Last Updated: February 23, 2011
Chip Hustled in Panama
I have been writing about casinos for 14 years. In those years, I have traveled the world a fair bit and visited as many casinos as possible to see what the gambling was like. In that time, I've seen a thing or two but never anything to compare to the Veneto casino in Panama City, Panama. I just came from there, and this is the story of my visit.
The primary reason for my Panama trip was banking in nature, but the secondary purpose was to investigate and report on the gambling scene in Panama City. I will go over that, and other non-gambling activities, in two upcoming blog entries.
This was my first visit to Panama. When I made my arrangements, the number of people I knew in the country was zero. So I chose my hotel, the Riande Continental, based on decent reviews on Travelocity and a competitive price. I had no idea of the quality of the area. I arrived late at night, checked in, and was given a room with a view of Via Veneto. It was perfectly obvious from my window that this minor street was in an adult-oriented part of the city, as evidenced by a lot of bars, taxis, and people milling about late at night.
That first evening, I visited the Crown Casino in my own hotel, which was uneventful. I played about an hour of blackjack and had no interaction with other players. It was a fairly small casino that seemed to draw a local crowd.
I had a business meeting the next morning, but then the rest of the day was mine. The number one priority for any tourist to Panama City should be to see the Panama Canal, which I did that day. I'll write more about that in another blog entry.
That evening, a Monday night, I endeavored to expand my horizons and explore the areas around my hotel . I headed down Via Veneto to get a closer look at the fun I could see from my hotel window. There were several gift shops, fast food places, Internet cafes, two Strip clubs, and then, finally, the Veneto Hotel and Casino.
So I wandered in and took an escalator leading up to the second floor, which, judging by the noise, was home to the casino. The young woman ahead of me on the escalator was dressed like a stripper and had that look-at-me swagger that prostitutes do so well. When I got to the top and looked around, I marveled at about 50 more of the same girl milling about. Not even in Macau did I seen anything like this. There were lovely young women in tight skimpy dresses and high heels everywhere you looked.
I initially felt overwhelmed, so I found a blackjack table to play towards the back of the casino, where there were fewer people, and I figured nobody would bother me if I was actively playing. To still maintain a good view of things, I sat down in the middle of the table.
After about 15 minutes, a pretty young woman who seemed to be in her mid-twenties sat down next to me. Unlike the other young women in the casino, she was modestly dressed and both looked and acted like the stereotypical girl next door. She caught my eye; however, I'm basically a good boy, so just sat there quietly and minded my own business.
After about five minutes of silent play, she had an obvious double down situation. Like an 11 against a 5. She didn't have enough chips to make a full double down, so she asked if I wanted to go in on the rest. I knew it was a positive expected value play, so I agreed. A red flag went up that maybe she wouldn't pay me if I won, but it was only $5, and I am not such a good boy to resist a chance to break the ice with an attractive young woman. So I put down some of my own chips on top of hers to make a maximum double down wager. It won, and she paid me my original bet and winnings without comment. I probably said, "thank you," and left it at that.
By the way, the proper strategy for this kind of piggybacking situation is bet any opportunity with a positive expected value. Such a table can be found in my blackjack appendix 5. Any cell in green is a good bet. If you don't want to memorize it, at least know that every double down situation has a positive expected value. If it didn't, you shouldn't be betting more.
As play continued, similar piggybacking opportunities came up. They were always what I felt were good bet situations, so I always obliged, and we usually won. It was the best of both worlds: I was making bets in my mathematical favor and befriending the lovely lady by my side as she started to chat a bit.
Then three of her friends showed up and sat on the other side of her. The one immediately on her left was a young guy who greeted her with the European style hug and kiss on the cheek. I need to learn the proper way to do this greeting, as I get nervous and muck it up every time non-American women greet me that way (which is not often). The guy looked very gay, but I hate making such assumptions. Even if he was, I think it is not gentlemanly to hit on a woman you don't know in the presence of her male friends.
Despite the arrival of her friends, she continued to let me partially double on her bets and paid me in full every time. I thought it was foolish to partially give up strong double down bets to a stranger when you have your own money at hand, but I have a strict policy of never offering unsolicited advice at the tables, especially when it adversely affects me. This must have gone on for about an hour. She made some small talk along the way, but I kept my answers short and to the point. Meanwhile her friends, who were not playing, seemed to be getting bored and restless.
