He says he makes anywhere from $10 to $100,000 a year, tax free. He carries no credit cards and no checkbook. Always pays cash.
You might have spotted him in Vegas, Miami or London - or last weekend in Atlantic City's Resorts International Casino - sitting at the baccarat table expertly shuffling his column of chips, wearing French jeans, plaid shirt and hand-tooled boots. Behind those baby-blue eyes and born-innocent good looks, he's as calculating as a Texas Instruments pocket model. Johnny (not his real name) just turned 30.
Occupation: highline hustler, and this is how he describes his calling:
"The biggest dream of any compulsive gambler to go broke," he says between bites of egg Benedict. "That's what he wants. I'm doing them a service, fulfilling a need." He glides into a bittersweet smile.
Johnnie is waiting and watching ("You have to be patient"), crusing the casino for the high rollers. He'll play any man any game that he can name for any amount that he can count. "That's what they say down South," he laughs. "People call me a dirty little hustler," he shrugs. "And I am.
"I just came down from a game in New York, stayed up four days and four nights, so I slept through last night. If you snooze, you lose." Tonight he will stay up until 6 a.m., snagging a few stragglers when the casino closes. "I brought $5,000 with me and I'm down to $2,000. If I don't find a game tonight I'll be real unhappy." He lights a cigarette with a Dunhill. "There are no suckers like East Coast suckers."
The son of a close-knit family, he grew up in the east and started making money pitching pennies at the age of 8. "By the time I was 14," he says, "I was dealing poker and making more money than my teachers. They called me Billy the Kid."
He quit school in his sophomore year and made the cross-country poker circuit his home. From New York to California, Vegas to Birmingham ("A lot of high rollers in Alabama") and wound up in Alaska with the pipeline poker players. "There was nothing to do but drink and gamble." Johnnie doesn't drink.
He lived in Las Vegas for four years, worked in a casino and suffered a mental breakdown. "I became suicidal. I just couldn't take Vegas anymore. There's nothing to do but gamble."
Now he lives in a luxurious Manhattan apartment which he rents under an assumed name. He plays tennis, enjoys expensive restaurants, collects art and snots the finest cocaine. He says he read a lot and his favorite author is Herman Hesse.
"I live well. I always have money. I've been broke and I've been fat as a cat. Winning or losing, it's my work now. People think it's so glamorous, but it's not. It's boring." He lights another cigarette. "Sometimes it can be cutthroat." He remembers the night he won $10,000 from a man of the Mafia persuasion. The sore loser threatened him with a one-way ticket to slab city, so he gave the money back. There are other hazards. "I've got a drawer full of bad checks at home, probably close to $50,000," he says casually. "And none of them from other gamblers - all from legitimate businessmen.
Like any professional, he likes to talk shop. His favorite gamblers, he says, are Greeks ("They like to get drunk and smash plates"), Jews ("They're excellent gamblers, but they cry when they lose") and Italians. His least favorite players are lawyers ("They're all big bluffers. They think they're good actors"), and women ("They're too emotional").
He doesn't think much of Atlantic City, so far. "People who come to Atlantic City will go broke. People who stay, will stay broke."
As for Johnnie, he just lost $2,000 at the Baccarat table in 15 minutes.
He swaggers through the crowded casino, and says his life is lonely. "I don't have any friends," he says coolly. "I have confederates." He would like to settle down, but he could never buy a house and probably will never marry.
In fact, the life of a working stiff is what he dreams about.
"I'm very envious of people who work in offices, people with steady lives. How could I ever do that? I have a 20-year gap in my life. It's like I was locked up for murder. I'm an outsider. But given the choice I'd rather be a nine-to-fiver. They have it a lot better than they think."