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Anchored by this incredible tale, gambling expert Michael Konik introduces readers to the quirky subculture of high rollers and hustlers in dozens of ...
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Anchored by this incredible tale, gambling expert Michael Konik introduces readers to the quirky subculture of high rollers and hustlers in dozens of other outrageous true stories profiling gamblers who make wagering a way of life.
You'll meet the man who turned $10,000 into $17 million with a pair of dice, the man responsible for determining the point spread of the Super Bowl, and the world's most notorious golf hustler. In addition to the bizarre and hilarious escapades of hard-core gamblers, Konik shares insider tips for how to score more in comps than you lose at the tables, how to identify casino games that should be avoided, and how to gain a legal advantage over the house.
In this rollicking collection of stories, Konik celebrates the glamour, glitz, and excitement of gambling culture in Vegas and beyond, giving readers a behind-the-tables look at one of the nation's most lucrative entertainment industries.
When I first meet Brian Zembic, he is living in a bathroom.
This is not because he can't afford a place that has all the amenities, like a bedroom. It's because a couple of his degenerate gambling buddies bet him $14,000 he couldn't stay in a bathroom for 30 straight days.
Several gambler friends playing the poker tournament circuit had told me about some psychopath they knew who would do anything to win a bet. "The guy's an animal," they opined. "You gotta meet him." But my pals neglected to mention that Brian doesn't really have a permanent address, save for a cheap motel he often stays in when he comes to Las Vegas. Tracking him down is like hunting a fugitive; he seems to jump to another motel, another apartment, another country, every time I try to get him on the phone. That he is confined to a bathroom for a month is my best opportunity yet to actually confirm this cipher's existence.
When I arrive in Las Vegas, he's six days into the bathroom bet, and already he's going a little stir-crazy. As far as bathrooms go, it's a nice bathroom: carpeted, brightly lighted, bordering on spacious. But it's still a bathroom. The terms of Brian's bet allow him to keep the door open, but prohibit him from crossing the threshold into the adjoining hallway. Since Brian lives in the bathroom by himself--a $50-a-day housekeeper brings him sandwiches whenever he yells for her--most of his time is spent reading and practicing magic tricks. Rows of $100 bills are taped to the mirror to remind Brian what he's earning each day he serves his self-imposed sentence but, he confesses, his resolve is weakening. "Joey, one of the guys who made the wager with me, he owns the apartment and he's been sending people over here to take a dump," Brian tells me, reclining on the floor. "It's brutal."
Six days later his buddies cave in and buy Brian out of the bet for $7,000.
"I didn't think he'd do it, to tell you the truth," Joey admits, shortly after paying Brian off with a thick stack of hundreds. "I wouldn't do it. You wouldn't do it, right? I couldn't imagine myself or anybody else with half a brain staying in a bathroom for a month. I thought it was a good bet. I was wrong."
Anyone who knows Brian Zembic well understands the guy will do just about anything to put money in his pocket--as long as it doesn't require punching a clock. Ironically, Brian's a top Las Vegas blackjack player, one of the world's best at "shuffle tracking," a complex method of following cards through the mixing process. He could be earning thousands of dollars a day plying his trade. But he doesn't do it regularly because that would feel too much like working, a concept that Brian despises. Working, he believes, means somebody owns him, owns his time, his freedom. When he needs to earn some money, which happens occasionally, he gambles. Backgammon mostly, a little poker, ping-pony when he can find a sucker--anything where his skill gives him the edge. Anything where his superior talent or knowledge makes him a favorite to win. This includes taking insane proposition bets. Like walking around for a year with a nice pair of womanly breasts.
When I meet him at his bathroom prison cell that summer afternoon, he's had them for close to a year. He's wearing a baggy sweatshirt, so his bustiness isn't obvious. But you can tell there's something lurking under all that cotton. I ask Brian if the past 10 months have been humiliating. He laughs. "No. Not at all. It's been great. I've probably never had more fun in my life."
Fun? Playing with big beautiful breasts every day of the year I can see. But possessing them?
"Let me put it this way," Brian says, smiling conspiratorially, as his housekeeper shuffles past the doorway. "I've never gotten so much pussy in my life. I mean, I've never done bad. But since I got these," he says, giving his bosom an absentminded poke, "it's been like one woman after another."
