Los Pelayos Beat The Wheel

Gonzalo Pelayo is a man on a mission to beat the house in the game of roulette in all the casinos of the world. But will his mission take him down?

Copyright © 2014 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

Welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT the "Fool's Gold" episode. Today, we're looking for traps. Today, we're wondering what could possibly go wrong. Today we've got a plan for getting over. And it would be stupid, shortsighted and absurd, really, not to bet it all, right? Right? SNAP JUDGMENT's Nancy Lopez has a story.

GONZALO PELAYO: (Translated by Martin Aguilera) The game has a lot to do with life. It's practically a metaphor for life.

NANCY LOPEZ, BYLINE: The game is roulette and it was Gonzalo Pelayo's favorite game at the casino near his home in Madrid, Spain. In roulette, you bet on numbers that are arranged randomly on a wheel. The dealer spins the wheel, tosses a ball, and whatever the number the ball lands on is the winner. People generally think of it as a game of sheer luck. But the more Gonzalo played, the more...

PELAYO: I started to realize that the wheel had a physical defect. And so I found that some numbers were coming up more frequently than others.

LOPEZ: So he started keeping track of which numbers came up the most and it was true. Each individual roulette wheel wasn't perfectly aligned, it tilted in one direction or the other. When the dealer spun the wheel and tossed the ball, that ball was likely to land on certain numbers more often than others.

PELAYO: And, of course, I got very excited about the possibilities realizing that any little physical defect in the wheel could tip things in my favor.

LOPEZ: Suddenly, this game of cosmic luck became totally winnable. So the husband and father of five dropped everything to make a living off of this game. He'd already figured out what set of numbers each roulette wheel in the casino consistently lean to. All he had to do now was play those numbers long enough and like that, he would win. But Gonzalo knew he couldn't do it alone. He needed troops on the ground, people could spend a chunk of their day at a roulette wheel playing.

PELAYO: My first thought was the closer the bond with the people I was going to work with, the better the trust.

LOPEZ: So Gonzalo reached out to family. The first person he approached was his college-aged son, Ivan (ph) who thought his dad's proposal was a little crazy.

PELAYO: No matter how much love a son may have for his father, you might be a little suspicious when your father tells you, I have something no one else in the world has discovered.

LOPEZ: But Ivan agreed to at least do a test run.

PELAYO: He said, hey, dad, if this works, the sensible thing to do is to play with small amounts of money, not risk too much and see if your strategy actually delivers results.

LOPEZ: Console agreed to start off small with $2000. And slowly over the course of just a few days, father and son were beating the game of roulette. They started doubling their bets. Now Ivan was fully on board. He recruited three of his cousins. Gonzalo brought on his wife, Carmen, his daughter, Vanessa, joined a few weeks later and then so did his ex-wife. Each and every member of the group dedicated themselves to this endeavor full-time, going to the casino six days a week, 8 hours a day.

PELAYO: Our system was the more we played, the better. That's why we never let a day go by without playing. Everybody played at different tables, never together in order to take full advantage of the time we had at the wheel. My wife, Carmen, was the one who assisted us who would go around checking up on each player and see if they had enough chips. She would report back to me and let me know how everyone was doing.

LOPEZ: In a matter of weeks just like Gonzalo predicted, they doubled their money again so they went bigger.

PELAYO: We started betting up to $150 a number.

LOPEZ: On a good day, they'd take home $5,000.

PELAYO: There was the sense of say, rebelliousness, like the weak against the strong. Like David against Goliath.

LOPEZ: Gonzalo Pelayo and his family, or the Pelayos, became familiar faces at the casino. And Gonzalo, always a step ahead, developed a code to keep the group under the radar. The last thing he wanted was to draw attention. He broke it down to his family like this...

PELAYO: Don't talk about a system to anybody. We're just regular players who do this for fun. Leave the casino as soon as your shift is up. Don't linger. Don't have dinner or any type of relationship inside the casino. And, of course, only play the roulette you're assigned and only the number you've been given. In other words, be efficient. This is a job.

