Controversy Between Counters and Casinos
by Delores Perry
Is the time coming when a blackjack player will be forbidden
to playin a Nevada casino unless he promises not to count the
cards? It looks like that time is already here.
Item: J.R. was Playing blackjack at the Frontier Hotel-Casino when he was approached by two uniformed security guards who ordered him to leave the game immediately. Upon overhearing this, a player at the table asked the pitboss, "Why did they bust that guy?" The pitboss replied, "For cheating." "But how was he cheating?" the perplexed player wanted to know. "He was playing just like I was." The boss answered him sharply, "That guy's slick. He's been thrown out of every casino in town."
The guards grabbed J.R. and informed him that he was being 86'd from the premises. They escorted him to the cashier, forced him to cash out, and then propelled him through the casino and out the front door. J.R. was read the trespass statute and told that if he ever returned, he would be arrested for criminal trespass and thrown into jail. J.R.'s photo is believed to be in the Griffin mug book, where he is identified as a card counter. In a relatively short time of play at the Frontier, he lost six hundred dollars. J.R. is a middle-aged, semi-retired businessman with no criminal record.
Item: H.T. has been thrown out of most of the hotels in Las Vegas because he is a card counter. On one occasion his winnings were held in a casino cage for three days. The Gaming Control Board had to order the casino to pay H.T. his money. Another time H.T. was at the Sands Hotel, when he was told to leave the blackjack game by Griffin agents and Sands security.
He was forcibly taken to the back room, searched, questioned, and photographed. The city police were called. Two officers came, questioned H.T., and said there were no grounds for arrest. But this didn't satisfy one of the Griffin agents, who was fuming at the thought of H.T.'s being released. He insisted upon making a citizen's arrest. H.T. was handcuffed and taken to jail, where he was charged with disorderly conduct. The bail cost him two hundred and fifty dollars. When H.T. appeared for his trial six months later, he was informed that all charges had been dropped. In almost all of these types of arrests, charges are dropped, or the D.A."s office, knowing the nature of the arrest, refuses to prosecute.
Item: B.L., a known card counter, was dragged into a back room and held against his will for two and a half hours. He was searched, slapped continually, questioned, threatened, and photographed. He was then ordered to vacate the hotel (he was not only a registered guest, but, in fact, a "comped" guest of the hotel), pay off his markers, and never return. Following the incident, B.L. was refused service in several nearby hotels, his credit line was dropped, and he was followed, harassed, and treated as persona non grata, apparently as a result of knowledge of the incident at the first hotel, the MGM Grand.
Item:. A.K. was approached at a blackjack table and told, "We don't want your action." "Why?" he inquired, "What have I done wrong?" He was told that it's not a matter of right or wrong, but that the house can choose to whom they want to deal. He was further informed that a casino is a private establishment and that he was trespassing as of that moment and would be arrested if he didn't leave immediately. At that point two uniformed guards converged to carry out the boss' order. One informed A.K. that the police had been called and were on the way. Minutes later, three uniformed policemen entered and asked the guards if this was the guy they wanted arrested. A.K. attempted to explain to the officers what was happening, but they would not listen. He asked for the policemen's names and one replied, "You'll get it on the booking statement." The police then asked the security guards if they wanted A.K. arrested. "Yes, if he doesn't leave immediately," one of the guards replied. Seeing that he had no chance to defend himself, A.K. left. Once outside, he waited for the officers to appear. Again he attempted to discuss this incident with them. But they refused to listen and instead told him that if he had a complaint, he should send it to the Gaming Commission.
Three days later A.K. went into another casino under the same ownership (Del Webb Corporation). Before the dealer could deal the cards, the boss rushed over to stop the play. "That's all. You can't play," he told A. K. When A. K. asked why not, he was told, "Because you're a card counter." A.K. asked that the security guards be called because he wanted an adequate explanation. Two guards appeared, and instead of receiving an explanation, he was physically lifted from the chair andforced out of the casino. He was read the Nevada Trespass Statute and told he would be arrested if he ever returned to the premises.
This is just a sampling of the treatment that blackjack players have encountered in some Nevada casinos. All of the examples are true and were taken from the American Civil Liberties Union files and court records.
The latest of the more than fifty complaints that have been registered with the ACLU by harassed blackjack players was filed by Mark Estes, a twenty-nine year-old University of Nevada, Las Vegas graduate student in business administration. On November 12, 1976, Estes was arrested for trespassing at the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel (these charges were later dropped) and threatened that he would "wind up in the desert with a hole in his head" if he ever returned to the hotel.
With the backing of the ACLU, Estes filed a class-action suit against the Hilton Hotel, the Las Vegas Police Department, the Nevada Gaming Commission, and the Gaming Control Board, claiming that there is absolutely nothing illegal in the practice of card counting. The complaint stated that "any competent blackjack player will card-count in order to increase, if possible, his or her chance of winning.
