Thursday, October 16, 2003
Card counters decry casinos' rough tactics
By Bob Shemeligian
To the two dozen savvy gamblers who attended a "Green Chip" party at an opulent northwest Las Vegas home Saturday night, the evening represented an opportunity to share stories about advantage play at local casinos over bites of tender baked chicken and homemade peach cobbler.
But to Nevada's increasingly paranoid casino industry, such a gathering is tantamount to the infamous Appalachian Summit--the ill-fated 1957 meeting of organized crime lords called by Don Vito Genovese in upstate New York.
The moderator of the Las Vegas summit was Stanford Wong, author of Professional Blackjack, which includes enough information and charts to give casual blackjack players at least an even gamble--and to give serious students of the game a very good opportunity to win considerable amounts of money.
Many of the advantage players in attendance are members of the "Green Chip," a membership on the BJ21 website (www.bj21.com). Practically all of them have been accosted, detained or even arrested in recent years at various casinos for doing nothing more than using their brainpower to play 21 and other casino games so skillfully that they actually turned the odds in their favor.
Several are plaintiffs in ongoing lawsuits against the New Frontier, Mandalay Bay and other resorts charged with intimidating, unlawfully detaining and sometimes roughing up advantage players.
"What we are saying is when you beat people up, they can fight back," says Bob Nersesian, a Las Vegas attorney who represents several advantage players. "When you put three security guards on someone and detain him against his will, this is not okay. After all, our most cherished possession is our right to liberty."
The stories told by advantage players Saturday night were eerily similar. Harry B., a Maryland psychiatrist, was playing blackjack at the New Frontier when a floor supervisor stopped play. As Harry began to leave, three burly security guards surrounded him, handcuffed him and led toward the back room.
"These are big, scary guys," Harry explained. "They're very intimidating. All I wanted to do was summon the police, and at one point as they were leading me to the back room, they stopped and one of the guards told me that if I kept fighting them, they would hurt me. Well, I was handcuffed. I was not resisting."
Other stories were much the same. In nearly every instance, the advantage player is handcuffed, escorted to a back room, threatened and detained. Often, the gambler is told that if he returns, he will be arrested for trespassing. Sometimes he is charged with other offenses. Nersesian once represented a gambler who was charged with disorderly conduct after he demanded that police be summoned when he was being dragged away from the gaming pit of the El Cortez.
"I've always believe the police and the political system of Nevada are in the pockets of the casino industry," said D.D., another advantage player who two years ago was detained at the New Frontier.
A Michigan mathematics professor, nicknamed Math Prof, who a year and a half ago was detained at the Mandalay Bay after playing blackjack, explained that card counters do not cheat. They play the game honestly using all their mental faculties and the casinos have no moral and legal authority to "backroom" an honest advantage player.
Nersesian agreed. "What the players are saying is, we accept the risk of being asked to leave. But we are not willing to give up our rights as American citizens."
Still, Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor newsletter and a former advantage player, explains that some card counters today are bringing on at least some of their own problems through their own greed.
"I've noticed that some in the younger group can be quite arrogant," said Curtis, who said he once asked a casino floor supervisor why he comes down so hard on counters, and the supervisor replied, "Because they ask for it."
Curtis also said many casinos are fighting card counters by eliminating 21 games that give the player a fair chance. He explained that games such as Super Fun 21 and other variations that pay as little as even money for a blackjack greatly swing the odds in the casino's favor. "They put out these absurd games that are unbeatable--and people keep playing them," Curtis said.
Wong agrees that gaining an advantage at blackjack is more difficult than it was two generations ago. Wong, who holds a Ph.D. in finance from Stanford University and is a Vietnam veteran, played for a living in Las Vegas in the early 1960s. "It was all single-deck action back then," Wong says. "I remember one day I went into a casino and I saw a double-deck game, and I said, `What's this? You can't use more than one deck for a game of blackjack. That's not fair!"
Surprisingly, Wong said he encountered very little heat from floor supervisors when he played because he generally preferred to keep the stakes down. "When I started playing, the maximum bet was $500, so that was the highest we played for," Wong said. "I remember once, a supervisor asked me if I wanted to play for a higher limit, and I said no. I figured, why take the risk and why invite more attention?"
Today, Wong, a grandfather who lives in La Jolla, Calif., plays little blackjack. "The game is more popular than ever, but that doesn't mean it's more profitable than ever," said Wong, who prefers to bet on sports, wagering $25,000 each week on NFL games.
In gambler's parlance, two forms of advantage play are known as "Wonging." The first involves back-counting a game of blackjack from behind the table and then jumping in when the deck favors the player. The second involves betting a football "teaser" card when the increased point spread covers a win by either a field goal or a touchdown.
About blackjack, Wong says: "I found the game to be a huge challenge when I was young. But today, I've mastered the challenge and I no longer need the money. That's the thing about blackjack, you have to be hungry to win at it. You have to go to casinos at 4 in the morning when the tables are empty, and you have to go for it. I no longer have the desire to do that."