Eventually the young lady said, "We're going to have a smoke on the balcony. Would you like to join us?" She was gathering her chips, so I didn't expect her to return. As a point of order, smoking is probated in casinos in Panama, a law I enthusiastically applaud. I learned later they had a balcony by the nearby sports book for smoking.
Alone and bored in a strange place, I was tempted to join them. However, I thought something was fishy. A group of young people befriending a middle-aged man; something must be in it for them, but what? I was curious, but the skeptic in me won over and I said, "No thanks, I don't smoke."
So they went on their merry way. I played by myself a little more and then left. During the walk back to my hotel, I dodged scores of desperate looking whores on the street, men handing me business cards to their dens of ill-repute, and taxi drivers calling out to me, "I can take you to a good place!"
The next day, I went on a half-day tour of the historical sights of Panama and had a business dinner at night. When I returned to my hotel, I put my things away and headed back to the Veneto. That second night I was feeling a little more bold, so I selected a table closer to the casino's entrance to watch the working girls. It was a crowded table, but there was an open seat at my left.
About five minutes after sitting down, a sexy young girl settled in next to me. She was wearing a school girl short skirt, low cut shirt, and had on lots of make up. She immediately started chatting to me in Spanish. I am always up for the opportunity to improve my Spanish with pretty girls. The truth be told, this was the first such time. Usually it is maids and gardeners who I torture with my horrible Spanish, so this was a welcome change.
Things went well the first five minutes or so, but then she went bust of the meager bankroll she presented at the table. So she just sat there quietly with puppy dog eyes. So in the name of having a paid Spanish lesson, I gave her $10 in chips. Eventually these went dry too, but I was having a good time, so gave her a little more.
Then the table went on a tear, and everybody was winning almost every hand. At this point, she gradually colored up red to green chips and put the greens in her purse. It seemed she was doing this and betting carefully to never quite have enough money to fully double down or split. At those times, much like the girl from the night before, she asked me for the difference. As this went on, her bets kept getting bigger, and she encouraged me to bet more too. She was also giving me less and less back when I won.
Let me pause the story for a moment. The book I finished on the flight to Panama was Fool me Once by Rick Lax. The subtitle was "Hustlers, hookers, and headlines and how not to get screwed in Vegas.? In the book, the author befriended such characters to learn their methods. One common hustle was to go to nightclubs presumably as a tourist, wait to get hit on, and then ask for money to go up to a mark's room.
The book I had just started was Super Freakonomics. The chapter I had recently finished pondered the question of why more attractive women in their twenties don't enter the $500/hr profession as high-end escorts. Both books made the prostitution business look like any other service-based profession, only necessitating tricks to find customers (maybe that is why they call them tricks), and staying under the radar of the law. Not that I was saying the women I met were prostitutes, but I didn't rule it out, especially not the second one. In the name of research, I was trying to figure out what their angle was.
Back to the story. There were more red flags being raised than at a Beijing parade on August 1 (the anniversary of the Communist Chinese army). However, I wanted to know what it was leading up to, if anything. As time went on, it was getting to be an expensive lesson in Spanish and hustling. My final hand at the table she made a split, a re-split, and some double down wagers. Despite having plenty of green chips in her purse, she was grabbing at my big stacks of red chips. She never asked, and in all fairness, I never said 'no.' The dealer busted, and the original bets and winnings must have amounted to about $200. Of this she gave me back only about $50. This was entirely insulting, so I colored up and left in a huff.
I wondered if she would follow me, so I watched from a distance for a minute, but she remained at the table. I saw her passing out chips to other players at the table who she previously had never acknowledged. Then I went to the men's room, and when I came out, she was nowhere to be seen. So I wandered around the casino, kicking myself for being such an idiot and angry that I didn't even get a thank you. I was not sure who I was angrier at ? myself or the wench. Probably myself. I thought about complaining to somebody about it, but I was too embarrassed.
As I wandered around, not really paying attention to my surroundings, somebody said "Hey you!" It was the girl from the previous day, who was sitting at some slot machines with her friends but not playing. It was so refreshing to see her face. While there was a lot in common to the two incidents, the first girl never took one penny of mine and was completely warm and non-aggressive.
