Drawing the line between aggressive and illegal
by Basil Nestor
I was at a house party a few years ago, when someone pulled me aside. I’ll call him Beach Guy because he was blond and suntanned. I figured he liked the beach. BG also liked to play blackjack. He was a friend of a friend, and he knew about my work as a professional player. We had talked about strategy, always very level-headed discussions.
But this time, he was breathless. He cornered me and jabbered with excitement, “I have a way to win a ton of money at blackjack. I want your advice.”
Sounds interesting, right? I smiled and nodded. “Wow! Please tell.”
“I met a guy who has a computer that goes into your shoe. You use toes to work the controls. It helps you count cards, flawlessly. Imagine the profits! He wants $5,000 for it. I’m trying to decide if I should buy it, or maybe you know somebody who makes ‘em cheaper.” Then there was a pause and his eyes got a little wider, sort of a pleading look… “If I buy it, I was hoping you would go in half with me.”
My jaw dropped. BG was lost in euphoria, expecting me to agree with him.
“Pretty cool, huh?”
“No, not cool.” I replied. “You know that’s cheating, right?”
His head tilted sideway, kind of like a confused doggy.
“What? Counting is okay. You say that in your books.”
“Yes, counting is okay. But using a mechanical device to count is absolutely cheating.”
“Yeah, and if they catch me, they kick me out. I need your advice about which casinos would be least likely to catch me.”
I shook my head. “No, dude…cheating is against the law. Nevada statutes and the laws in other states are very clear. You cannot use a device for counting. If they catch you, they won’t eject you. They’ll arrest you and put you in jail.”
Slowly, his face fell as the truth sank in. There would be no pot of gold using a gambling computer.
What Is Illegal?
Some tactics are unwelcome in casinos, but they’re still legal. Counting cards is an example of a tactic that’s legal. Shuffle tracking is also legal. Signaling is legal (in blackjack, but not in poker). Hole-carding is legal. But crimping cards is illegal. Using a blackjack computer is illegal. Marking cards is illegal. What’s the difference? How can you know if a tactic goes over the line?
Let’s look at the law to find where the line is. We’ll use Nevada statutes as an example. Laws in other states tend to be similar, but keep in mind they’re not necessarily identical.
According to Nevada statute 465.075, “It is unlawful for any person at a licensed gaming establishment to use, or possess with the intent to use, any device to assist: (1) In projecting the outcome of the game; (2) In keeping track of the cards played; (3) In analyzing the probability of the occurrence of an event relating to the game…”
A previous section, 465.070, tells us, “It is unlawful for any person: (1) To alter or misrepresent the outcome of a game or other event on which wagers have been made after the outcome is made sure but before it is revealed to the players. (2) To place, increase or decrease a bet or to determine the course of play after acquiring knowledge, not available to all players, of the outcome of the game or any event that affects the outcome of the game…”
Paragraph 7 of 465.070 delivers the coup de grace:
[It is unlawful:] To manipulate, with the intent to cheat, any component of a gaming device in a manner contrary to the designed and normal operational purpose for the component…”
The ellipses indicate that the statutes go into greater detail, but you get the idea. Blackjack computers are forbidden. The law makes exceptions for devices “permitted by the Commission.” Nevada gaming regulations define these as “handwritten records of the cards played at baccarat” and “handwritten records of roulette results.” Faro is also mentioned, but blackjack is not on the list, for obvious reasons.
Besides prohibiting devices, the law makes it clear that you cannot do things that alter the game. These include switching cards, marking cards, or changing previous bets after the outcome of a contest is determined.
Too Close To the Line
Of course, there are gray areas. You’re allowed to use “public” information from a dealer who flashes his hole card. But obviously, you’re not allowed to rest your head on the felt waiting for the flash. Somewhere in between is a line, and if you play too close to that line, you may get burned.
Here’s a real-world example. What I told BG was technically incorrect. Using a blackjack computer is strictly speaking not cheating, because cheating is defined by Nevada law as altering “the elements of chance, method of selection, or criteria which determine the result of the game, the amount or frequency of payment in a game, the value of a wagering instrument, or the value of a wagering credit.”
Nevertheless, a blackjack computer is still illegal because it’s a prohibited “device.” I used the word “cheating” as a shorthand term to help BG understand. But anyone playing word games at this granular level, parsing legal terms hoping to justify particular tactics, is playing too close to the edge.
When you play according to the rules, the worst that should happen is that a casino will eject you. The house is essentially saying, “You’re too clever. We don’t want to play with you anymore.” No harm, no foul. Though realistically, in some extreme situations, you may be incorrectly arrested even when your actions are legal. That’s a subject for another article.
But breaking the law is a different issue. It’s better to be pointed toward the door, than cuffed at the wrists.
Enjoy the game!
Basil Nestor is author of The Smarter Bet Guide to Blackjack, The Smarter Bet Guide to Poker, and other comprehensive gambling guides. Got a question? Visit SmarterBet.com and drop him a line.