LOPEZ: They won so consistently that when they didn't win, they got really nervous.

PELAYO: Sometimes they would express the concerns - look we're having a bad streak. I would examine that wheel closely and then give him a piece of mind that a good player knows how to patient and wait. And soon enough, their winning streak will come. For months nobody noticed that we were a winning group. Not even the casino.

LOPEZ: In less than a year, the Pelayos had amassed about $500,000 in winnings, but then they got a little too comfortable. Gonzalo's nephew, Heime, strayed from protocol. He'd been flirting with the female dealer, a young good looking girl who happened to be the ex-girlfriend of the casino's director. The director got jealous and kept a close eye on Heime and the girl. That's when he noticed something odd. Heime was winning an awful lot at a game where the odds are typically against the player.

PELAYO: They started looking at all members of the family and realized that the whole group was beating the house in a very clear and definite way. When they realized this, they put up all kinds of obstacles.

LOPEZ: One day, Gonzalo and his family showed up that to find that the roulette tables had been switched. This actually wasn't a problem. Gonzalo knew what each roulette wheel looked like so they went and found the tables in their new spot. They kept playing and they kept winning. Finally, the casino director said that's it, you're done, and went as far as to deny Gonzalo and his family access to the casino.

PELAYO: It was so frustrating to go weeks without playing. I mean, we had something that was a real treasure and they would not let us have access to that treasure. We couldn't play, so we couldn't win.

LOPEZ: Then one day when the Pelayos were finally allowed back to the casino, Gonzalo immediately saw that the axis of each roulette wheel had been changed, essentially throwing Gonzalo's strategy out the window. A couple of weeks later Gonzalo decided to fight back in the only way he could think of.

PELAYO: I took it upon myself to get kicked out of the casino. So I was playing and winning and one of the directors approached me and said to me, please leave the casino. I said, no. I saw no reason to.

LOPEZ: Gonzalo figured that if he could get the authorities on his side for being wrongly kicked out, he'd get the casino finally off his back.

PELAYO: Two big guys approached me. They each grabbed me by an arm and started walking me towards the door. A big crowd formed, people stopped what they were doing. It was not a pleasant experience. I told them if you stop and let me go, I'll go back to the table and play. You have to force me out the door because I'm not going to walk out on my own. And that's what happened. They dragged me to the door and pushed me out.

LOPEZ: Gonzalo's plan didn't work. In fact, he'd sealed his fate with that move and now it would be impossible to continue playing at the casino in Madrid. But the Pelayos couldn't fold now.

PELAYO: You have to live life and this was our profession now. This was how we were making a living, and a good one. The world is very big so we started to travel to other casinos in Amsterdam and Paris.

LOPEZ: The Pelayos beat the house everywhere else they went in Europe, Germany, Holland, Belgium. They'd stay in each country up to three, four months at a time playing until they couldn't play anymore. And all this time, Gonzalo believed that the troubles he faced with the casino in Spain were well behind him.

PELAYO: The first day in Austria goes bad. The next day we win way more than what we lost the day before. And by the third day, they wouldn't let us into the casino. We learned later that the casino in Madrid had alerted the people in Austria about us. When they saw us, they already knew who we were. In other words, we had a very clear reputation, unfortunately.

LOPEZ: For the Pelayos, it was now a race to make it to the next casino before their reputation did. But as the months went on, it felt like the whole European continent was closing in around them. In Paris they were also denied entry. When they arrived to the casino in Copenhagen...

PELAYO: The security guard pointed to the gun he had inside his coat and told us to leave.

LOPEZ: At the casino in Holland...

PELAYO: As soon as we got there, my wife heard somebody say in German, los Pelayos are here. I mean, this did fill me with a little pride, but it was unfortunate that we didn't have the peace of mind to be able to play and win. They started to manipulate the wheel, so logically, our outlook was starting to be pretty dark.

