Fame isn’t what it used to be. A word that once invoked brilliance, achievement and heroism now, too often, means none of that. Instead we live in the age of instant celebrity: reality TV, Paris Hilton, balloon boy and the runaway bride. Andy Warhol probably never realized how on the mark he would be.
But in this era of celebrating deplorable behavior and taking the phenomenon of “famous for being famous” to levels Zsa Zsa Gabor could heretofore only dream of, it’s refreshing when someone comes along who is doing good for the sake of doing good. And when he bases his operations in Las Vegas casinos, where altruism generally ranks low on the list of character traits, all the better.
Robin Hood 702 is a self-proclaimed professional gambler who is making a name for himself without giving his name. His mission: turning his skills at the blackjack table into financial salvation for those in need.
“I didn’t want to be famous,” he says, seated in a booth at the Café Bellagio on a September morning. “I wanted to do famous things.”
To help hide his identity, RH702 wears a baseball cap, sunglasses and a beard. He says blackjack has made him a millionaire, and that on some nights his winnings are in the six figures.
His strategy at the card table is simple: clean living.
“I think if you live a good life and you have good karma, you will have protectors up there watching over you,” he says. “I believe in stuff like that. A lot of people think it’s nonsense, but I don’t.”
It’s a strategy that makes him something of an enigma. All professional gamblers understand that you win some and you lose some. Blackjack is a particularly cruel game because the margins are very slim. The best player in the world playing a perfect game can still lose a lot of money on any night.
Yet RH702 says he wins a lot of money. He won’t even talk about his losses; preferring not to say the “L word.” And the people he’s helped verify that he’s kept his promises. Maybe he’s the luckiest player in the world.
Judging from his looks, RH702 is in his 40s. Judging from his accent, he’s from the East Coast. He says he doesn’t drink, and that he’s been gambling since he was 16. He realized by his late teens that gambling could make him rich and got hooked on hanging around casinos and racetracks.
His protector, and the inspiration behind the persona, was his mother. He took care of her before she died about 10 years ago and wears her wedding band—his most prized possession—on his pinkie. To this day he gets teary when talking about the impact she had on his life—one of four times he becomes emotional during an hourlong conversation. She taught him the importance of helping others and giving back, and he honors her memory by reaching out to those who are less fortunate.
His website—RobinHood702.com—is where that outreach begins. People leave video pleas for financial help, and RH702 sorts through them to decide whom he’ll assist. The site gets thousands of submissions, most of them from people who have lost their jobs or been ruined by medical bills. The stories are heartbreaking, everything from cancer to Alzheimer’s to children’s deaths. There are those looking for a handout, but many more who have simply lost hope. RH702 views them all.
“I look for something that is going to touch me,” he says. “My whole life, at least early on, I’ve been pretty much an underdog, so I know what it’s like to have people not believe in you. So I like to help the underdogs in life, the people who are never given a chance to rise above.”
His crusade has grabbed a bit of media attention in the past two years, gaining notice on Fox News and on the local Fox affiliate, KVVU Channel 5; in the New York Daily News and the U.K.-based newspapers the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, and on a variety of websites. He was quoted this year in a Vanity Fair story about Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs, relating his experience gambling in a high-roller room with Woods and Michael Jordan. There are at least two Facebook pages dedicated to RH702, neither of which he created.
He says he didn’t know there would be so many people out there needing, wanting.
“I really didn’t realize that this was going to happen, this being inundated with all these people,” he says. “What do you do? What do you say to them? I just thought I was going to help some people, and I didn’t know it was going to grow as much as it has globally.”
Photo by Tomas MuscionicoMaid Marian: Robin Hood 702’s companion, who goes by the name Lady Greice, was impressed enough with his intentions to leave her native Brazil and join his crusade.
RH702’s first idea for an anonymous benefactor was, naturally enough, Santa Claus 702. But with his tall, athletic build and close-cut hair, he didn’t really look like a jolly old elf, so he scrapped that.
He hit on the Robin Hood theme while on vacation in Brazil in 2008, when he also discovered his Maid Marian. After returning to the U.S., he was looking through the numerous photos he had snapped while in Rio and kept returning to pictures of a beautiful samba dancer. Two months later he made another trip to Brazil and found her.
That dancer, who also prefers to remain anonymous, goes by the name of Lady Greice. She was impressed enough with RH702’s extravagant lifestyle, and his good intentions, to become part of his team. “I saw him every day really helping out kids in the street,” she says.
She is now his constant companion, serving as both his adviser and his Ed McMahon; she’s the one who goes to doors and delivers the news to people RH702 has selected to help.
“I feel like I am one of the people who he is helping,” she says. “I came from a very small town, and in the same way that I have been helped by him—he brought me here to this big country—I want to do the same thing to help other people have a better life.”
Jeffrey and Marilou Martinez have lived in Las Vegas for 12 years. High school sweethearts growing up in Guam, they have been together since 1987. Jeffrey, 37, works as a dispatcher for Ryan’s Express Transportation Services, and was diagnosed with colon and liver cancer in June 2007. The cancer, now Stage 4, has spread to his adrenal glands and lungs, and the couple, along with their 17-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, lost their house because of Jeffrey’s extended absences from work and his growing medical costs.
Photo by Anthony MairThe gift of hope: Jeffrey Martinez says Robin Hood 702 has contributed $30,000 to his fight against cancer, allowing the Martinez family to remain in their Las Vegas home.