The complaint also stated, referring to the Las Vegas Hilton, that "said casino may not immunize itself against potential winners, allowing. only those persons to play who are most certain to lose." The court was asked to declare that such exclusion, ejectment, and/or arrest solely on the grounds of card counting violates the Fourteenth Amendment-the right to equal enjoyment and protection of the laws, due process of the law, and the right to full and equal enjoyment of a public accommodation.
Stephen Pevar, regional counsel for the ACLU, defended Estes in his suit by arguing that when a hotel opens its doors to the public, the Fourteenth Amendment sets in to assure equal access to those who would use it. "The hotels advertise their facilities in other cities, inviting the public to Nevada to engage in gambling. Should not those who accept the invitation have the right to win as well as to lose?" he asked the court.
Apparently District Judge Joseph Pavlikowski thinksotherwise, because on September 22, 1977 he ruled against Estes on the grounds that there is no federal constitutional right to play cards. What's more, there is nothing in the Nevada Constitution which guarantees blackjack players a right to count cards.
This battle between players who count cards and the casino industry, which objects on the basis that counters take a game of chance and turn it into a game of skill, has been waging for years. Hotel owners maintain that by virtue of the two-hundred-year-old Nevada Trespass Act, a law which was originally designed to keep poachers off Nevada cattle ranches, and Article 463.151 of the Nevada Revised Statutes, a law meant primarily to keep Mafioso from frequenting Nevada casinos, they have a legal right to exclude certain individuals whom they designate as "inimical" to the gambling business-and most often today, that's the counter.
The counters argue that there's nothing illegal in being able to use their brains to remember the cards played, or in making their biggest bets at the most advantageous times, and that therefore they should be allowed to play in any of the casinos.
The fervor to eliminate, the counter from the gambling scene gained momentum in 1961 when a college professor by the name of Dr. Edward 0. Thorp refined a basic strategy for playing blackjack, which he published in a book entitled Beat The Dealer. Through the years, many other card counting/money management systems have appeared, all purporting to teach zealous blackjack players to improve their chances of winning. But while the players were diligently learning the counting strategies, casino management was also busy devising strategies of its own to beat the counters.
One of the first methods bosses came up with to hinder the counting customer was to keep an extra dealer at each table to reshuffle the cards after every hand dealt. This ploy lasted only a very brief time, for management was bombarded with protests from irate players. In 1964 the casinos tried issuing a new rule to blackjack players-they could double down only on an eleven. This tactic also went out almost as fast as it came in.
Then the casinos came out with a device they thought would discourage counters once and for all: the shoe. This is a box-like piece of equipment designed to hold multiple decks of cards. But before long, strategies were devised for counting both two and four decks. In addition, players developed a team approach to beating the four-deck shoe. Often when one of these shoes becomes favorable, it remains so for a relatively long period of time. In team play, each member plays low stakes at different tables in a casino. The shoes are counted down and when one becomes favorable, the designated "big bettor" of the group is signaled to come to the table. He then gets into the game at the right time at a high betting level.
Meanwhile, some of the more erratic pitbosses have from time to time concocted their own methods of dealing with the counter. Sometimes the boss will order the dealer to change the denomination of chips the counter is playing with in an attempt to hold up the game long enough to disrupt his concentration. Or he'll stand in the middle of the pit giving the counter his evil eye, hoping to unnerve him so that he will pick up his chips and cash in. Once in a while, a boss will whisper to a dealer to "break the deck down" on a table where a counter is playing.
The Dunes Hotel, in its latest move to counteract the counter, has replaced almost all of their single and double-deck games with a five-deck shoe. The Aladdin Hotel has six-deck shoes. Caesars Palace has gone to a six-deck shoe with the stop card one and a half decks from the end. The Money Tree, a small casino one-half block from the Strip, deals out of a seven-deck shoe to eliminate problems with the counters.
In the most determined effort of all to protect themselves against the counting phenomenon, the Las Vegas Hilton Hotel-Casino has publicly stated their policy regarding counters. On each of its blackjack tables, printed visibly on a sign which designates the minimum table stakes, is a notice which reads:
THE CASINO RESERVES THE RIGHT
TO EXCLUDE ANYONE BELIEVED
TO BE EMPLOYING ANY FORM OF
SIGNALING OR CARD COUNTING.
At this point, the hotels don't really have much to fear because counting is not a simple, get-rich-quick scheme that just anyone can master. It takes endless hours of practice, good concentration and mathematical ability, and strict self-discipline to master a counting system.
In fact, if anything, the hotels right now are reaping a benefit from the counting craze, Because of the interest in counting, more people are playing blackjack than ever before. Men who used to rip and roar at the crap table now sit quietly at the blackjack table, mentally calculating the cards dealt. The hopeless compulsives play with renewed vigor, having been given an excuse for gambling. Even women, who used to be primarily relegated to slot machine action, have become avid would-be counters.
