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Best of I. Nelson Rose

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How To Deal With Card-Counters

29 March 2002

The Supreme Court of New Jersey has ruled that casinos cannot bar card-counters. But courts in Nevada permit casinos to kick out players for any reason, or for no reason at all.

A casino in Australia imposed special rules on one player only, restricting his bets to A$25 (US$13) a hand, no more, no less. But a court in New Zealand prohibited a casino from putting in continuous shuffling machines or taking any other counter-measures against a card-counter.

What's a casino (or patron or government regulator) to do?

[In the spirit of full-disclosure, I have been an expert witness or consultant in some of these cases, including on behalf of the successful player in the on-going case in Auckland.]

A casino is the only business which makes money by beating its own customers at games of chance. The operators of lotteries and parimutuel betting do not care who wins or loses. With casinos, however, the house cares very much who wins. The casino participates as a player covering the bets of the other players in every hand.

The casino ensures its profit in two ways. Under the rules of every game, the casino has a built-in advantage over every player. Blackjack is a percentage game because the player goes first: The house wins, even if both the player and the casino dealer bust.

The casino's second guarantee of profit comes from its size; relative to its player-opponents, the casino has a bank of money of infinite size. Every casino banking game has a maximum bet limit, in part to prevent players from doubling up when they lose, but also to ensure that the casino can never be hurt by losing a single bet, or even a long series of bets. A player will eventually have to hit a losing streak that will wipe out his entire stake, in a process known as "gambler's ruin." The house can outlast any losing streak.

It is easy to understand why casinos want to make the game of blackjack difficult for card-counters, or to ban card-counters completely. When the rules are liberal enough, and the player is skillful enough, the casino will actually have a small statistical disadvantage for short periods of time.

A large cottage industry has developed over the past three decades with the principal goal of beating the casinos' percentage advantage in the game of blackjack. No other casino game has received this much attention. A host of scholarly and popular books, professional conferences, newsletters, magazines and mechanical devices have been made available to players who want to try to get the percentage in their favor.

Casinos spend an enormous amount of time and money attempting to foil card-counters. Some of these counter-measures are not only aimed at card-counters, but also are part of the industry's continuous attempt to speed up the velocity of money. Among the many tactics casinos have used:

  1. Identifying known counters through photo books and face recognition computer technology.
  2. Linking computers with imbedded scanners in blackjack tables. The most sophisticated of these programs can even recognize which system a player is using.
  3. Dealing out only a few hands before shuffling. Dealers sometimes shuffle whenever players greatly increase the size of their wagers.
  4. Changing the rules, often in the middle of a game. These include lowering the stakes, and limiting the right to double-down, split or play more than one hand at a time. Sometimes the restrictions are imposed on the entire table and sometimes only on the card-counter.
  5. Harassing skilled players. Card-counters have been subjected to such crude tactics as having drinks spilled on them. One was even arrested in Atlantic City on trumped-up charges, leading to a civil suit and a large jury verdict against the casino.
  6. Creating social pressure against the card-counter. Casinos are social settings. Slowing up a game to measure where the cut card is can turn the other players at the table against the card-counter.

Casino executives are often so emotionally tied up with their battles against card-counters that their actions are self-destructive. Slowing up a game to shuffle may hurt the skilled player, but it prevents the other players at the table from playing.

Government's role in the on-going war between casinos and card-counters usually falls into one of two categories:

In jurisdictions like Nevada, casinos are free to take any counter-measures they wish. State law prohibits discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin or disability. But Nevada casinos may exclude players for counting cards, or even just for winning.

Nevada regulators have gone so far as to informally allow casino dealers to count cards and shuffle whenever the remainder of a shoe favors the players. Preferential shuffling has not been challenged, but a court might declare this to be cheating. The house is manipulating the odds as if it were removing tens and aces from the shoe.

On the other end of the spectrum are jurisdictions which, by statute and regulation, make all decisions on how casino games are played. In New Jersey, at one stage, casinos did not even have discretion as to the color of the felt covering the gaming tables. The state Supreme Court held, in Uston v. Resorts International Hotel Inc., 445 A.2d 370 (1982), that government control of blackjack was so complete that casinos in Atlantic City did not have the authority to decide whether skilled players could be barred.

