming experts, and let them battle it out, but their plan was to create more of a reality-television version of gambling shows. So much of a show like that is done in the editing room. If you watched King of Vegas, and we were playing Red Dog, for instance, you might notice after watching for ten minutes, they only showed three hands, but what they DID show you was two people getting into a heated argument, or somebody storming off the set, or something you wouldn’t normally see if it was just a straight gambling show. There was definitely an intention in the editing room to create drama outside the realm of simply which card landed next. If you looked at it from the light of just watching this weird reality show, it was pretty entertaining, but it certainly pissed off a lot of the gaming purists out there! I had a blast shooting it, to be constantly challenged on a day-by-day basis to not only play my absolute best, but to be surrounded by a world of cameras recording my every move, and to use them to craft a whole psychological screen that would be larger than just any one particular game’s strategy.
RS: What was your perception of the similarities and the differences between WSOB I and WSOB II?
Dave: I had a pretty good feeling that I would be asked back for the second year, not just because of the TV-friendly personality, but the fact that I finished rather well. I thought they might bring back the final table, which they did. The second year’s tournament was similar to the original WSOB in the fact that it still maintained that sense of camaraderie among the players as we not only worked on besting one another, but recognizing that this really was a special collection of competitors. GSN really tried their best to get some of the world’s best players on that show. I feel a little spoiled in a way, because I have no patience anymore to play in smaller tournaments! It has become more than a monetary issue with me. I want to sit down with the best players and try to beat them. There is a real sense of pride, a personal accomplishment in beating the best. I was just really excited to have another chance to sit down with some serious professional blackjack tournament players. Many had written great books and really knew their stuff. It is hard to find that anywhere else. I play mostly invitational tournaments now, and I play against casinos’ high rolling “ploppies” that are just the big gamblers, but not necessarily that talented. The prize pool is usually substantial, so it’s worth the time to play, but there is something definitely missing. I feel like I’m always challenging myself to live up to the notoriety of the television exposure I have been given over the years. It really has made me a much better tournament player, having played against so many great players. One of the nice things about playing the second year at the Golden Nugget was the fact that in the first year, at the Mohegan Sun, they were simply terrified about saying anything about counting cards or advantage play, but at the Golden Nugget, the owners at the time (Tim Poster and Tom Breitling) were more progressive in their thinking and knew that they weren’t going to win or lose any more money if the show mentioned advantage play. So there were a lot of vignettes about us getting thrown out of casinos and card counting, which allowed the announcers (Max Rubin and Matt Vasgersian) to get into more detail on some of the bets and plays. The first year’s World Series of Blackjack was special because it was a magical gathering of incredible people, which had never been done before, whereas the second year was still very special because we had more freedom to be truly open and honest about what goes into the thought process of the pro players. In June, July, and August of this year, the World Series of Blackjack III will be televised from the Las Vegas Hilton, but I can’t speak of the results until after the shows have aired.
RS: Tell us about your experience with the inaugural season of the Ultimate Blackjack Tour.
Dave: What an awesome experience! There was a very real sense of being a part of blackjack tournament history once again, as the field of competition here included some of the brightest minds in our community. Russ Hamilton gathered us all at a luxurious resort in Lake Las Vegas for an entire week of play, where rather than shooting just a single tournament, we played the preliminary and semifinal rounds for the entire first season. What was especially cool about this was having the chance to wake up every day and, no matter what had happened the day before, having another shot or two at making it through to a final table. It was great to be able to live in that high-pressure energy for so long, I really feel like its situations like that, where I grow most as a player. Plus, the UBT’s elimination format forced us “pros” to come up with whole new strategies for defeating one another, and it was neat to see the different schools of thought on that. A group of us calling ourselves the West Coast Grinders had many private conversations about the most effective techniques for beating this format, and while there were many variations in our play, as a group of 6 we scored 7 final table appearances. Personally, I made it to two of the final tables, winning one game and coming in second on another, ending up as the third highest money winner on the Tour for the first season, with a total win of $115,000! I felt as if I had some ‘home court advantage’, as the final episodes were filmed on a CBS soundstage just a few blocks from my house here in Hollywood. One episode in particular really tested my tourney pro mettle, as Ken Smith and I traded jabs at each other throughout an incredible match-up that saw the lead change many times all the way down to the final turn of the last card. There’s just nothing like the rush of throwing everything you’ve got against opponents who are also playing at the top of their game. Now that CBS has signed the UBT to a two-season deal, not to mention the heavy involvement of some of the bigger names in the poker world, the sky’s really the limit for the future of our sport!
RS: You have two different books about blackjack coming out; what can you tell us about them?
