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Banned for Good: Blacklisted Blackjack Counters

Mar 18, 2014

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Casinos have long reserved the right to boot those who are too good at what they do; even if cheating is not involved.

The use of card counting systems is one of the most controversial aspects of the gambling industry. It is not illegal, but no casino will knowingly allow patrons to count, which involves using a mathematical system to anticipate which cards will be dealt. Many argue that casinos have no right to ban players on these grounds, as counting is simply an effective counting strategy. This piece will introduce you to three of the biggest casino blacklist stories in history.

Legendary blacklisted blackjack counter Ken Uston

There is no question that American card sharp Ken Uston is the most famous card counter in history. During the 1970s Uston along with Al Francesco and other Vegas gamblers pioneered the concept of “team play” in which teams of players would enter a casino and play at different tables. While counting itself is not seen as cheating, team play is.

Team play involves a division of labor where several players serve as spotters and one (who carries a large collective bankroll) acts as the “big player.” Spotters act like duds and make very conservative bets so as not to draw attention to themselves while they count. Once the count becomes sufficiently high they covertly signal for the big player to come over to the table, who then places large bets. As the big player is a new entry to the table, there is little chance that the croupier would suspect them of counting. They win the majority of the money, which is then distributed amongst the spotters.

In 1978 Uston moved to Atlantic City, where he started his own team. He continued to be successful but before long the casinos caught on and banned him. The discovery of his methods led to serious changes in how casino blackjack operates. Casinos started dealing from multiple decks to make the counting process more difficult, took measures to increase the house edge, and dedicated casino staff to look out for counters.

In 1979 Uston sued the Resorts International company for barring him from their Atlantic City on grounds of being too good at blackjack. In 1982 the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that “Atlantic City casinos did not have the authority to decide whether skilled players could be barred.” This established counting as a legitimate blackjack strategy, not cheating, and meant that casinos could not legally use counting as a reason to boot a player. However, casinos still do it by finding other justifications and as we will see in later cases, it is a generally recognized right.

No, not the guy from Miami Vice: Don Johnson

Not to be confused with the popular actor from the 1990s, Pennsylvania businessman Don Johnson made a killing in Atlantic City last year. Johnson won $6 million at the Tropicana in one evening, including $800,000 on a single hand, making it one of the biggest coups in the history of blackjack. Johnson’s big night killed the casino’s monthly profits and resulted in Trop CEO Mark Giannantonio being fired for allowing to make $100,000 bets.

Johnson had also won $5 million at the Borgata and $4 million at Caesar’s in the months previous, with Caesar’s putting him on its most exclusive blacklist: banned from all of the company’s casinos worldwide. When the story broke everyone assumed that Johnson was an expert counter. Not the case (while this article is mostly about counting, we included him because he has been blacklisted). He did it the old fashioned way: impeccable understand of casino strategy couple with a feel for how to bet with a hefty scoop of luck on top.

According to Tony Rodio, the new CEO of the Tropicana: “He plays perfect cards.” This is one player who has literally been blacklisted for being too good at blackjack.

The MIT card counting team

The famous group of MIT math students became the stuff of legend during the 1990s. You don’t need to be a math expert to count cards effectively, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. These kids took Vegas for millions of dollars through a combination of counting and team play strategies, similar to those pioneered by Uston a decade earlier. Some of the team members were caught and ratted out the others, who were put into a registry by the Griffin Agency. Griffin is contracted by the Vegas casinos to maintain a “face book” of blacklisted players. Each of the members became a blacklisted blackjack counter for life (courts never ruled that Vegas casinos couldn’t ban players for counting).

The story became the inspiration of the Hollywood movie 21, was very popular while taking many liberties with the story. An interesting part of the story is that the team was actually a legally registered company in which players were expected to report their winnings to the tax authorities. But of course, the casinos knew nothing about this. This highlights nature of counting: a 100 percent legal way to earn money, although it is generally accepted that casinos don’t have to allow it.

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