Legal gaming is one of the most highly regulated industries in the world. Casino management often complains, usually outside the hearing of regulators, that government has no right to interfere in business decisions.

Gambling, legal or illegal, falls under a state's "police power," which is the government's right to protect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens. Legally, government does have the right to micro-manage casinos, just as it has the right to outlaw gambling altogether.

Lawmakers often feel they have to protect players from themselves. But regulation can go too far. In England in 1970 players could only double-down if their first two cards totaled ten or eleven. This rule was designed to protect players from doubling down on whims; although computer simulations later showed that there are many times when it is to the player's advantage to double down on other two-card combinations, such as an ace-six when the dealer has a six face up.

Lawmakers also have to protect casinos, not only from crooks but from bankruptcy. It is highly doubtful that any well-run operation has been driven under by card-counters. But increasing competition has allowed casinos to lobby for changes in the rules. In Atlantic City, the New Jersey Casino Control Commission still will not let casinos bar card-counters. But the Commission now allows casinos to impose a low maximum wager on one player at a table by merely posting a sign and "announcing the change to patrons who are at the table." The courts upheld this and other counter-measures stating, "The Commission adopted these measures to hobble card-counters because of their perceived threat to the mathematical advantage the casino industry must enjoy to remain vital."

Note the use of the words "perceived threat." If a casino cannot beat card-counters at the felt tables or in court, it can sometimes prevail through lobbying.

Recent Articles
Best of I. Nelson Rose
I. Nelson Rose

Professor I. Nelson Rose is an internationally known scholar, public speaker and writer and is recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on gambling law. A 1979 graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a tenured full Professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, California, where he teaches one of the first law school classes on gaming law.

Professor Rose is the author of more than 300 books, articles, book chapters columns. He is best known for his internationally syndicated column, "Gambling and the Law ®," and his landmark 1986 book by the same name. His most recent book is a collection of columns and analysis, co-authored with Bob Loeb, on Blackjack and the Law.

A consultant to governments and industry, Professor Rose has testified as an expert witness in administrative, civil and criminal cases in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, and has acted as a consultant to major law firms, international corporations, licensed casinos, players, Indian tribes, and local, state and national governments, including Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Texas and the federal governments of Canada and the United States.

With the rising interest in gambling throughout the world, Professor Rose has spoken before such diverse groups as the F.B.I., National Conference of State Legislatures, Congress of State Lotteries of Europe, United States Conference of Mayors, and the National Academy of Sciences. He has presented scholarly papers on gambling in Nevada, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, England, Australia, Antigua, Portugal, Italy, Argentina and the Czech Republic.

He is the author of Internet Gaming Law (1st & 2nd editions), Blackjack and the Law and Gaming Law: Cases and Materials.

I. Nelson Rose Websites:

www.gamblingandthelaw.com

Books by I. Nelson Rose:

Compulsive Gambling and the Law

> More Books By I. Nelson Rose

I. Nelson Rose
Professor I. Nelson Rose is an internationally known scholar, public speaker and writer and is recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on gambling law. A 1979 graduate of Harvard Law School, he is a tenured full Professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, California, where he teaches one of the first law school classes on gaming law.

Professor Rose is the author of more than 300 books, articles, book chapters columns. He is best known for his internationally syndicated column, "Gambling and the Law ®," and his landmark 1986 book by the same name. His most recent book is a collection of columns and analysis, co-authored with Bob Loeb, on Blackjack and the Law.

A consultant to governments and industry, Professor Rose has testified as an expert witness in administrative, civil and criminal cases in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, and has acted as a consultant to major law firms, international corporations, licensed casinos, players, Indian tribes, and local, state and national governments, including Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Texas and the federal governments of Canada and the United States.

With the rising interest in gambling throughout the world, Professor Rose has spoken before such diverse groups as the F.B.I., National Conference of State Legislatures, Congress of State Lotteries of Europe, United States Conference of Mayors, and the National Academy of Sciences. He has presented scholarly papers on gambling in Nevada, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, England, Australia, Antigua, Portugal, Italy, Argentina and the Czech Republic.

He is the author of Internet Gaming Law (1st & 2nd editions), Blackjack and the Law and Gaming Law: Cases and Materials.

I. Nelson Rose Websites:

www.gamblingandthelaw.com

Books by I. Nelson Rose:

Gambling and the Law

> More Books By I. Nelson Rose