LOPEZ: By this point, a couple of years had gone by. Different members of the group started to break away, Gonzalos daughter, then one of his nephews, then the other. They'd had a good run, but were ready to go back home to Madrid and resume their lives, but not Gonzalo. He had just set his sights on something much bigger.

PELAYO: So the idea to go to Las Vegas was kind of like the ultimate prize, like a dream come true. For any player to win in Las Vegas is to know that you mastered the highest level.

LOPEZ: Gonzalo packed his bags and accompanied by what was left of the group - his wife and his son Ivan - boarded a plane to try his luck in the biggest casino in the world, the MGM. The MGM was right in the middle of the strip. There were 6,000 hotel rooms, the casino alone was 150,000 square feet. There were spas and pools and shows. But Gonzalo headed straight for the casino.

PELAYO: The world of Las Vegas with such a thrill that I played practically every day.

LOPEZ: The casino was busy all night long 24/7 so no one caught on to their game. And more importantly, no one in the states had ever heard of the Pelayos. They were free to play and play and win and win. Gonzalo had been playing practically every day for three months.

PELAYO: Because I was such a regular, the casino invited me to a Mike Tyson fight. When it was over, I wanted to keep playing. It was like any other night, I was winning some, then losing some, then winning again. This is not like a movie where you arrive and win right away, there's always a balance.

LOPEZ: But there was one major difference that night. The number Gonzalo didn't want, the number with the least odds of coming up, number 19, was right between the two numbers he did want.

PELAYO: At around 6 in the morning, the number 19 comes up. I challenge it. It's going to be very difficult for you to come up a second time.

LOPEZ: He knew the probability of 19 coming up again was miniscule.

PELAYO: On top of that, I had two numbers against one, so logically of every three balls that get tossed, I could only lose once.

LOPEZ: The dealer tossed the ball.

PELAYO: And then, the ball lands on number 19 a second time.

LOPEZ: Gonzalo quickly ran a calculation through his head again assuring himself that there's absolutely no way number 19 could come up three times in a row.

PELAYO: So I challenged it again and said, no, you're not going to come up a third time. You don't have the audacity to come up again. I have no doubt that I'm going to win this bet.

LOPEZ: The dealer tossed the ball.

PELAYO: It comes up a third time and then I felt the sensation of utter defeat and I fell flat to the ground.

LOPEZ: Gonzalo collapsed at the foot of the roulette table. He could vaguely see people's faces gathering around him. And in that split second before he lost consciousness, one thought ran through his mind.

PELAYO: The truth is, I was overcome with a sense of total failure.

LOPEZ: Gonzalo was so knocked out by the time he got to the hospital that the doctors thought he'd suffered a heart attack. It was a panic attack. The way Gonzalo sees it, the intense life he'd been leading those three years on top of the confrontations with casinos from Spain to Austria to Denmark exploded then and there in Vegas.

PELAYO: Two days later I felt inspired to play again. I felt good. I felt recovered. It was incredible because as soon as I approached the casino, the same bodily sensations I felt when I passed out came on again. Right then I realized I couldn't step foot in the casino. I couldn't even go in.

LOPEZ: As much as Gonzalo wanted to play, he'd lost his confidence.

PELAYO: It's kind of what happens to the bullfighter after he's been gored, he's afraid to face the ball again. We immediately decided to return to Spain. There was no point in playing anymore. You learn by losing, that's something that I've taken from this game.

WASHINGTON: Of course, Gonzalo Pelayo didn't entirely fold, he's just keeping his bets where you can't see them. That piece was produced by Nancy Lopez, sound design by Renzo Gorrio and translated by Martin Aguilera. Now when SNAP JUDGMENT returns, we're going to ruin a song for you forever. That's when SNAP JUDGMENT the "Fool's Gold" episode continues. You stay tuned.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.