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Card counters, casinos battle to tilt the odds

The Montgomery County mortgage lender arrived at the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore with money clips holding 50 neatly folded $100 bills. But after the player spent 80 minutes at a blackjack table, a shift manager approached, told him politely but firmly that the casino didn't want his business, and escorted him from the building.

Fifteen minutes later, the manager pointed another blackjack player, a Washington attorney, toward the door — and paused for several moments to make sure he left.

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A week after that, the scene repeated itself —this time involving a videographer from Silver Spring. That player, like the others, told The Baltimore Sun that he counts cards.

The manager "opened the door and said, 'Have a good night,'" Justin Mills said.

At the 7-month-old Horseshoe and other casinos across the state, skilled blackjack players and casino workers play an elaborate game within a game. The players try to flip the odds in their favor by surreptitiously counting cards. Dealers, pit bosses and surveillance teams look for cues, such as extreme betting swings, alerting them to players who might be employing the strategy.

It's a long-running conflict — and now Maryland, which allowed casinos to offer blackjack in 2013, is an active battleground. Experienced players probe casinos for vulnerabilities, and the casinos respond by hiring veteran operators and exchanging information.

"Anytime you have a state that has new table games, this is going to happen," said Alan Woinski, whose Gaming USA Corp. publishes industry newsletters. Card counters "try to look for inexperienced dealers. That's why new casinos try to raid existing casinos for their help."

Keeping track of cards to calculate when favorable cards are due and bet accordingly is perfectly legal. But casinos are free to eject unwanted guests and have been escorting out high-rolling players.

The players' exits do not always proceed smoothly. Mills, 23, has sued Maryland Live, the state's largest casino, in federal court, alleging that a security officer bent his arm behind his back as he was led to a back corridor in 2014.

Maryland Live declined to comment on Mills' case except to say, "As a private facility, we reserve the right to refuse service or limit play of any casino customer."

Joseph Stiers, 32, of Silver Spring said he was banned indefinitely from the Horseshoe and all other Caesars properties for what the casino told him was inappropriate conduct. He said he was playing at the Horseshoe late last year and objected stridently when he was told to turn over $350 in chips and asked to leave.

Stiers acknowledged that he counts cards. The Horseshoe said it won't comment on individual players' cases.

Asked about card counters' complaints of being banished, the casino responded that it allows "highly skilled players to gamble provided they don't engage in any activity that violates applicable regulations, undermines the integrity of our games or unfairly disadvantages our other guests."

The edge

Unlike slot machines and roulette tables, which are governed by rules that favor the house in the long run, blackjack offers a way players can come out ahead over time.

The game is simple: A player draws cards against a dealer, trying to get closer to 21 without going over.

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A player applying basic strategy can reduce the house advantage to less than 1 percent. But players who count cards — keeping track of which cards have been played, and increasing their bets when there is an abundance of undealt 10s, face cards and aces — can turn the odds slightly in their favor.

Casinos use multiple decks to try to keep card counters off balance, so keeping the count can be challenging. Players frequently carry decks with which to practice during lunch breaks or other down moments. They train their brains to be calculators amid the ringing and whirring of slot machines and other background noise.

It's a skill, and not everyone can keep up.

"For every terrific card counter, there are probably 10 guys who think they are good counters and they're not," Woinski said. Casinos "probably want people who think they know how to count cards but don't have the concentration."

Actor-director Ben Affleck told Details magazine last year that he counts cards.

"Once I became decent," he said, "the casinos asked me not to play."

Many counters echo Affleck's complaint: They say they are being booted out for using their intellect.

Casinos reply that private establishments can set the rules as they see fit.

Matthew Heiskell, general manager of the Hollywood Casino Perryville, said players should not be banned for being "smart enough to count cards." But he said a casino could act "if they have proven to be part of a team." And Heiskell said a single player could raise concern if he "had proven to be part of something in the past. We share information with other casinos."

Beverly Griffin runs a company in Las Vegas that sells a database of card counters and gambling "cheaters" to casinos. She emphasizes the right of casinos to make their own rules.

"It's like 'No shirt, no shoes, no service,'" she said.

Card counting is a volume business. Skilled players might gain an edge of perhaps 1.5 percent, but the advantage emerges over time. It can take tens of thousands of dollars and months of play to come out significantly ahead.

Some players pool money to speed the process.

The Montgomery County mortgage lender who was ejected from the Horseshoe in December said he pooled $70,000 with the Washington attorney and a few friends in 2014. While members of the team played separately, they kept meticulous ledgers of their sessions and doubled the money, which they then split.

The player, who said he has been ejected from casinos around the country, spoke on condition of anonymity because he worries about being banned permanently.

Hiding in plain sight

Before entering a casino, many card counters script their behavior as if rehearsing for a play.

The goal is to remain hidden in plain sight.

They wear nondescript clothing and resist betting patterns that could tip off dealers. They sometimes deviate from correct strategy to mask their expertise. And when they're caught, they often resist showing identification.

Counters have their own lingo: "Wonging in," from the famed counter Stanford Wong, means beginning play when the count is favorable. "Playing unrated" means forgoing casinos' rewards programs, which offer benefits such as free play coupons but can be used to track counters.

"There are disguises, there are cover plays," said Eliot Jacobson, a former card counter who now consults for casinos. "There is rat-holing chips so it doesn't seem like you're winning as much."

The casinos — hoping to avoid alienating players or generating lawsuits — generally do not tell card counters why they are being escorted out.

"They say, 'You're too good for us' or 'We don't want your action,' or 'We're a private business,'" Jacobson said. "I've been backed off dozens of times as a player, and I can't recollect the words 'card counter' being used."