For Brian Zembic, 37, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, life has not always been so busty. He's always been an attention-getter, a fast-talking high-energy maniac who usually reduces everyone around him to a chuckling mess. Even though he's notorious for never picking up a check--Brian's possibly the cheapest bastard on the planet--his buddies love taking him out to dinner and nightclubs, because he's a total chick magnet. Friends call him "the Wiz," short for Wizard. Brian's like a sorcerer. He does magic tricks and tells jokes and makes women you would be too scared to talk to giggle like teenagers at an Antonio Sabato Jr. underwear signing.
Brian the Wiz does not look like what you might imagine a hard-core gambler to look like. No gold chains. No pinkie rings. No dark sunglasses. He's got a boyish face and an easy grin. (And large breasts.) In terms of physique and looks and presence, you would probably call Brian average. Average height and weight. Average build. Nondescript. Indeed, a little more than a year ago, Brian was, like any other guy, flat-chested--and perfectly happy that way.
But one night a couple of years ago, Brian was playing backgammon at the Ace Point Club in New York City. It's a quasi-legal dingy little place in midtown Manhattan that looks like someone's living room, except that it's filled with backgammon tables and a cast of shady characters you probably wouldn't want hanging around if it were your living room. This is Brian's world. On this particular night he's playing for $300 a point with his high-rolling pals, a gang of action junkies escaped from the pages of a Damon Runyon story: magicians, card cheats, sports bettors. Guys who are prone to bet on which raindrop will get to the bottom of a window pane first. The conversations in this crowd tend toward the deeply philosophical.
"What would you play Russian Roulette for?"
"I dunno. A million, maybe."
"Yeah? How much for two bullets in the gun?"
Tonight, a cold desperate winter night in 1996, Brian is engaged in a passionate debate with his cohort JoBo, one of the biggest backgammon players on the planet. Like the stakes he plays for, JoBo is a large man, a stout man, a man with thick forearms and a powerful chest. He tends to express his opinions with a stolid certainty that does not invite contradiction. JoBo's saying it's crazy how women get implants, how, in hopes of attracting men, they actually jam a bag of saltwater in their chest.
Brian suggests that getting implants probably isn't so bad. "Look at Maggie," he says, referring to a mutual friend with a substantial breast job. "She seems pretty happy with her boobs."
"You think so?" JoBo asks. "How'd you like it if you had to walk around with those things all day?"
Brian leans back in his chair and laughs. JoBo is not a man who likes to be laughed at. He's the kind of guy who frequently challenges those who contradict him to put their money where their mouth is.
"Tell you what, pal," JoBo says. "I'll give you a hundred thousand if you get tits."
Now, a hundred grand to JoBo isn't going to change his life one way or another. He plays backgammon matches against Saudi sheiks for stakes nearly that big. So Brian knows JoBo isn't fooling. JoBo really would pay $100,000 just to see one of his friends sporting a set of perky breasts.
And $100,000 to Brian Zembic--$100,000 for not working-- is a serious matter.
"How large would they have to be?" Brian asks.
"As big as Maggie's, of course."
They discuss the wager's fine points: Brian's responsible for the surgery costs; JoBo will put the $100,000 prize in escrow; Brian collects the money only if he keeps his breasts for a year.
"Okay," Brian says. "You're locked into it."
Sure, whatever. JoBo knows Brian is the kind of goofball who likes to talk a good game. It's part of his life-of-the-party shtick.
"And you know I'm fucked up enough to do it," Brian warns.
"No you're not," JoBo says. "Nobody's that fucked up."
For the next three months, JoBo and Brian play a lot of backgammon together. Every time they see a woman with attractive shapely breasts, they joke about their crazy bet.
After one long night of rolling the cubes, Brian confides in JoBo that he's going to put a lot of money in the stock market. Seems his pal Fat Steve, another Vegas wiseguy, has a can't-miss tip. "And if it does miss," Brian tells JoBo, "I figure I've got your hundred-thousand-dollar insurance policy."