She introduced herself and all her friends. Let's call her Alicia (not her real name). The two men she was with she said were gay. Not the kind of thing that people usually mention in introductions back home, but I appreciated the candor. Maybe she thought I was keeping a polite distance the previous night because she I thought one of them might be her boyfriend, which would have been right.
So, after the introductions I asked if I could relay the story of what just happened to me. Alicia said "sure" and listened attentively. After I finished, she laughed and said, "Oh, that was Angie!" I will leave her name unchanged to serve as a warning to other men who may find themselves at the Veneto someday. Alicia said Angie did other things worse than hustling chips but didn't humor me with specifics. After more chit chat, she invited me on another smoking break, which I accepted this time. As much as I oppose smoking in public places, I admit that I will share in a cigarette from time to time. As we stood outside the casino sharing a cigarette, Alicia confessed that she also does chip hustling, but considered Angie as a competitor and she seemed to indicate that they didn't like each other. Then she volunteered that she didn't make a move for my chips because I was concentrating so hard, was quiet, and was drinking very little. Those are all trademarks of how I play blackjack. No wonder I get identified as a card counter so quickly — and I wasn't even counting at that time. Speaking of which, I didn't bother counting in Panama because I didn't bring enough money to be sufficiently capitalized and have it worth my bother.
So after having my questions answered, I felt I would end the evening on a good note. So I took my leave but added that I would probably return the next night to the casino. Alicia said that she would look for me.
The next evening, I went back to the table where I first met Alicia and played by myself. After about half an hour, she showed up by herself and we played together and chatted more. This time I did give her some gambling money, but she never asked for more than what I offered, and I didn't give her very much, especially compared to the stacks that Angie was just grabbing from me the previous night. I mentioned that I was in Panama all week by myself and asked if she could show me the Calle Uruguay part of town, which my travel guide said was the hot nightclub area. By the way, I mean "nightclub" in the American way, meaning bars that cater to the young and play really loud music. In Spanish speaking countries, a "nightclub" is what Americans would call a "strip club." What we call a ?nightclub? they call a ?disco.? After that was cleared up, she said sure. I said I would be happy to spring for dinner for her and her group of friends and pay her something for her time.
So the next night that is what we did, and we had an innocent, good time. We were accompanied by one of her gay friends and his younger sister. The night lasted until 3:00 in the morning, at which point I was out of gas. I offered $200 for her time, but she only took $150. Before parting, I invited her to come by the pool of my hotel and have some lunch the next day, which she accepted.
The next day, a Friday, we had lunch together and later dinner with a group of her friends, her sister, and her sister's friends in a room at the Veneto she got comped. During this time, I improved my Spanish and learned more about her life. In addition to making money as a private tour guide to people like me, she is what I would call a low-level advantage player, mainly playing liberal promotions and milking the casinos for comps. I tried to give her some pointers on how to improve her earning capacity in that area, but I don't think she understood what I was talking about. That probably happens more often with my audiences than I care to know.
After dinner, her sister and sister's friends wanted to go to the casino, which they didn't get a chance to visit very often. This was a Friday night mind you, and the casino was packed. There must have been two to three times the crowd as the prior Monday to Thursday nights. Previously there were beautiful young prostitutes everywhere. However, this Friday night it was a seller's market. There were lots of horny looking American men on the prowl for pretty girls. Only the older, fatter, and desperate ones seemed to be left. I overheard conversations between men strategizing about where to look, how low to set their standards, and other places to try. The lesson clearly to be learned is that if that is what you are looking for, best to be there mid-week, when it is the women that have to compete over a small supply of interested men.
Alicia and I lost everyone else in our crowd. I told her I really wanted to observe her, from a distance, doing the chip hustle on other men. Alicia refers to this as trying to catch "cangrejos." The word Cangrejo is Spanish for crab.
She didn't seem to feel it was a good time for catching cangrejos, so I offered to scout around. There didn't seem to be any lonely rich men, so I identified what I thought was the best prospect: a man about 60 playing by himself. He looked like he was in a bad mood, but there was no better alternative. So she sat down next to him. From my distance, I could see she was trying to make small talk and congratulating him when he won sometimes. Eventually she went bust and just sat there and commented on his play. After about ten minutes of him showing no interest, she threw in the towel and left.
