A high-rolling blackjack player, Justin Mills, said a driver in a luxury car hired by Maryland Live picked him up from his Silver Spring home on Feb. 20 to usher him to the casino at Arundel Mills mall.
Hours later, the 23-year-old videographer found himself leaving the casino by a back door, hailing a taxi, and paying for the $75 ride home after he was accused of being a card counter.
"As a result of your actions, you are not permitted on the premises of 'Maryland Live! Casino' permanently," the casino told him in a letter.
The long-running tussle between casinos and card counters has come to Maryland, home to five casinos and another on the way. Experts said it was only a matter of time.
Card counting "is extremely prevalent because it is not illegal," said Beverly Griffin, president of Griffin Investigations, a Las Vegas company that makes its online database of card counters and what they call slot and roulette cheaters available to casinos for a fee. "Having said that, the casino has the right to tell the player not to play because the casino is private property. It's like, 'No shirt, no shoes, no service.' They have their rules."
By keeping a tally of cards played, blackjack card counters try to calculate when a large number of high cards remain in play and shift the odds away from the dealer. Then they increase their bets.
There are few restrictions in state law.
"Maryland law is consistent with regulatory practices across the industry. The use of electronic or mechanical aid to count cards is forbidden in Maryland casinos," said Stephen Martino, director of the Maryland State Lottery and Gaming Control Agency. "However, card counting that is done using intellectual capacity to keep track of cards is not prohibited by state law or regulation."
Maryland Live, the state's largest casino, declined to discuss its policy on card counters or disclose how many have been banned. Asked about Mills, spokeswoman Carmen Gonzales said in an email: "We do not have a comment, except to say that as a private facility, we reserve the right to refuse service or limit play of any casino customer."
Mills does not dispute that he counts cards, or that he was asked to leave the casino. Rather, Mills' attorneys allege in court documents that a security official assaulted him by grabbing his arm and "bending it behind his back." Court documents also say Mills was improperly detained in a back corridor by security personnel and police before being permitted to leave.
A District Court prosecutor "reviewed the evidence and found it to be insufficient to proceed with criminal charges," said Heather Stone, a spokeswoman for the Anne Arundel County state's attorney's office.
Stone said Deputy State's Attorney William D. Roessler also reviewed the casino's surveillance video "and it showed no assault."
The video, obtained by Mills, shows him being led off the crowded floor with officials at either side. One official firmly grabs Mills by the arm.
Mills has not filed a lawsuit. Rather, his allegations appear in public documents his attorney has requested seeking judicial review in Anne Arundel Circuit Court of the state's decision not to prosecute.
Asked about Mills' assault allegations, Gonzales referred a reporter to her original statement.
Mills said in an interview that he had called the casino, where he had played before, and told a host his car was in the shop. The host agreed to send a car to pick him up. He said he played $100 minimum hands.
Casinos use multiple decks and shuffles to try to keep card counters off balance.
"The casinos watch very carefully for patterns and mannerisms, or any kind of teamwork involved," said James Karmel, a casino analyst and history professor at Harford Community College. "They are also looking for whether there is any kind of complicity between dealers and players."
Maryland's newest casino, Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, which opened in August, is "not opposed to highly skilled players visiting our casino, provided they don't attempt to unfairly disadvantage other guests or collude to impact the integrity of our games," said general manager Chad Barnhill. "While I won't comment on any specific circumstances, I will say that we have a highly trained surveillance team that knows every trick of the trade and keeps a close eye on the gaming floor to ensure that everyone is obeying the rules."
Card counting was popularized in the book "Bringing down the House" and the 2008 movie "21" about students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who team up to win big in Las Vegas.
Mills said the film "shows them winning all the time, which certainly isn't the case."
He said he was down $2,800 at the time he was escorted off the Maryland Live floor.