In June, Fox 5 reporter Jon Castagnino did a story on the family’s plight. Castagnino had heard of RH702 and submitted the family’s story to the gambler, who selected it as his next mission.
On July 19, while Castagnino was interviewing the Martinezes, RH702, along with Lady Greice, arrived at the family’s crowded two-bedroom apartment and dropped a bag of casino chips on the table, declaring that he would pay their rent for a year, help them lease a car for two years and try to help them get their house back.
“When I first met him and he told me what he was going to do for me,” Jeffrey Martinez says, “just the fact that I met him was enough—just his presence and how he talked to me. He looked me in the eye and told me what he was going to do, and I felt it. … And now, everything he said that he was going to do or try has basically come true.”
To date, RH702 has given the family nearly $30,000 in cash and gifts, Martinez says, money that has come from blackjack winnings and donations from others.
“Just knowing him now makes us happy,” he says. “You can feel that he’s really genuine. He’s not about showing off; it’s about helping people. He’s taught me a lot. I had hope about beating the cancer. Now I have real hope. A lot of things he’s done have helped us realize that with support and hope there’s a brighter future.”
Not everyone is convinced that gambling for charity is an effective way to help those in need. Anthony Curtis, a gambling expert and Las Vegas resident, doesn’t believe it’s possible to win consistently enough to promise to help anyone.
Curtis has written extensively on blackjack, can talk gambling math for hours and has been a source for betting stories in the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the London Times and other publications. He has appeared on ABC’s 20/20 and Dateline NBC.
Curtis has heard of RH702. And he doesn’t believe the story line. He knows how hard it is to make big money playing blackjack. He heard from RH702 about three months ago, he says, but in requesting an interview with the gambler never received a response. It’s hard to read a person who won’t face scrutiny, he says.
“Maybe this is for real, I honestly don’t know,” Curtis says. “This guy might be the nuts; he might be absolutely spectacular. It’s pretty easy for a blackjack player to evaluate another blackjack player’s capabilities, and I don’t see why, if he knows his stuff, that he wouldn’t talk with someone like me. … And maybe that’s why he didn’t.”
Curtis consulted his gaming sources, and thinks he has a read on RH702: a clever guy who gambles a lot and probably did make some big bucks on a really good run, but not a world-class blackjack player. RH702 relies instead on gambling-related perks to help him carry out his mission, Curtis says.
“He understands a little bit about the game, but he’s not an expert-level player. He’s very good at negotiating deals, like return on losses and comps and things like that. Now does that translate into him being able to win money and give to the poor? Not really, because a lot of things that he will get will be in the form of things he can use, like complimentaries and savings on rooms and things like that.”
There is a professional gambler out there who has given millions in winnings to charity. That guy’s name is Barry Greenstein—ironically nicknamed the “Robin Hood of Poker”—and his abilities are legendary, Curtis says. The same cannot be said for RH702.
“There are lots and lots of highs and lows in blackjack,” he says. “You can be the greatest player in the world, and the casinos are not an ATM. You’re playing on a very small advantage, often under 1 percent. You can go a long time playing a very, very good game and lose money. … Nobody wins all the time, and I don’t care who you’re talking about. Cheaters don’t win all the time. It just doesn’t work that way.”
So what’s the angle? Curtis thinks RH702 is setting himself up for reality TV fame. Maybe that’s an astute conclusion, because the mystery man admits to having conversations with TV producers about a show based on his exploits.
For his part, RH702 says that no matter how many people he helps, there will remain people who believe he has a hidden agenda.
“I don’t need to answer to anybody, just myself, God and my mom,” he says. “I know what I do and if people are skeptical—if you had a person who fed the world, there’d be somebody complaining about the service, and that’s just how people are.”
Whether RH702 ultimately proves to be a hero or a huckster, there’s no denying he has a big dose of P.T. Barnum in him. He relishes his high-roller lifestyle, which has allowed him to mingle with a lot of beautiful people and see life from a penthouse view.
He believes a RH702 reality show would be well-received and is worthy of one of the major networks, especially given some of the competition out there.
“Reality TV, most of it is crap,” he says. “I challenge the producers in reality TV to do shows of meaning, that are inspiring people and helping people, and that’s why I’ve gotten the interest that I have from so many credible companies and people to do this is because they recognize that. I think reality TV needs to give back and to help people, not just exploit people and exploit situations.”
While the payoff is rewarding, the mission takes a toll. It is obvious as his voice quivers and eyes water when recounting his family, the hungry children in Brazil or the impact the submissions to his site have on him.
“When I see these videos and I hear these stories, I don’t know what it is but I actually feel these people’s pain,” he says. “I’m very emotional, and I put myself in their situation and predicament, and I get literally transfixed in their situation where I’m reliving what they’re going through, and it’s tough.”
He targets strangers because it’s not as wounding when someone you don’t know is unappreciative for the lifeline they’ve been thrown.
“People have disappointed me a lot in life, so when you help a stranger you don’t have any expectations,” he says. “You just help them and you go.”
But he knows that’s not really true, not when there are more e-mails waiting to read, more videos to filter through and more pleas from people he’s never met.
“I want to be able to feel and see the people who are in trouble,” he says. “I’ve got no choice now. I’ve got to continue on and try to help one family at a time. That’s all I can do.”