Next I identified a couple of guys about my age at another table. They seemed to be in a good mood, but were betting small. Betting small is not a sign of a good mark Alicia told me, but sometimes you can't be too picky. One was at the end of the table, so she took a seat by the other guy, who looked liked Javier Bardem, so I'll call him that. This was going better than the last grump. After watching from afar for a while, I took a seat at the opposite end of the table without saying a word. I could feel the temperature gradually going up and the guys warming up to Alicia. The men seemed nice. Javier once congratulated me for "saving the table," something I hate to get credit for, because it also means I stand to get incorrectly blamed for ruining the table as well if I should "take the dealer's bust card," as the myth goes.
About 15 minutes after I sat down, a supervisor came along and closed the table. Never in my many casino experiences have I seen a table closed with active players. So Alicia followed the men to another table. I didn't want it to seem like I was trailing her, so I played at a table adjacent to the one they chose. A skanky prostitute who had been trailing me earlier sat down next to me and was being flirty. I tried to give her the polite impression I wasn't interested, but she was persistent and wouldn't leave.
By the way, the game we were playing was one Casino Hold 'Em, which I helped develop with a client and friend of mine. The Veneto refers to the game as "Texas Hold 'Em," not to be confused with the version played against other players. I had never seen it in a casino before this trip, so it was nice to see a baby I feel I helped raise actually being played in a casino. Few table game inventors ever get that far.
After about 20 minutes, the working "girl" still hadn't left, and I thought it was safe to join Javier's table again. I put girl in quotes because she was probably well into her forties. So I switched to Javier and Alicia's table. It seemed the temperature had not changed. It was still at just a friendly level, but the men seemed to be more interested in gambling than talking with a pretty girl. About a hour after first joining them, Alicia gave up and said goodbye to them. It would seem I'm the only sucker, but the fun was well worth the price.
I left a few hands later and found her outside smoking. There was an Internet cafe across the street, so I offered to show her some things about blackjack on my web site. All along the last two days, I had tried to correct mistakes she was making in her blackjack play but don't think I made much of an impact. How would she know if I was a legitimate gambling writer or just some quack? I'm sure she still doesn't.
By this time it was getting very late, so we said our goodbyes. She didn't ask for any money for her time that night. I should have offered. The next day I offered to correct my oversight by email, but she just said some kind words but didn't address the offer.
My flight wasn't leaving until 2:30 PM the next day, so I decided to go back to the Veneto and officially complain about Angie. I knew I would be writing up my story, but I wanted to give the proper avenue of justice a chance to work too. I gained an audience with a casino manager. He didn't speak English, and my Spanish is not good enough to tell the story of Angie properly, so we used a translator at the front desk.
I fully admitted that I was at fault and only wanted to make the point that I felt that Angie was being too aggressive and suggested they ask her to tone it down. They don't seem to let the prostitutes be too aggressive, so the same should apply to others using their casino as a free place of business. As long as they wanted to keep things under control, I thought that they might not approve of how strong Angie came on.
So the manager asked me for the details ? day, time and table, which I provided. He also made some calls and spoke to a floorman on duty who was familiar with Angie. I don't know what if anything will come of his investigation. Maybe he was just humoring me with the calls. As the morning manager, he didn't seem very familiar with the debauchery that goes on at night.
While I had his attention, I asked if they require the working girls to show a bill of clean health to work the casino floor. He said no and something about it being a public place. Still, I think that would be a good idea. Although the manager took my business card, I have never heard back about my complaint.
Some readers may have some unanswered questions. These answers don't come from direct experience but second hand from people I asked. The going rate for the best looking hookers is $150 for an hour. I heard it gets as low as about $20 for the most desperate cases.
I'm also told that the other hotels in the vicinity don't allow the working girls to enter past 6:00 PM. To be specific, this would include the Riande Continental, the El Panama, the Crown Plaza, and the Riande Granada. One American told me that a $25 bribe could cause that rule to be overlooked.
So that is my story of the Veneto. I hope it wasn't too boring. That is about as much excitement as this middle-aged man ever gets.