During the summer of '96, Brian, on Steve's advice, buys stock in some company that makes heart-scanning equipment. Coincidentally, JoBo already owns a bunch of shares, and also assures him it's the stock of the century. So Brian plunges a huge chunk of his savings, a total of $125,000, into the deal. Meanwhile, JoBo's unloading his shares as quickly as his broker can find some sucker to buy them. In one week the stock goes from 6 1/2 to 5.
Brian finds out he's been duped by his buddy. He unleashes a vitriolic monologue at JoBo, alternately calling him a scumbag-cocksucking-ass-licking-motherfucker and hanging up on him. This is how Brian typically deals with anger: call, scream, swear, hang up. His friends know this. The bitterness passes and Brian goes back to being the Wiz.
This time, though, the ranting doesn't bring Brian any satisfaction. He's still steamed. So, a week after his stock debacle, pissed off and stuck, he threatens to get breasts.
"No," JoBo says, "you waited too long. Bet's off."
Brian disagrees. So the two gamblers do what most gamblers do when confronted with an intractable difference of opinion: They convene an arbitration panel of fellow gamblers--in this case, three allegedly impartial jurists who happen to be JoBo's high-rolling friends. These are fellows whose combined weight would probably eclipse that of the Packers' offensive line, guys who have mastered the art of consuming 6,000 calories a day while doing nothing but playing cards and backgammon and the occasional video game. They look like a trio of Buddhas.
In a big booth at a Chinese restaurant off the Vegas Strip, Brian and JoBo make their case before the panel, which has dubbed itself the Titty Tribunal. After five minutes of solemn deliberation, over plates of moo shu pork, Mongolian beef, and most everything else on the menu, the tribunal issues its ruling: The bet's on.
Brian's little joke is no longer a joke. He's got a deal. But now he's got to figure out how to hold up his end of it--if he truly wants to hold up his end. Any doubts he might harbor pass quickly, thanks to a profound analytical technique Brian often resorts to when confronted with tough decisions. "I don't think about things too much," he explains. "Once I make up my mind, it's over."
Brian knows a plastic surgeon, a scalpel-wielding casino junkie he and his cohorts sometimes gamble with. "Would you give me breast implants?" Brian asks the doctor. "In a heartbeat," Doc says. "I work on transsexuals all the time."
Thinking maybe his gambling doctor buddy isn't necessarily the most responsible member of the medical community--the guy spends at least half his waking hours playing backgammon--Brian seeks a second and third opinion. Every surgeon says yes. "Not one of them had a single ethical or legal or moral qualm," Brian recalls. "They were all, like, 'Sure, I'll give you tits!'"
Doc's fee is $4,000 to put them in, $500 to take them out. Now, Brian, being about the stingiest miser to ever roll a pair of dice, balks at the price. Oh, he has the money. He just doesn't want to spend 4.5% of his expected profit.
So Brian makes the surgeon a proposition. They'll play a little backgammon. A $5,000 match. Brian has the operation paid for in two hours.
Now Brian the Wiz realizes the surgery is really going to occur. That he's only hours away from going under the knife. That he's going to have tits. At this point, most men would be queasy at the thought of getting their nipples sliced open. But Doc assures him the operation isn't really out of the ordinary. Putting implants in a man, he says, is virtually no different than in a woman. Brian has nothing to worry about. A little nip, a little tuck--sew it up and out the door. Simple.
Sure, except for the two big mounds he's going to be carrying around for a year. After all, if our balls, our testosterone-filled testicles, are the nexus of our manhood, then breasts--protruding insistent mammaries--are surely one of the hallmarks of womanhood. But Brian is calm. Eerily calm.
You or I would be wondering and worrying, allowing visions of embarrassment and unwanted femininity and, God forbid, impotence, to dance in our muddled heads. What's going to happen when my poker buddies see me built like a centerfold? How am I going to explain this to the first woman I coax into bed? What the fuck is wrong with me?
That's why we're not the Wiz.
On a gray Manhattan winter afternoon, Brian Zembic has clear plastic pouches inserted through his nipples (over the pectoral muscles) and filled with 14 ounces of saline. After a routine two-hour procedure, he is the proud owner of two 38C breasts.
"I was in a serious motorcycle accident a few years ago," Brian says. "I went through fifteen different operations to put my body back together. Compared to having your jaw reconstructed and your skull held together by pins, getting a boob job is nothing."
