Gamblers is a podcast about men and women who live by their wits and wagers. People who bet big on themselves, and won. From a road-hustling pool shark to a punk-rock horse handicapper to a sports bettor who could move lines, the six-part anthology series focuses on the fascinating lives of professional underground gamblers and how they make their money.
The hardest part about counting cards is keeping a low profile. Once you start varying the size of your bets to take advantage, the casinos can usually pick you off. The beauty of hole carding—the ability to see the dealer’s facedown card—is that you keep your edge throughout the whole shoe. You don’t need to vary your bet size. Which means you’re undetectable. You’re invisible. You’re just another gambler at the table.
Hole carding opened up a whole new world to Gina Fiore. She set out across Las Vegas searching for dealers who gave up their hole card so she could play them. And it wasn’t easy. Maybe one in 300 dealers gave it up enough for her. So she knew that when she found one, she’d need to bet a lot of money to capitalize. The problem was, betting a lot of money drew a lot of attention. Especially when the person betting it was a hip young woman in her early 20s wearing boots and designer jeans.
“You have to weigh some things,” Gina explains. “You have to say, ‘Well, where am I? How good is the game?’ Like now, I would bet by myself, but I can bet—maybe if I put on a Rolex and a nice bag, I can get away with betting a couple hundred dollars. But if I look like a soccer mom, I can’t bet a couple hundred dollars. I can’t bet the money because I don’t look like I should have money.”
Gina bought some new clothes, some expensive jewelry and handbags, and tried to look the part of someone with money. But her Prada and Gucci getup only got her so far. She may not have looked sharp, but to bet thousands of dollars a hand, looking rich and square wouldn’t be good enough. You’d need to look like a serious high roller. So she recruited some help.
“If I have a 40-year-old Asian man, no one’s going to look at this guy and think immediately he’s up to something,” Gina says. “So they would bet and I would read.”
“Casinos still have very old-fashioned, sexist, and racist ideas,” says Richard Munchkin, host of the Gambling With an Edge podcast, author of the book Gambling Wizards, and one of the most respected advantage gamblers in the world. “I’ve said many times on my show, if you’re Asian, it’s worth at least an extra million dollars for your career just because of racism.”
This, in the world of advantage players, is called the Big Player, or BP for short. Whether you are counting cards or reading hole cards, the way to get a large amount of money down without attracting unwanted attention is to use another player to make the large bets—one who can handle the extra scrutiny of the casino because they are playing the part of a high roller, or a degenerate gambler, or simply someone with enough disposable income that betting $1,000 on a hand or more wasn’t out of the ordinary. Gina could read the card and discreetly signal to the BP what to do.
This meant that Gina needed to recruit BPs. Not just one, but a lot of them. So she started working closer with her fellow Las Vegas Hole Card mafiosos, an old-school group of hole carders.
“We’d go out for the night—we used to do this all the time,” Gina remembers. “We’d hook up, maybe three or four of us, and we weren’t a team, but for that night all four of us would be on a chop. So we’d go out and we’d work, find a game here or there, and we’d meet at the Peppermill at the end of the night. We chopped the bank. We’re always in the Peppermill with thousands of dollars on the table, just chopping every night.”
Chopping the bank means they were splitting the money.
“It was cool. We’d have breakfast at four in the morning after a swing or five in the morning, we chop, and then we do it all over the next night,” Gina says.
From Reno and Tahoe, she started following leads wherever they took her.
“And then we go to Puerto Rico, a United States territory where you do not have to declare your cash, that’s the law. Like, you’re fine,” Gina says. “And we win there, right? So now we have $100,000 on us and we’re flying back to Vegas. We’re in the Puerto Rico airport and I just have a random bag search, not a big deal. This TSA woman sees $30,000, I think it was $30,000 or $35,000 in my bag. So she calls over the manager and they bring me in a back room and they’re like, ‘Where’s this money from?’ We’re like, ‘Well, we were gambling.’ And he said, ‘Don’t be surprised if somebody stops you in Vegas to question you.’”
