On the last night of her testing, Ben and Colin told Shirley she had to take control of the blackjack table. They wanted to make sure that, if she lost count, she could make the table pause so she could recover and get it back.
“I actually got up from the table to take cell phone calls. I pissed off everyone around me. They had to wait for me to resume playing. They yelled at me, telling me I had to play, and I said, ‘No, I don’t. As a matter of a fact, I have 20 minutes, so I’m going to go use the bathroom.’ Colin and Ben were dying. Colin was laughing so hard he was weeping. They had never seen anyone run a table like that. They wanted to see extreme, and I showed them extreme.”
Shirley says that the most surreal situation in the testing-out process was the money. After being told she had made the team, they rushed back to Ben’s house to gather her luggage. She had to catch a flight home that night. Colin brought over a duffel bag filled with the money Shirley would use to begin her career. It was like a movie moment. He handed her the bag, and she shoved $60,000 in her purse.
“We were rushing to the airport to make my flight, and I had $60,000 sitting on my lap. It was crazy.”
One of the team rules is that members are not allowed to keep their money in a bag or purse. It has to be kept on their person at all times. They don’t trust minimum-wage workers at the airport with that kind of money. It is never to be run through carry-on-scanners for fear it will be stolen.
“What am I supposed to do with all of this money? Where do I put it?” she frantically asked Colin.
“Shove it in your pants,” he told her.
When Shirley got to the airport that night she was literally shoving money down her pants and into the sleeves of her shirt.
“I was so nervous. After that night, I had a system. I would wear baggy clothes on my Vegas flights. Some of our players have been met by FBI agents at the airport, when the amount of money they were carrying on them has been discovered. I didn’t want to ever go through that headache.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Nate’s first attempt at testing onto the team was a failure. He had only done 40 hours of training.
“The guys told me that no one had ever tested onto the team after only 40 hours, but that if I thought I could do it, I should try. So I flew out to Seattle. I thought I would make it. I have always been the kind of person who, as long as I work at something really hard, I can do it.”
“It was an emergency need,” adds Faith. “We had a mortgage payment, our third baby had just been born, and our son was very sick. We needed the money.”
When he didn’t make it the first time, Faith and Nate were disappointed. But Nate was confident that with more training he could do it. His goal was to do 120 hours and attempt to make the team again. He mostly played at Barona and Viejas.
Nate says that he practiced at Viejas so much that he got to know some of the regulars.
“There was this old man who was always waiting for his girlfriend to get back from shopping. He said she was at the outlets and would be back any minute now. He was there every day, and he was always telling people that same story. I never saw his girlfriend. Then there were all the people with their oxygen tanks. They’d come in with their Social Security check, sit down, and play all day.”
“It’s a pretty depraved culture,” says Faith.
Nate continues, “I wanted to tell everyone I met, ‘Yeah, I don’t really have a gambling problem. I’m paid to do this.’ I remember when I came back to Viejas after I had been on the team for a long time. They really remembered me. They remembered that before I was playing with a lot less money. They saw me bet a large amount, and you could just see it on their faces that they thought I was just another person that had gotten addicted to gambling.”
While getting training time in at Barona, sometimes Nate’s family would stay in a suite. While he worked, Faith would take the kids to the pool for the day.
Nate laughs. “Sometimes, we would walk through the casino with the kids, and Faith would point to a blackjack table and say, ‘Look, that’s where Daddy works.’”
∗ ∗ ∗
The weekend after Shirley made the team, her husband attended a pastor’s conference in Las Vegas. She went with him. A couple of Shirley’s teammates, who were pastors, were also there.
“They hooked all of us up with phenomenal suites from comps they had received from the casinos. In one day, we charged over $500 worth of decadent food. We had filet mignon and lobster. We didn’t have to pay for any of it.”
One of the greatest perks of being a professional card counter was the comps. When guests walk into a casino and begin playing $2000 hands, the pit bosses do anything they can to get them to stick around. A casino figures that high rollers always lose, and the house stands to make a hefty amount of cash off them. The major players get limo service, free food, beverages, and 2000-square-foot suites — basically, anything to accommodate them.
With the exception of her teammates and husband, no one else at the conference knew Shirley was a card counter. That weekend, she totaled 26 hours of casino play.
“I was on probation. They had let me on the team despite making an error on an ace deviation while I was testing out. My punishment was 40 hours’ probation, playing at a lower hourly rate. I wanted to get that out of the way. I didn’t play any of the big casinos. Only the seasoned players are allowed to play those. I had to have 80 hours in before I could do that. I played at a lower spread, $500 or $1000 a hand. I was only making $80–$100 per hour.”