He recalls feeling vaguely heavy--top-heavy--when he wakes. "Everything went smoothly," Brian says. "I just couldn't get out of bed for two weeks." He remembers being interminably groggy, with a chronically sore back. And a lingering fear of touching his new breasts.
"I was afraid of popping them," he says. "I thought if I touched them they might fall out."
Instead, Brian looks. He ogles his breasts, just as some guys might slather over a stripper. Most of the time that he's in bed, he keeps his tits hidden under a sweatshirt. But whenever he gets the urge, he takes a peek. And he's got to admit, they look pretty damn good. Finally, about two weeks after his surgery, after everything has "settled," Brian has his first squeeze.
His new breasts feel hard, as though the doctor implanted two regulation softballs. (Eventually they soften.) Every time he touches his breasts Brian wants to laugh-- "I've got tits!" he's thinking--so he has to stop touching them. Laughing hurts his scars too much.
Men joke that if they had tits of their own, they could quit chasing women. Brian Zembic proves otherwise. "I was hoping it would be a turn-on to squeeze my tits," Brian admits. "But I never had much feeling in that area before the operation and I didn't have any afterward. I was a little disappointed."
Shortly after his initial grope, as soon as he's mobile, Brian calls his buddy JoBo. "For Christ sake, take 'em out! I was bluffing," JoBo says. "I didn't think you'd actually do it." JoBo offers to settle the bet for $50,000. Brian tells him the breasts are staying right where they are--he intends to collect his $100,000.
JoBo is sick. He thinks he might vomit. What sort of twisted lunatic would actually go through with this? "You cheap, ugly, little cocksucker!" he screams. "You've got to be kidding me!"
Brian isn't kidding.
"Then I'm going to get my money's worth," JoBo vows. "Get your ass over to the club, you little prick. It's time for a show."
For his "debut," Brian briefly considers wearing the baggiest trench coat he can find. "But then I think, I should be proud of my tits," Brian says. "Not many guys would have the balls to walk around with a pair of hooters."
No, indeed they would not. You can grow a ponytail or wear an earring or, if you're really a "rebel," smear on some eye shadow. But how "different" does that make you from every other guy in the world seeking an anchor of individuality in a sea of matching ties and nicely creased Dockers? Brian has breasts, 38C breasts. That's different.
It's nearly midnight, but the Ace Point is still full of gamblers. When Brian appears at the backgammon club, dressed as he always dresses, in a T-shirt and bomber jacket, a small crowd forms at JoBo's beckoning. "You could tell some people were almost scared to look, like at a murder scene," Brian recalls. When he lifts his shirt to reveal two round protuberant mounds peeking over his hairy belly, JoBo laughs so hard he almost pukes. "You keep these for a year, and it'll be worth every penny."
Mikey Large, a regular at the high-stakes backgammon games, keeps begging Brian for another peek. He likes the breasts. A lot. Brian calls him a pervert, a sick twisted lowlife. And flashes him anyway. At this point, his breasts are a new toy, like a flashy watch or a graphite-shafted oversize driver: Hey, boys, look what I got!
"It was like seeing a beautiful long-haired girl from behind," JoBo recalls. "You're falling in love, and then she turns around and you see it's some rocker dude with a moustache. Most men find that disturbing. I found Brian's tits disturbing. But funny, too."
Proving to your buddies you have titanium testes is fine. Winning a $100,000 bet is fantastic. But no sex for a year? That's a torturous proposition. Initially Brian thinks that when he's around women he'll have to try to hide his breasts, that his year will be filled with ingenious subterfuges and concealments. He learns quickly that, dressed in baggy clothes and a jacket, almost no one can tell he's stacked. Within a few weeks, after sharing his secret with several female friends, it becomes clear to Brian that most women do not regard him as a nauseating freak. They like his breasts.
"I was getting 'chi-chi' three weeks after the surgery," Brian claims.
He says that having breasts forges a bond between him and womankind. "Women feel closer to me now. My female friends, we walk around topless together. We compare our cleavage and talk about bras, like I'm one of the girls."
His first post-operation lover is a jeweler from New York City. Brian meets her at a party, where he tells her about his unique accessories, demurely hidden under a loose-fitting jacket. She smiles and says matter-of-factly, "That arouses me. I want to see them." A half-hour later they're in her apartment.