Gina correctly pointed out to the TSA agent that Puerto Rico is still in the United States, and it is legal to carry money within the country. They let her on the plane, but just to be safe, she called Bob Nersesian—a lawyer and a Las Vegas legend—and told him to be ready at McCarran International Airport when they arrived. But before they could get to Las Vegas, the plane made a quick stop in Atlanta, Georgia.
“And somebody calls me by my name,” Gina continues. “I turn around and it’s a DEA agent and his minions. There’s a couple of them and they want to search me, basically. And then my partner walks up—he was in the bathroom—and they want to search our bags.”
Gina didn’t panic. She’d been through worse than this. She told the officers that it was gambling money and showed them her meticulous records of where she won every dollar.
“They’re like, ‘Well, if we call the casino, could they confirm that?’” Gina recalls. “I’m like, ‘Yes.’ It didn’t matter what I said, they were going to take our money. So they bring the dog—this dog does nothing. Their dog got to him, the dog didn’t move. The dog is falling asleep. And they’ve got the undercover DEA agents with the backpacks acting like they’re travelers. So we’re swarmed and they’re holding our plane to Vegas up, and it’s late, and everyone’s on the plane. They took every penny we had.”
They even took the change from her purse. They didn’t even leave her with cab fare to get home. In all, the DEA took almost $97,000.
“They call it ‘ill-gotten gains,’” Munchkin explains. “They say, ‘This is drug money and so we’re confiscating it unless you can prove that it’s not.’
“So much for innocent until proven guilty. But the money goes to them, not them as individuals, but to that particular police department. Anyway, this is a big problem and something that gamblers have to deal with a lot. [As a gambler], you have to have cash. It is the tools of your business, the way a mechanic travels with his wrenches, you need cash.”
“I think they said that we didn’t give our real names or we used aliases,” Gina says. “They completely made something up. So Bob just stuck with it and then a few months later they said, ‘Well, if you take a lie detector test and you passed, we’ll give you your money back.’ I was like, ‘No, you cannot free roll me, that’s my money. So he said no. Then a couple more months go by and they say, ‘Well, if you sign something that you won’t sue, we’ll give you your money back.’ It’s like, no.”
Gina had been burned like this before. Years before, she was unlawfully detained at Ellis Island Casino in Vegas. She and her partner were tackled as they were leaving and then handcuffed in a back room by casino security. When the cops came, they didn’t help. Instead, they arrested her. She later accepted a $40,000 settlement from the casino, but she regretted not taking them to court and demanding a higher number for the injustice.
“And I kind of learned from the Ellis Island Casino incident, there’s some principle involved here—if you could take our money, you can do it to someone else. So maybe if we can set a precedent, you can’t do it to someone else. And I was very adamant, like, ‘You’re not going to get me.’ No. So then, finally, we got our money back, and then we sued for stealing our money. Illegal seizure, illegal search and seizure.”
The agent who took Gina’s money was a local cop assigned to the DEA for drug arrests.
“It’s my understanding that his agency, if the funds were forfeited, would indeed be able to keep a portion, possibly even the major portion of the fund seized,” Nersesian says.
Bob filed suit against the agent for Gina. They originally sued the DEA, but it turns out Gina couldn’t sue the federal government, so they sued the individual agent. The case got thrown out at first because they filed in Nevada, instead of Georgia, where it happened.
“You can’t sue where you want to,” Nersesian explains. “You have to sue where it’s convenient for the defendant. Even though the defendant specifically waylaid you like highwaymen on your trip for the specific purpose of making it difficult for you to vindicate your rights.”
The case got appealed to the Ninth Circuit and Gina won her appeal, giving her the right to sue in Nevada. The agent appealed that, and the case eventually went all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
Now it’s important to know: Bob’s lawsuit had already gotten Gina her money back. But she didn’t want to make the same mistake she made in Las Vegas when she got handcuffed at Ellis Island. This time, she wanted to take the fight all the way, not for the money, but for the principle. She and other gamblers like her had been made to feel like criminals by casinos, by the government, and by their own friends and family for doing nothing wrong. For simply playing a card game well enough to make a lot of money. It irked Gina. She wanted to push back. She wanted to take a stand.
To hear the full Gina Fiore episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new Gamblers episodes. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.