Gambling and the Law® ©February 11, 2019 www.GamblingAndTheLaw.com (Original ©Copyright 1994 by I. Nelson Rose, L.A., CA)
It seems the eye in the sky has acquired a brain. The watchers have learned to count cards.
Casinos have installed computer programs that can tell whether players are counting cards at blackjack. By recording how players change the size of their wagers and how they plays the hands as cards are dealt, these sophisticated programs can even determine which system the players are using.
In the past, only a small number of blackjack dealers, and even fewer pit bosses, could track multiple decks through fast dealt rounds. Most casino employees, and their supervisors, had only vague feelings as to whether the remaining, undealt cards favored the house or the player, if they cared at all.
Computers have changed all that.
Casinos hate card counters as much as they hate cheaters, and for similar reasons. A casino is the only business that makes its money by beating its own customers at games of chance. The house is not in the business of offering games that give the advantage to its opponents.
Bettors using hidden computers brought the issue to a head. A device capable of making thousands of calculations per second could allow anyone to play perfectly — and beat the casino at its own game.
Casinos in Nevada lobbied successfully to have the law changed, to ensure that devices could not be used to track casino games. Today, computers cannot be used by players.
But what about by casinos?
A dealer or pitboss who become suspicious of a player can phone the eye in the sky security system. Focusing in telescopic lenses onto the cards and chips, a security official inputs into the computer every move made by the player. And this process can now be automated.
Playing cards, with or without bar codes, can be read automatically by the casino’s computer, as they are dealt. The casino can buy chips with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags, like the ones embedded in your car keys. This allows the casino’s RFID reader to know exactly how many chips each player is betting every hand.
A few hands later, the player is told that his or her business is no longer welcome. And facial recognition software means the player is literally barred for life.
I personally don’t think it’s right to bar only players who really know how to play the game. Still, I guess it is better than the old system, in which casinos would often exclude anyone who was lucky enough to have a long winning streak.
But the dangers inherent in a law allowing casinos to count cards have never been discussed by casino regulators.
The most obvious concern, to a lawyer, is the potential for invasion of privacy.
What happens once a casino determines a player is a card counter? Can casinos share their information? If a mistake is made, who is liable? Is there any way players can get the black marks taken off their names?
And how far can casinos go to determine whether a player is a counter? After all, no one is accusing the player of cheating. I have been in security rooms of casinos and watched hidden cameras take extreme close-ups of players — in casino coffee shops.
What protections are there against misuse by casino employees? Is it inconceivable that an unscrupulous dealer might use extortion to demand a share of the counter’s winnings?
And what is to prevent dealers from using the computers to count cards themselves?
A dealer who always shuffles when the count favors the player would show greater-than-average profits for his table, increasing his chances for promotion.
But, a dishonest dealer could increase the house take to cover up his theft of chips.
If the casino does not have strict rules about where the cut card is placed, a dealer could play favorites. Strangers might find the deck shuffled every time it turns positive. Friends could be treated quite differently.
This is not some wild hypothetical.
In 1990, a former Las Vegas blackjack dealer alleged that he had been instructed by his superiors to count cards and shuffle when the count favored the players. Newspapers reported the Chairman of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, Bill Bible, said that although the casino may have violated its own procedures, there is nothing illegal about a casino counting cards.
In 1986, I received a letter from William R. Souligny, Nevada Gaming Control Board Training Officer. Souligny wrote on official stationery “with the permission and at the direction of the Nevada State Gaming Control Board.”
His description of how regulators view casinos counting cards is still the law today:
Souligny wrote, “First, counting cards is not illegal in Nevada. Second, early shuffling does not alter random selection. Random selection for 21 is established during the shuffle. Random selection is not violated if a casino shuffles every hand, every other hand, or at the whim of a player, dealer, or pit boss. Dealing procedures are established by casinos individually, and the Gaming Control Board may not regulate shuffle points.
“Third,” Souligny concluded, “the Gaming Control Board vigorously enforces state laws and gaming regulations to the benefits of both public and state.” (His emphasis).
If early shuffling has no effect, then why do it? If counting cards is not illegal, why are counters barred?
And, exactly how does the public benefit from a policy that prevents players from counting cards in their heads, while casinos are free to keep track of every card played with sophisticated computers?