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New Jersey and Missouri prohibit casinos from removing gamblers based on card counting alone. Casinos that cannot evict card counters may use continuous shuffle machines or impose betting restrictions to try to neutralize them.

"It's an imperfect game," said Las Vegas lawyer Bob Nersesian, who represents players in lawsuits against casinos. "If they're going to write rules that allow their game to be beat, either rewrite the rules or take on all comers."

Maryland's rules on card counting are clear: Players are not permitted to use "electronic or mechanical" aids.

"However," Stephen Martino said, "card counting that is done using intellectual capacity to keep track of cards is not prohibited by state law or regulation."

Martino headed the Lottery and Gaming Control Agency as Maryland reintroduced casino gambling in 2010. He left the agency Friday to join a Baltimore law firm.

Officials say casinos need a compelling reason to ask players to produce a driver's license or other identification.

"Casinos are able to ask for ID if it is in relation to a suspicious transaction, or if they feel you are underage they could ask for your ID," said Charles LaBoy, the state's assistant director for gaming. "There is nothing that we've put out that requires a patron to submit identification for purposes of identifying card counting."

Casinos are not required by state regulators to disclose how many players they evict, and there are no available estimates. Some players, including Stiers, have written about their treatment to the state, and their complaints are public record.

Stiers, who played blackjack and poker at the Horseshoe in late December, said he asked Horseshoe officials repeatedly why they were evicting him. He believes the casino suspected he was counting cards.

Stiers, who makes his living from poker tournaments and plays blackjack on the side, is credited on poker websites with more than $500,000 in tournament earnings. The son of a psychologist and a health care association executive, he said he was a longtime fan of strategy games and video games before taking up poker years ago.

Even after he was banned, Stiers said, he continued to receive hundreds of dollars a week in promotional coupons called "match play" and gift cards from the Horseshoe and other casinos. The website for his Total Rewards account with Caesars now says "deactivated" in bright red letters.

When he was approached by security officials, Stiers said, he made a scene — flailing around, threatening to contact the media, warning about a possible lawsuit — because he was feeling panicky and frustrated at being bounced out for the second time in a month and, this time, stripped of $350 in poker chips.

State regulators ordered the casino to refund the $350. But that did not mollify Stiers.

He was informed last month by the Horseshoe that his "inappropriate" conduct had led parent company Caesars to ban him from "our premises at any of our properties," including the Baltimore casino — site of a 12-day World Series of Poker circuit tournament that ended March 9 without Stiers' participation — and the prestigious World Series itself in Las Vegas beginning in May.

"Without the World Series of Poker, I think I would have to find a new career," Stiers wrote in a Feb. 13 appeal to the Horseshoe.

With the help of his mother, Janice Zalen, Stiers has been contacting General Assembly members.

"It must be odd to receive a letter from a poker player's mother," Zalen wrote Feb. 18 to the state gaming agency. "How nice if this could be resolved without lawyers and in time for a Marylander to play at the [World Series of Poker] in his home state."

The casino said "disinvited" players might continue to receive marketing material for a time because of production cycles, but "no such individual would receive mailings on an ongoing basis."

Taking on a casino

Mills, the videographer, said he became determined to learn how to count cards after he lost $11,000 in blackjack in West Virginia on a single day in 2013.

He flew to Las Vegas that year and paid for private lessons with an expert instructor.

"I met with him at his suite at the Tropicana," Mills said. "We did an eight-hour training."

Mills said Maryland Live hired a driver in a luxury car to pick him up and usher him to the casino at Arundel Mills mall. After he was evicted, he said, he paid $75 for a taxi ride home.

In his $1.5 million lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Mills alleges that a security official forcefully grabbed his arm as he was led away. He is accusing Maryland Live, Anne Arundel County and two police officers of assault and wrongful detention. He said in the lawsuit that the officers told him "he was suspected of counting cards."

Surveillance video from the casino shows the stylishly dressed Mills being led off the crowded floor with officials at either side.

An Anne Arundel Circuit Court judge has denied Mills' request for a special prosecutor to investigate the case. An assistant state's attorney determined last year that the allegations weren't substantial enough to warrant prosecution.

Mills received a letter from Maryland Live last year saying he is "not permitted on the premises of Maryland Live! Casino permanently."

Mills attends community college and shoots video of weddings and other events. He said he has decided to quit playing blackjack. "I don't want to continue losing money," he said.

After losing tens of thousands of dollars at blackjack, he says, he finds it ironic that casinos made the effort to remove him.

"I shouldn't have bothered them," he said.

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How blackjack works

The object of blackjack is simple: Get closer to 21 with the cards you're dealt than the dealer without "busting," or going over 21.

Players are dealt two cards face up; the dealer is dealt two cards, one face down.

Cards two through 10 are worth their face value; jacks, queens and kings are worth 10; and aces are worth one or 11, whichever helps the player most.

Players may draw cards until they bust. In Maryland, dealers must take a third card if their hand is worth 16 or less but cannot draw upon reaching 17.

"Blackjack" occurs when a player's hand totals 21 on the first two cards — typically with an ace and a face card. Blackjack pays 3-2 or 6-5; other wins pay even money.

How card counting works

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Card counting is done in different ways. This is a variation of a system called "hi-lo."

Assign each dealt card a numeric value. Two through six get plus-one, seven through nine get zero, 10 through king are assigned minus-one. Aces are often assigned minus-one but are treated differently depending on the system.

Take the running count — the sum of cards dealt — and divide it by the number of decks yet to be played. This can be determined by looking at the discard pile and knowing roughly how thick a deck is. Most casinos begin games with six or eight decks.

Now you have your "true count." When the true count is plus-two, the counter begins to have an advantage. The higher the count, the greater the player's edge.

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