Dave: I decided to write a book about many of my unique experiences in the world of blackjack.
The style of writing in “Hollywood Blackjack” is very Hollywood Dave. There are a lot of cuss words in it. It’s full of stories you wouldn’t want your mother to read. It’s me and I’m happy with it, and it’s not only fun, but shoots straight from the hip as well. One half of the book breaks down how you can beat the house, presenting card counting, camouflage, and other advantage plays, and the other half contains lots of crazy stories about being tossed out of casinos, doing the television shows, and some fun behind the scenes stuff that I thought would be interesting to those who haven’t experienced anything like that before. ‘Hollywood Blackjack’ is more of a commercial book and is sure to appeal to a wider audience, but my second book, ‘Hollywood Blackjack: ATS’ (ATS stands for Advanced Tournament Strategy), concerns tournament strategy only. It will be a very cut-and-dried, no frills, master course dedicated solely to presenting the most comprehensive system for analyzing and annihilating every type of tournament format and opponent. Despite being the necessary cornerstone of any true tourney pro’s understanding of the game, Stanford Wong’s ‘Casino Tournament Strategy’ ultimately fails in today’s tourney climate because at its heart is the dated subtext that your opponents don’t really know how to play tournament blackjack. It is written from a very defensive standpoint, where you sit back and wait for the other players to bust out. When they don’t all bust out, Wong’s book spells out the strategies with the best probabilities of success, which is a great way to approach the game when playing in a lot of lower stakes or invitation-only tournaments, but if you play against knowledgeable players, those strategies just won’t work on a consistent basis. The strategies in ‘Hollywood Blackjack: ATS’ are reflexive enough to recognize the skill level of your competition, show how to profile the players, and based on that profile, determine how aggressive you need to be at the table. Once the Aggression Index (AgI) is determined, we then know what specific things we need to do to attack that level of aggression — different strategies for different opponents, game formats, and the like. I’m working with some mathematicians right now to make sure my numbers hold up to the scrutiny from even the most critical players. ‘Hollywood Blackjack: ATS’ should become available to the public early next year, and at its heart and soul is my true original contribution to the annals of blackjack lore.
RS: What are you doing these days in the gambling arena?
Dave: I’m pretty jazzed about what’s been going on lately, a lot of exciting developments. First off, I’m pleased to announce my continuing involvement with the Ultimate Blackjack Tour as a sponsored member of Team UBT! The UBT has been wonderful for the growth of our tournament community, so I was more than happy to accept their invitation and look forward to helping make the second season even better than the first. In other news, I’ve been traveling quite a bit of late and have had the pleasure of experiencing blackjack at casinos around the world, something that’s tough for me to do anymore in the USA due to all the television exposure. It’s pretty cool to finally have my eyes opened to how blackjack has evolved in other countries, not to mention how well the players are treated! In Las Vegas, after getting used to constant suspicion and barrings, its nice to be able to do what I do best, unimpeded, for a change. Other than that, I’ve been preparing for the World Series of Poker this month. Believe it or not, I probably play in five times as many poker tournaments a year as I do blackjack, but due to the much larger fields of players, I just don’t have the same recognition there as I do at 21. I also just acquired the domain rights to
www.HollywoodDave.com so I am in the process of actively creating my new home on the web. My gambling Zen is really humming along right now and I think this next year will be bigger and better than anything I’ve accomplished so far.
RS: Anything Hollywood related upcoming on your calendar?
Dave: Never a dull moment out here. In the past few weeks, I’ve auditioned to host a travel show, a movie clips segment for E! Television, and a good dozen TV commercials, including a series of poker-themed ads for Milwaukee’s Best Beer. I don’t wanna jinx it, but my representation is also in talks about the Kevin Spacey movie based on Ben Mezrich’s book, “Bringing Down the House“, which has been retitled ’21’ and is currently in casting, after years of development. I just read the script for it late last night, and had a blast imagining this exciting story finally making it to the silver screen. What is interesting is that all of the work that I’ve done as a trained actor for over a decade now really means nothing compared to the television work I’ve done on the gambling shows these past few years. Having a “reel” of me portraying the fun, party guy talking smack with Snoop Dogg while playing blackjack with him means more in this town, opens more doors and gets me more auditions, than the fact that I have half of Hamlet memorized. I’m starting to be able to use all of the gambling media exposure to be considered more seriously for non-gambling opportunities now, so the hard work is finally paying off. My ultimate goal, of course, is to get a million bucks together, dump it all into an independent film, and finally complete the crossover back to the art that I love. That’s right – there’s no business like show business, baby!