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MIT Blackjack Player's Appeal Busts in Ninth Circuit

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

If you saw the movie 21, or read Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down the House, you’re somewhat familiar with the MIT Blackjack Team and advantage gamblers. An “advantage” gambler is a professional gambler who uses legal techniques, such as card counting, to win at casino table games.

While the characters and the drama in both 21 and Mezrich’s novel were exaggerated — the movie was based on the already-fictionalized book — the basic premise behind both were true. MIT had a blackjack team that practiced advantage gambling for more than a decade.

Some of the former members, like Laurie Tsao, still play. And that can lead to lawsuits.

As the Ninth Circuit describes it, "This case grows out of the high-stakes cat-and-mouse game played between advantage gamblers and Desert Palace, which operates a number of gambling venues, including Caesars Palace in Las Vegas."

Desert Palace attempts to identify advantage players and "trespass" them -- tell them to leave and not return -- from the casino's property. Under Nevada's trespass statute, returning to a location from which one has been told not to return by a property owner or its agent, or remaining after having been asked to leave, is a misdemeanor.

Tsao was arrested at Caesars Palace for trespassing and obstructing the duties of a police officer. She challenged that arrest as unconstitutional and as constituting various common law torts.

The district court held that the casino's security guard had probable cause to make a citizen's arrest of Tsao for criminal trespassing, that Las Vegas Metro Police Officer Travis Crumrine had probable cause to arrest Tsao for obstructing the duties of a police officer, and that the probable cause determinations barred Tsao's various claims for relief against Crumrine and Desert Palace.

Tsao appealed.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment to Desert Palace on Tsao's §1983 and abuse of process claims, as well as the grant of summary judgment to Crumrine on Tsao's §1983, common law false arrest, battery, and defamation claims. The court vacated the grant of summary judgment on all other claims.

To avoid being trespassed or charged with misdemeanor trespassing, advantage players apparently take a number of steps to evade detection, including wearing disguises and obtaining player's cards in false names. Tsao's attempts at subterfuge established probable cause and doomed her case.

If you advise advantage gamblers in Ninth Circuit feeder courts, remember that the actions they take to trick casino security could kill their civil rights claims if they get caught.

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