"She attacked me!" Brian says, still in awe at the memory. "She wouldn't stop sucking on them."
This, according to Brian, is standard procedure. "A few of the girls I've met have been extremely turned on by them," he reports. "They want to suck on them and play with them. All the stuff guys like to do."
I ask Brian if he's grown to like his breasts. "I'm really a tit man. I'm totally fixated on breasts. Unfortunately," Brian Zembic says, jostling his boobs, "these don't turn me on. I wish they did, but they just don't. I guess I want all the other tits out there, not mine."
Most men, as JoBo asserts, find Brian's breasts rather unattractive, if not downright weird. "I guess it's because they tend to have chest hair growing on them, even though I shave them once in a while," Brian says. "But the women! I'm telling you, I don't know if it's like a latent lesbian thing or what. Seriously, the chicks are nuts for them."
Incredulous, I track down a couple of the women Brian claims to have slept with. One of them, Jeannie, a leggy stripper who works at one of the topless joints off Las Vegas Boulevard, says she's bisexual, and that Brian and his breasts fulfill all her fantasies at once.
"It's just awesome to get fucked and have nice tits to suck on," Jeannie explains. I tell her I understand completely.
Sharon, a smashing redhead who might pass for Geena Davis--if only Geena Davis worked as a blackjack dealer at a major Vegas casino--is a woman Brian had pursued for months, to no avail. "I thought he was funny. Kind of silly and harmless," she says. "Well, one day he left me a little love note with a naked picture of him, with his boobs. I could hardly stop laughing. If you know him, you realize only Brian would do that."
Sharon initially resisted Brian's attributes. "At first I told him, 'Too bad, I'm not looking for a guy with tits.' But then I got curious."
Brian, for his part, has no regrets about taking up JoBo's bet. He hasn't sworn off gambling; he hasn't stopped carousing; he's not treated like a leprous outcast. "Everything is just like before. Only I can't jog." Fact is, most strangers can't tell that Brian Zembic has breasts. I meet him one afternoon at a casino coffee shop, where hundreds of tourists congregate for cheap steak and a sympathetic ear. Nobody notices Brian's bosom. Thanks to his unflattering ensemble--untucked sweatshirt, windbreaker--even I can't tell the Wiz is lugging around a set of bodacious ta-tas. It's only when he wants the world to know that his secret becomes a public spectacle.
What about his family? Can he keep his rack from them? Sure, but he doesn't have to. His family, back in Canada, thinks his saline-pouch adventure is a big hoot. "It hasn't fazed them a bit," Brian says. "My brothers laugh their asses off." Brian hasn't talked to his mom in several years, but he has told his dad about the breasts, and his dad says, hell yeah, if someone gave him $100,000, he would do it too.
Of everyone who knows him, Brian insists, not one person disapproves of his decision. Some have been more shocked than others, but no one has condemned him for taking a silly joke too far. One day Brian walks into the cardroom at a Strip casino, where he encounters Herbie, an old friend who hasn't seen him in a few years. They've talked on the phone, and Brian has told his friend about getting the breasts. But Herbie thought the Wiz was joking. Like he always jokes. When Herbie sees Brian in the cardroom, he claps Brian on the back and says, "Hey, man, what's up?" Brian shrugs, pulls up his shirt, and says, "These."
Herbie freaks out a little. But only because he's surprised. He says, after calming down, that he actually likes Brian's breasts, though he wouldn't mind them slightly bigger.
"Guy's a pervert," Brian says.
Life with breasts is sweet. In fact, Brian Zembic insists he's already a richer man for his troubles--besides the money. "This has been very educational for me," Brian says. "I feel I understand women a lot better. Having breasts gives you insight. You see what life is like for women. Taking hours to dress, worrying about how your breasts look. And you start to see what pigs we men are, the way we talk about breasts, like they're jewelry or a hat or something." The Wiz doesn't use words like objectification, but he knows now how it feels to have a part of your body talked about as though it weren't a part of you.
Brian and I are at Joey's apartment in Vegas, down the street from the Desert Inn. The Wiz is showing me some sleight-of-hand magic tricks. He's astoundingly good at them. But my mind keeps wandering.
