The capitalist society of the United States glamorizes having money, and lots of it. The media covers the beautiful homes, jewelry, and entire islands owned by celebrities and millionaires around the world, and these stories get airtime because everyone dreams of living that life, too. The glitz and glamor of Las Vegas and other casino cities draw millions of people each year to see the splendor and — more importantly — gamble. The riches are sexy and exciting, so it’s no surprise many dream of hitting it big. Becoming a millionaire by just putting some money on the table, having lady luck smile down, and playing the odds against the casino’s advantage is glamorized even by Hollywood movies like “21.” Besides, who doesn’t want to have the celebrity lifestyle Kate Bosworth and Kevin Spacey embody?
Gambling isn’t just luck, though. A big part is being smart and knowing the odds so you don’t lose your shirt… but how far can a person go? Count cards? Work with friends? Use wireless earpieces to communicate about which tables are “hot”? How much can a player tip the odds in his or her favor before the casino can complain or even remove that player from the premises?
What is illegal?
States have legally defined what it means to cheat at gambling. Generally, a player may not change the game by altering the odds in his favor unless the method is strictly intellectual. If a person goes one step beyond intellectual pursuits, though, he will be cheating, which is considered a crime under the law.
Nevada defines “cheating” as altering the elements of chance in a game so that the results are changed, which is considered a felony offense. New Jersey’s Casino Control Act does not allow a person to knowingly use tricks or methods of fraud. Things like card crimping, palming, marking, collusion, and use of electronic aids can all be considered cheating because the actions change the deck or pool of known information in favor of one party.
What is not illegal is “advantage gambling,” which is using a method, usually mathematical, to acquire an advantage over the casino. For example, a gambler can gain better odds in blackjack by card counting, which requires calculating if the cards that have been played indicate the player is now favored or if the house remains favored. As a general rule, it is not illegal to use your brain alone. The market knows this, too, prompting places like “The Blackjack Institute” where people can pay someone else to teach them the tricks.
Advantage gambling may be a thorn in the casinos’ sides, but it doesn’t rise to the level of fraud. Experts estimate, though, that advantage players can skim up to three percent of a casino’s winnings. This is a problem because casinos are money-making businesses, and having the odds in their favor is important to the bottom line.
A casino’s right to exclude from private property
Since card counting and other intellectual tricks are not illegal, a casino does not have legal recourse against players who employ those methods, so a card counter cannot be arrested or sued. Casinos can provide many distractions to help guard against such activities, though, including cocktail waitresses, pit bosses, other guests, and security. This still is not the last line of defense for the casino. Depending on the state, the casino may have the right to exclude a player from the premises.
Ken Uston, a blackjack player and strategist, became famous after he won millions of dollars from casinos. Not surprisingly, he was subsequently banned by casinos worldwide, and he then sued those casinos for barring him solely for counting cards. Uston appealed his exclusion from the Resorts International Hotel casino to the New Jersey Casino Control Commission (CCC), which determined the casino had a common law right to exclude anyone it chose for any reason. The New Jersey courts ruled that casinos do not have the right to exclude whoever they choose unless there is a security concern or the person is disrupting the business’ regular operations. Moreover, only the CCC can make other rules to exclude specific players. While the casino is private property, the casino opened itself to the public, so it could not exclude people unreasonably. Furthermore, the state’s prominent involvement in gambling regulation makes it a good gatekeeper. The court made it clear that a CCC rule banning card counters would not be approved; however, states are allowed to implement some rules to eliminate much of card counters’ advantage. In response, several state gambling commissions, including Nevada, implemented new policies to tip the balance back in favor of casinos, including continuous shuffling, use of multiple decks in a game, and both minimum and maximum wagers at tables.
Nevada, on the other hand, only prohibits exclusion from a casino based on “race, color, religion, national origin, or physical or visual handicap.” This strict definition strengthens casinos’ right to exclude players for card counting if they wish because of private property privilege. The Las Vegas Hilton evicted Mark Estes in 1976 for card counting and then arrested him for trespassing. He sued the state, the police department, and the Gaming Commission, but the trial court found that a casino has a common law right to exclude card counters for any reason they choose, and the Nevada Supreme Court dismissed the appeal. Nevada statutes reflect this right to exclude from property, other states generally follow this model, and state gaming commissions even institute exclusion lists in some cases.
State governments’ willingness to support casinos is not surprising because casinos tend to pay heavy taxes to the state, a valuable revenue stream that gives gaming commissions little incentive to create rules against casinos’ interests. Moreover, general knowledge among patrons and the public of casino interest in making money precludes suits claiming that casino advantage is dishonest.
Casinos can take it too far
Casinos may be able to exclude people from their property in some states, but that doesn’t mean they can do so by any means they wish. In recent years, many gamblers who have been detained, roughed up, charged with false offenses, and deprived of their winnings have successfully sued casinos.
In a 2004 case, a jury awarded $400,000 to an advantage gambler named James Grosjean against Imperial Casino. Grosjean had been handcuffed and detained by casino personnel for allegedly counting cards. When he returned to the casino a few weeks later (a visit during which he was not even gambling), Grosjean was handcuffed, interrogated, and physically assaulted by casino security personnel. In fact, Las Vegas lawyers claim that casinos have been using intimidation and excessive force more frequently, which has led to other settlements and reversals of convictions for charges cooked up by casino personnel. A clear message is being sent by the courts that the right to exclude does not allow abuse, which is a violation of an individual’s rights.
Making money through gambling tricks like counting cards is tougher than movies would have you believe. Not only is the technique difficult, but gamblers also have to ensure they don’t draw unwanted casino personnel attention to themselves. The risk is high, but the reward may not be large: a professional gambler who works a typical 8-hour day, 50 weeks per year and manages to avoid a casino’s protective measures stands to only earn between $70,000 and $230,000 each year.
A gambler cannot be held legally accountable for using his smarts unless he uses them in a way that fundamentally alters the game, thus cheating. So go ahead and count the cards. Just don’t be surprised if the casinos notice and ban you from their property-they’re running multi-million dollar businesses and have invested in extensive measures to keep the odds tipped in their favor. If you learn to gamble like Kate and Kevin, though, you have rights the casinos cannot trample while you live the dream in the casino’s sexy glitz and glamor.