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In all, what Uston calls the Tuesday Night Massacre resulted in the barring of 22 suspected counters. Sweeping as it was, the ban was only the latest stopgap attempt by legalized gambling to ward off a threat that one Las Vegas casino operator says is "by far the most serious problem facing the industry today."
The issue is wide open. There is nothing illegal about playing a system in blackjack or in any other casino game. On the contrary, for years the gaming Establishment welcomed the practice as the opiate of the eternally gullible. The one thing about a system player, the old casino saying goes, is that he will lose his money systematically.
Now that the axiom has broken down, the casinos are crying "Foul!" and the pro players are hollering "Revolt!" Several counters have taken legal action on the grounds that the casinos have no more right to bar a skilled player than they have to bar a guest on the basis of sex or religion. Banished more times than even he can count, Uston has sued eight casinos—the Dunes, Sands, Hilton, Flamingo, Marina, MGM Grand, Silver City and Holiday Riverboat—for a total of $85 million. The Dunes and Sands have settled out of court, and the other cases are pending. Last year, responding to charges that Uston was barred by the casinos solely because he "did not lose his money quite as fast as most people," a federal court in Las Vegas dismissed two of his suits on the grounds that the state of Nevada is not obligated to force casinos to allow card counters to play.
Declaring "I'm on a crusade!" Uston has engaged a high-powered legal team and vows to "carry the battle all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary." There are rumblings that the Federal Trade Commission may take action against the casinos for possible antitrust violations. The American Civil Liberties Union has gotten involved. And a counter's defense fund and national association are being formed to fight on a united front. "The controversy," warns Casino, a gambling trade paper, "may prove to be a fuse slowly burning toward the biggest explosion in the history of legalized gambling."
Like his Nevada counterparts, Steve Norton, a Resorts vice-president, argues that the "law says that the casinos shall include games of chance. But when counters are allowed to play, it becomes a game of skill. There is no luck involved." Shaky at best, that defense is undermined by the traditional image of the casinos as something less than paragons of sportsmanship and fair play. Not above such low tactics as plying high rollers with free booze to ensure that "luck" prevails, the casinos appear to be in a no-win contest with public opinion. "Mr. Uston and his like seem to us to have justice on their side," said The New York Times in one typical editorial reaction. "If the casinos do not admit smart players as well as suckers, where's the gamble?"
Not in the Nevada casinos. Their legal out is a suitably fuzzy piece of legislation called Nevada Revised Statute 463.151. In part, it states that casinos "have a duty to keep from their premises persons known to them to be inimical to the interests of the State of Nevada or of licensed gambling or both." In other words, since the state of Nevada is in on the casino action, winning is "inimical." Or as one pit boss, unencumbered by legalese, interprets the statute, "It's our game and we'll damn well throw out who we please."
Trouble is, most every blackjack player counts cards to some extent. It is in the nature of the game, and many casino officials fear that the publicity about the dragnet for card-counting sharks will scare off the plump little fish who are the staple of the industry. "If I threw out counters," says one casino manager, "I'd throw out 50% of my business."
Admittedly in a bind, casino executives are divided in their opinion of system players. "God bless 'em," says one official who opposes the heave-ho school. "The better the public plays, the more they play and the more we win." Truth be told, as high-risk ventures go, card counting ranks right up there with prospecting for gold in the Everglades. As Uston is the first to point out, "For every one of me, there are probably 99 counters who lose money."
And thousands more who are lured to the game because of books like One-Third of a Shoe/How To Win, by Ken Uston. Says Casino, "The gambling business should recognize that card counting has created more blackjack players and increased profits all out of proportion. The few players who are of any effect take away very little, but the casinos' greed to get it all may endanger the whole bonanza."