As one Dunes casino executive who was instrumental in barring Ken Uston from the premises put it, "Well, actually, everybody that plays 21 or blackjack considers himself a half-assed counter. " And it's the "half-assed" counters, like Mark Estes, who wound up a four hundred dollar loser after a year's play at the Las Vegas Hilton, who are helping keep Nevada green.
But for those who are capable of mastering a counting strategy, the stakes can be quite high. Uston, who now gives lessons in counting, claims that the probability of his team of players winning thirty thousand dollars in ten days or less is two out of three. He estimates that his group has won over a million dollars from Las Vegas casinos in just a year's time.
What happens when a counter the caliber of Uston sits down to play blackjack is that the five or six percent that has always been the house's in a blackjack game is switched to a percentage in the player's favor.
For example, Lawrence Revere claimed his Advanced Point Count, in a single deck game with a flat bet, which means you bet the same amount at all times, will give the player a 3.2 percent advantage. However, Julian Braun and Professors Thorp, Griffin, and Schneider refuted his statistics in a presentation at the Second Annual Conference on Gambling at Lake Tahoe in June, 1975, where they claimed that the correct percentage was not 3.2 but .8. Nevertheless, the percentage is still in favor of the player over the house.
The Reppert Running Strategy Count, played under the same conditions, is supposed to produce a 1.93 percent advantage in favor of the player. The Stanley Roberts School of Winning Blackjack claims its strategy gives the players an even better advantage than that.
But how many players are there around now that have mastered a strategy and are able to beat the casino out of a hundred and fifty thousand a year? No one seems to be able to agree on this point. One casino boss Who's been in the business for over fifty-seven years estimates that there are fewer than fifty experts in the entire United States. Another Strip executive claims that at least two out of one hundred players count well enough to be thrown out of his casino. John Luckman, former Tropicana Hotel pitboss and now owner of Gambler's Book Club in Las Vegas, reports that "there are probably two hundred really good counters out on that Strip at all times."
But it's not so much how many counters there are now who can beat the blackjack game that hascasino executives in a dither. Rather, it's the knowledge that it is possible for a good counter to beat the game. Statistics released by the Gaming Control Boardshow that for the first three months of 1977, casinos in Clark County (Las Vegas) won close to 248 million dollars, up twenty percent from last year for the same period. But how long would that profit last if the casinos opened their doors to welcome in counters? There may only be one Uston today ... but what about tomorrow, next month, next year? After all, if he can do it, so can others. Nervous casino owners envision a future where syndicates of counters with big-money bankrolls converge on Las Vegas en masse.
And they're not the only ones worried. If the gambling industry in Nevada is hurt, so are a lot of little people, since 61.5 percent of the labor force in Nevada depends on gambling for its livelihood. What's more, the salaries of every judge, member of both the Gaming Commission and the Gambling Control Board, policeman and every other public official comes in large part from taxes levied on gambling profits.
Is it any wonder then that nobody wants to rock the boat? It's healthier for those who could do something about the counting situation to turn the other way. Sheriff Ralph Lamb, in an interrogatory taken on March 14, 1977, in reference to the Estes case, denied he was even aware that card counters were kicked out of the Las Vegas Hilton. "No," he said, "I have never known of the practice and do not now believe it." This is an odd statement in light of the fact that it is his officers who are called by the hotels to arrest the counters. Besides that, way back in 1970, Jimmy Newman, Hilton Casino manager, admitted in an affidavit (Peters v. Kerkorian et al.) that his people "bar four or five counters a week."
Even the Gaming Control Board and the Gaming Commission, who regulate everything from the licensing of the casinos to the inspection of the casino premises, don't want to get involved in the counting controversy. They're under no duty to supervise this "alleged" activity against card counters, they say.
The ACLU's Stephen Pevar has said that they will appeal the Estes case, but he holds little hope of winning. That old adage, "You can't fight city hall," means, in Nevada, you can't fight the casinos. They hold too much power.
Yet something's got to be done to end this melee between the counters and the casinos. Certainly the hotels have their point. So do the counters. But there's a third party that stands to get innocently involved in this fracas-the millions of non-professional blackjack players who stream through Nevada each year, completely oblivious to what's going on.
As it stands now, everyone who plays blackjack is at the mercy of some pitboss who wouldn't recognize a counter from the man in the moon. There just aren't that many qualified people working in the pit who have a knowledge of the different counting strategies. In addition, in order to be certain that a player is indeed counting, the boss must count down the deck from the beginning, along with the player. This is impossible in a busy casino, where each boss must watch three or four games simultaneously. What can happen, and does happen, is that a boss will glance at a table, see a player winning who is not betting in any orthodox manner, and immediately assume the player is counting. And you know what happens next. Left to the wiles of some impudent pitboss, anyone playing blackjack today can wind up being humiliated, embarrassed, and even harassed.
Although it's doubtful it will be resolved in a court of law
in Nevada, this battle between the card counters and the casinos
must be dealt with somehow. And soon. Before a lot of other
people wind up like Mark Estes... a loser in more ways than
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