NEVADA FOCUS: A court backs a shadowy group of gamblers

Card counter Richard Chen thought he would be ''86ed'' from the Monte Carlo resort on the Strip when he handed the casino staff a phony Burma passport while exchanging cash for chips.

Burma has not existed as a country since 1989 and the passport was a novelty item that did not have a real visa stamp. More importantly, Chen's picture is in the ''Griffin Book'' of suspected card counters and cheats.

But the Monte Carlo let Chen, a computer programmer in his day job, continue to play blackjack. No one stopped him when he fell $30,000 down. When he went $40,400 up, the Monte Carlo found him persona non grata.

Card counting is a way of mentally calculating the values of playing cards and making larger bets when the remaining cards are mostly in the player's favor.

The casino gave Chen back the $44,000 he paid for chips, but confiscated his winnings. Chen appealed to the Gaming Control Board, to the state District Court and finally to the Nevada Supreme Court.

The court battle cost Chen, of Belmont, Calif., and his card-counting team $9,000 in legal fees, but on March 7 the Supreme Court handed them a decision welcomed by everyone who ever thought he could get rich quick by counting cards.

While Chen might have shown a false identification, the Supreme Court struck a blow for the prospect that a good player really can win at blackjack when it ruled in a 3-1 vote that the Monte Carlo had to pay his winnings.

''Chen's skill in playing blackjack, rather than his misrepresentation of identity, was the proximate cause of his winnings,'' wrote Justice Miriam Shearing in the majority decision. ''The false identification allowed Chen to receive $44,000 in chips, but it did not cause Chen to win.''

In a harsh dissent, Justice Bill Maupin declared there is an inconsistent Nevada public policy: Casinos have an ''unquestioned right'' to protect themselves by ejecting card counters, but neither card counting or the wearing of disguises in casinos is illegal.

''I hope the decision will be a good precedent for card counters,'' Chen said. ''There's skill and there's luck. The actual statistical value of my play was maybe $1,000. The rest was luck.''

The decision is being hailed as a triumph by those who make their livings watching Nevada's No. 1 business.

William Thompson, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas public administration professor, credits card counting with making blackjack the most popular game in casinos today.

Before Edward Thorp wrote ''Beat the Dealer'' in 1962, Thompson said craps was the dominant game in Nevada. The book outlined a strategy by which a counter might gain a slight advantage over the dealer.

''Thorp made blackjack,'' Thompson said. ''It has been great for Las Vegas.

''We have to have people lucky enough to win, or they won't come back,'' Thompson said. ''It is good we have winners.''

Every blackjack player sometimes tries to card count, added Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor.

''Most people have enough knowledge to hang themselves at it,'' he said. ''The greatest thing about blackjack is that the game is beatable. In most of the other games, there is no hope of winning over the long run.''

Chen said he is a member of a team of 10 to 15 blackjack players that includes a Harvard-educated lawyer. While not disputing the right of casinos to eject them for card counting, the team's lawyer member wanted to test whether a casino legally could withhold winnings of a counter.

In his counting career, Chen estimated his share of his team's winnings have been $60,000 to $70,000. Team play is necessary because one person could not absorb the negative swings that come with blackjack, he said.

Chen uses a relatively simple high-low counting method that requires him only to memorize one number. Each time a card is played, he notes whether it is a high- or low-value card and mentally calculates a plus or minus from the remaining cards in play.

''Being good at math helps, but it is not all that hard to do,'' he said. ''Learning stuff takes a ton of time. You have to practice every night.''

Gaming Control Board Chairman Steve DuCharme supports the decision on card counters. He disagreed with fellow board members when they ruled that the Monte Carlo did not have to pay Chen.

''Dealers and floormen are paid to detect someone who is card counting,'' he said. ''An atypical betting strategy would send out a red flag even for the rookie dealer.''

Casinos love 90 percent of the ''amateur card counters'' because they are not very good at the strategy and ultimately lose money, DuCharme added.

''It's the other 10 percent that give casinos trouble,'' he said.

As long as the casinos can throw out suspicious players for any reason other than their race, national origin, sex or religion, then DuCharme sees no need to make card counting a crime. Only when a counter uses a device that helps him keep track of the cards can he be charged with a crime under Nevada law.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Mark James, R-Las Vegas, agrees with DuCharme that as long as card counters can be ejected, then there is no need for the Legislature to pass a law outlawing card counting. That doesn't mean he is happy with the Supreme Court's decision on Chen.

''I don't think the games are like ATM machines where you figure out the system and go get money for free,'' James said. ''It is supposed to be a game of chance. It is supposed to be fun, not a game or a job.''

When they cannot beat card counters at the blackjack tables, the casinos have a court-tested right to eject, or ''86,'' them.

With a chuckle, Curtis explained the Old West origin of that popular gaming term. Back in the frontier days, saloons served 100 proof whiskey to male patrons and 86 proof to females.

When a man became too rowdy, the bartender started serving him out of the 86-proof bottle. Male egos apparently were fragile in those days, so rather than drinking women's whiskey the humiliated man quickly exited the premises.

Nearly 40 years ago Thorp revolutionized blackjack play when he published a basic counting strategy whereby players would keep track of the ratio of 10-value cards to cards with a lesser value. In a single deck, there are 36 non-10 value cards and 16 with a value of 10.

He advised players to calculate mentally the cards remaining in play and then bet much more money when the ratio of non-10 cards to 10-value cards fell below 2.0.

Of course, the casinos fought back by introducing shoes with as many as eight decks. Dealers also were trained to shuffle the decks more frequently, particularly when a lot of 10-value cards remained. And they looked for players who made dramatic fluctuations in the amounts of their bets.

For example, a player who makes $5 bets and then suddenly shifts to $500 bets probably is a card counter.

''What is most important is how far they deal the deck,'' Curtis said about beating card counting strategies.

A counter himself, Curtis operates Huntington Press, which sells books on card counting. His Las Vegas Advisor newspaper offers tourists tips on the best bargains available in the city.

While some counters consider being ''86ed'' an unconstitutional infringement on their own rights, Curtis can understand the casinos' predicament when they have a hot player.

''The casinos say it takes two for a wager and they just don't want to bet,'' he said.


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