Is Counting Cards illegal?

Card counters are quick to point out that there are no laws in America restricting the use of card counting as a strategy for winning at blackjack. Unfortunately for card counters, there doesn’t have to be a specific law for casinos to keep people who count cards from walking through the front door. Since casinos are private property, the owners of the casinos and their management have the right to refuse business to anyone for any reason.

But this “right” to keep card counters from gambling has long been challenged in the courts. Lawyers representing card counters make arguments that go a little something like this: as long as a person is using their brain and no other device to determine the best way to play a hand of blackjack, they aren’t breaking any law and should be allowed to continue to play the way they want.

So what’s the difference between kicking a card counter out and good old-fashioned discrimination? The answer is different from one gambling jurisdiction to the next. Challenges to the exclusion of card counters are most common in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, though occasional challenges to restrictions against card counters have come from other casinos as well.

Card Counting and Nevada Law

In Nevada, casinos have the right to exclude card counters because of common law precedent–basically, this is the old “private property” argument. If you own a piece of property, you have the right to kick anyone out of it that you want.

The argument against this common law right has been that by barring gamblers who happen to have a great deal of skill (read: card counters) the casinos are discriminating against them, which is unconstitutional. Remember, though, that the Supreme Court has found that only discrimination against people based on their race, creed, gender, national origin, age, or disability is unconstitutional, essentially making discrimination against skilled gamblers legal. In Las Vegas, card counters don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to suing casinos for discrimination.

Card Counting and New Jersey Law

The situation for card counters in Atlantic City is vastly different. Ken Uston (one of the best-known blackjack writers and professional card counter) fought for and won the right for card counters to use their skills legally in New Jersey. Uston’s fight in the New Jersey court system is the stuff of legend–he took his case all the way to the New Jersey Supreme Court, who left it up to the New Jersey Casino Control Commission to issue or not issue a rule restricting card counters.
Unfortunately for blackjack players and card counters, the NJCCC refused to make such a rule, deciding instead to make the standard game of blackjack in Atlantic City tougher to beat, changing rules to increase the casino’s edge.

What to Do If You’re Caught

Most people don’t know the law well enough to respond properly if they’re being detained on suspicion of card counting. Casinos in areas where card counting isn’t protected (outside of Atlantic City, basically) tend to try to “bully” card counters, asking for their ID and taking a photo of them for their records.

By law, you do not have to speak to casino authorities and the casino has no right to detain you unless you have committed a crime. If a casino employee asks you to “go with them,” or hand over your ID, or have your photo taken, you should refuse and attempt to exit the casino as quickly as you can. If you haven’t committed a crime, the casino cannot legally detain you and cannot take a photo of you without your permission.

Never admit to the casino that you are a card counter. Never get into an argument with a casino employee. Never show your ID, and whatever you do, don’t make physical contact with any casino employee. If you follow these basic rules, you’re operating well within the law and can get out of the casino without having your picture taken or being identified as a counter.

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