There is a terrific thread going on over at the Volohk Conspiracy, consistently one of the most erudite and thought-provoking blogs there is. Noting that a Indiana court has declared that the state’s casinos are prohibited from throwing blackjack players who count cards out of their establishment, Prof. Volokh, who has a libertarian streak, opined that casinos should be able to toss out the card counters, and that the case was wrong. Well, all hell broke out after that, and as usual for that blog (and, some golden day, for this one), there has been a flood of comments from every kind of authority from legal experts to card counters themselves. They show what an odd and ethically topsy-turvy matter the controversy over card-counting is.If you haven’t seen the Kevin Spacey movie “21” (and if you haven’t, you don’t want to), card-counting is a way for mentally sharp gamblers to tip the odds in blackjack to their favor by carefully keeping track of which cards have already been dealt. Good card-counters win too much, so casinos have rules banning card-counting, and watch players carefully to see if they are using the technique. If they are, out they go.
It is an outrageous rule, of course—the sense of it is that if you have the skill not to lose like everyone else, we don’t want you here. Indeed, casinos don’t bother about the card-counters who are bad at it, because they lose anyway. Still, the owners of a casino should be able to set whatever rules they want to, as long as they aren’t illegal or discriminatory. No long hair, no bare feet. Or you must have a slow loris on your head—it shouldn’t matter. If you don’t like the terms, don’t play there.
Because card-counting is explicitly banned, to do it anyway is cheating by definition, even though it would just be smart playing if it weren’t prohibited. The no card-counting rule is unfair, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to break the rules. It is an interesting case study of the sometimes awkward interactions between law, rights and ethics:
- The casinos have (except in the view of an Indiana court) a legal right to admit or bar anyone from their establishments, as long as it isn’t based on race, age, or other “invidious” categories. They have a legal right to make any rules they please, and to enforce them, because it is their private establishment.
- Banning card-counting is unfair, and thus unethical—but it isn’t illegal.
- Although the card-counters are being treated unfairly be being banned by the casinos, they have no right to play.
- Because they have no right to play by counting cards, it is unethical for them to intentionally violate a legal (though unfair) casino rule by card-counting anyway.
- That is cheating, which is always unethical, even though the rule that makes card-counting cheating is unfair.
- Ejecting a player who intentionally violates a rule,though an unfair one, is something a casino has a right to do, is legal, and is even ethical, since intentionally breaking a rule is a legitimate reason to eject anyone, again, even if the rule itself is unethical.
Got all that?
When people are determined to continue an unethical practice because they have a right to do so, the remedy is usually to take away that right with a law. This is what the Indiana court seems to be doing. Laws are supposed to be made by legislators, not judges, but the casino lobbyists have always been able to keep the legislators in their pockets the usual way—with campaign donations. So one greed-inspired, unethical misuse of the casinos’ property rights turns smart players into cheaters, causes casinos t corrupt legislators to preserve the right they abuse, and a court to overstep its power.
And it would all be unnecessary, if the casinos would just allow the good blackjack players to play as well as they can.