A Place in the Sun
by MICHAEL T. JARVIS

 

Cathy "Cat" Hulbert is the lone dame featured in the book "Gambling Wizards," by Richard W. Munchkin. The ace card counter will also tell you she's an entry in the notorious Griffin Book, a directory of players non grata fingered by casinos around the world. A professional gambler since 1976, Hulbert logged 50 trespassing arrests in Atlantic City while part of a card-counting team of blackjack players. Other Hulbert gambits include a failed attempt to outwit casino officials by wearing a wig and a false beard, and hiring septuagenarians to pull slot machines for huge progressive jackpots. (Ironically, her biggest-ever payoff is $47,000 on a Kentucky Derby bet.) The Torrance resident switched to poker in 1990 and these days also teaches poker to women at the Hollywood Park Casino (http://www.poker4girls.com/ ). We put our cards on the table.

How did you know you were born to gamble?

There's a group of people who know this. They drop out of college and gravitate to Las Vegas. They find their niche among one another. When I was a little kid, all I wanted to do was play cards. That's how I got through college, playing cards. Any free moment, I wanted to play cards. I always knew.

How did you go pro?

After college I was working for the New York state Senate. I switched job assignments with my college roommate: She edited the New York City fiscal report and I wrote her paper on breast cancer. She did such a good job that I got elevated to a position I had no training for-in the press office. I hit the Peter Principle in two days; I reached my level of incompetence. I was a joke. I quit the job and took $1,600 dollars I had saved. It took me 15 days to get to Las Vegas. I got a job as a blackjack dealer and just got very lucky to run into a lot of really good players.

Card counting: Cheating or just using your brain?

The casinos believe that a card counter is a cheater, but that's erroneous. As long as you're not using a computer, you're using your head. Computers strapped to their legs, that's cheating. That's a felony now in Nevada to use technological equipment on your body. I've only been charged with trespassing. They can throw you out for any reason, like in "Rain Man." It's private property.

Is there a classic card-counter personality?

They're highly intelligent and humorous, self-centered. They're quick thinkers who are driven to succeed and prove themselves. They're interested in psychology. They have difficulty fitting in, hence they're often antisocial. They could succeed in a lot of venues, but they're not the types to be under anyone's disciplined hand. There's a book called "Play Poker, Quit Work and Sleep Till Noon." This is what a poker player wants. I don't think they'd do well in the military.

Do you hang around card people? Who is your tribe?

Yes. I spent Thanksgiving in Las Vegas with them. The tribe is people from 25 years ago that started out on the same blackjack team and stayed friends. Nobody else would be interested, but we can talk about hand after hand after hand.

When should a player leave the table?

These decisions should be made before you go into the casino. I recommend a stop-loss. That means, when I reach a certain loss, I will pick my chips up and quit for the day. At the table, you want people to be afraid of you. When you've got a dollar bill left in front of you, nobody's afraid.

How do you tell someone who gambles for a living from a gambling addict?

It's a thin line. To be a really good card player you have to have obsessiveness coated with passion. A gambling addict is playing because he's self-destructive, versus a professional gambler who is there to support himself. The destructive gambler will be betting the horses and betting somebody else on sports. He has no focus. He's a loser. He has "leaks." Leaks are, you could be a top professional poker player, but you have a sports-betting habit. Or you use drugs, or have an alcohol problem. Anything that funnels away your energies.

What's unique about the gambling world aside from the games?

I have a fascination for people with bizarre brains. People can play 12 different games of blindfolded chess or can multiply 13 numbers with 13 numbers. But they also have commonplace things that they can't do-drive a stick shift or tell the inside or outside of a shirt. It's the case a lot in the blackjack world, and the Scrabble world and the chess world. The poker minds are not as freaky as blackjack counters.

What's the strangest bet you've made?

It was something sexual. Who could get "lucky" the fastest. I had to give odds. I won. Most gamblers, because they're these odd-brain people, [are] not that physically attractive. They're social misfits. One person is always fantasizing about building a vacuum under the Atlantic Ocean as a new means of travel. That's why we stay in our own world.

 

Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times