In the interest of investigative journalism--and because I'm going insane with curiosity--I ask Brian if I can feel his breasts. "Oh, man!" he says, grimacing. "Do you have to?" I tell him I do.
He sighs heavily. Most guys don't ask for a squeeze, because they're afraid the Wiz will think they're a fag or a pervert. He giggles nervously, like a teenaged girl letting her high-school boyfriend get his first grope. These are his tits, for God's sake!
Brian lifts his T-shirt and peels up his sports bra. There they are: breasts, round and womanly and appealing. I reach over and give the breast closest to me a perfunctory squeeze. It feels pretty good, almost natural. I'm thinking I might even enjoy a breast such as this, if only it didn't have razor stubble all over it. "Not bad," I say, relieved to have discharged my reportorial duties without any messy psychosexual complications.
Brian seems pleased. Maybe even proud. He knows these implants aren't really an organic part of him. They're a synthetic miracle concocted by a plastics company, and temporarily joined to him because of a $100,000 bet. He knows one day soon they'll be gone, disposed of in a medical waste bin. Still, Brian, you can tell, is far from ashamed of his breasts; he's got pride in them as though they were pretty eyes or graceful hands or sculpted abs. They are the crowning feature that makes him unique, that completes the legend of the Wiz. One day I'm talking with him on the phone, and I jokingly refer to his breasts as "those ugly-ass tits." He hangs up on me.
This is when I start to suspect that Brian Zembic, Mr. Do Anything For a Bet, isn't counting the minutes until he can lose his breasts and find another wager to conquer. He's had them nearly a year, but I haven't heard any impending plans for surgical reversal. So when I see him next a few weeks later back in Vegas, at the Mirage, where he's ensconced in a poker game, I ask him, "Are you going to get your tits removed when time's up?"
He smiles bashfully. "I thought I would. I mean, I know I will eventually," Brian says, adjusting his bra. "But to tell you the truth, I'm in no hurry to lose them." He exchanges grins with a long-legged cocktail waitress passing by. "No hurry at all."
A month later, late in 1997, Brian is in Monte Carlo, playing in a monster backgammon match. JoBo's there, too. So is Joey. They're all sharing a hotel suite, chasing down "chi-chi" and running up a $10,000 room-service bill.
Over the phone I ask the boys if they've come up with another can't-miss wager to enliven their time on the continent. Riding a unicycle in the nude, perhaps. "No," JoBo snarls. "I've learned my lesson. I won't make any more stupid bets with that cheap, ugly motherfucker."
And thus the one-year deadline comes and goes. The Wiz wins.
Brian gets his money, deposited into a Swiss bank account. The chi-chi flows freely. And still the ersatz breasts remain firmly implanted in his hairy chest.
They're still there, 18 months after he had his $100,000 operation.
Brian is chronically lazy. He admits it. But sloth doesn't explain why he doesn't have--why to this day he hasn't had--his breasts removed. Why he doesn't return to his former life as a decidedly flat-chested cleavage-less man.
"I don't know. It's kind of fun to have them," Brian mumbles over the international phone line.
He won't admit it: He loves his breasts. He loves that he's the only guy currently walking the Earth who has the nerve to do what he has done. He loves that he's the Wiz. And nobody will ever forget him.
"Who knows, maybe I'll keep them for another three months," he equivocates. "Maybe I'll keep them for six months, a year. I don't know. I don't want to do the operation over here. I'll probably wait until I get home. You know, I'm thinking of using the money to buy a house--no more stock market. I might buy a place in Vegas, or maybe Montreal. Maybe I'll buy something here in Europe. I don't know."
I reckon Brian Zembic might never have his breasts removed. Maybe he thinks he's starting a trend. Maybe he thinks history will remember him as an innovator, the guy who brought new and unimagined meaning to the phrase "tit man." I try to get the Wiz to give me a straight answer, to tell me when exactly he's going to face the scalpel and lose the breasts.
But he says he can't stay on the phone any longer. He's got to run. Seems there's this hot 19-year-old he met on the beach who's crazy for his tits, and he's got to meet her for dinner, where, if all goes as planned, she'll give him a hand job in the restaurant.
"And she better do it!" Brian the Wiz says. "I bet JoBo a thousand she would."
Posted July 8, 2001