Do casinos and sportsbooks cut off winning players too easily?

Hartley examines the Dana White blackjack ban story once again and raises the age-old question of whether casinos and sportsbooks have the right to cut off winning players.

Sportsbooks and casinos claim they have "the right" to ban winning players

A story that made the news in 2014 has returned to the spotlight after it was revealed by UFC commentator Joe Rogan that UFC President Dana White won over $7 million in one night from Palms Casino and Resort in Las Vegas. After Rogan made that revelation, White told TalkSPORT the whole story.

White said that the Palms Casino initially banned him after winning $1.6 million playing blackjack. When new owners took over, they asked him to continue playing again and he did, winning an additional $1.6 million. The new owners viewed this win as a great opportunity for a publicity stunt to sell the casino, so they presented White a UFC style championship belt which read "Undisputed blackjack champion, 24-0." After the presentation was made the owners then told him he was banned from the casino again. In an interview with the Las Vegas Review Journal at the time, White told a reporter:

"Casinos don’t want to gamble anymore. They’re all owned by hedge funds and corporations. They want to stack the odds so much against you that won’t play. Realistically, there’s only one place to play left in town. That’s Caesars. They will let you play what you want to play. No messing around with limits."

Blackjack and card counting

Blackjack has always been a minimal winner for casinos since the house edge is only 0.5% with basic strategy play, but that number decreases depending on a few factors, such as whether a player can double on any two cards or whether they can only double on 9, 10 or 11; whether the casino stands or hits on soft 17s; whether a player can split aces more than once; whether a player can double down after splitting; whether a late surrender is available; how many times a player can split cards and the number of decks being used. A casino that allows all those options and uses fewer decks in the shoe provides the player a very slight advantage over the house. But the one strategy that casinos have always been leery of and one that will almost always lead to a player being told their action is no longer welcome, is if the casino suspects card counting

card counting blackjackThe logic behind card counting is that a player's main advantage over the house is the chance of being dealt a blackjack, which is more likely when there are lots of 10s, face cards and aces in the deck. And the casino has a big advantage over the player when there are more low cards in the deck. So, a basic card counting exercise has a player assigning a value of +1 when a 2 to 6 is dealt, a value of zero when a 7-9 is dealt and a value of -1 when a 10, face card or ace is dealt. The player keeps a running count of the cards counted and then divides that number by the decks left in the shoe to get the true count. The bet is then adjusted based on the true count - the higher the count, the larger the bet. This requires a lot of attention and skill, which most people just aren't capable of. So, the casinos have decided to not allow anyone with that skill to play, even though there is nothing illegal about it.

Card counting apparently became quite popular after the 1988 movie Rain Man was released, where Dustin Hoffman played an autistic savant who was adept at card counting, so many casinos decided to shift the odds in their favor by changing the payout for a blackjack from 3/2 odds to 6/5 odds. Many successful blackjack players will not play at a casino with 6/5 odds, since house edge increases almost 2% with the reduced blackjack payout. This apparently worked, but many casinos still try and ban card counters, more because of a long-held philosophy that a player should not be able to use skill. And most casino operators admit that the advantage from card counting really isn't that big, especially since most players are so bad at math and because it’s difficult to estimate the number of cards left in the shoe. It should be noted that there was never any indication that White counted cards, and his success was more likely do to the fact that he was just lucky and stuck to the strategy. White's wealth also no doubt helps him win, since most players will grow tepid if they lose because they want to survive to play another day, whereas with White, that isn’t an issue.

White certainly isn’t alone in his feelings towards casinos or sportsbooks these days and this applies not only to those based in Las Vegas, but to casinos in other jurisdictions as well as companies offshore. With the legalization of sports betting across the United States, many sports bettors are complaining that sportsbooks in places like New Jersey and Pennsylvania are cutting them off for winning, even if the amount is minimal. Many Las Vegas sportsbooks banned winning bettors, like Billy Walters when he first started winning consistently, but most books eventually realized that successful sports bettors could be helpful to them overall by using their skills and knowledge to help set and adjust the lines. While Billy himself had been banned from even entering most Las Vegas sportsbooks, his associates and beards could place their bets, but the stipulation was that the bets had to be placed early on so that the books could move the lines before most of the public had the opportunity to get the early odds. And most U.S. offshore sportsbooks did the same thing.

A different philosophy

Betting sites like The Greek, WWTS, World Sports Exchange (WSEX) and Carib Sports always welcomed Billy Walters' action, along with some other wiseguys, but again they told the wiseguys that they had to get the bets before the general public had the opportunity to put in theirs. While none of those sportsbooks still operate, it is notable that each was wildly successful, despite action from sharp bettors. The only thing that shut them down were the actions of the U.S. government, who effectively made it impossible for them to take any bets from U.S. citizens and were forced to close due to lack of volume and interest. And with World Sports Exchange the death knell was the inability of the company to process payments (this was before cryptocurrency).

Other companies, like Pinnacle Sports, had a philosophy that they won't be beat at their own game. When Pinnacle was still taking U.S. action, a former owner of the company made it clear that Pinnacle would never cut off a bettor for winning and will only do so if they find the bettor was cheating or purposely and consistently betting on bad lines. 5Dimes also had a similar philosophy. In fact, the former Pinnacle Sports owner even stated on wagering forums that if they are beat consistently by someone at a certain sport, they will let that linesmaker go and hire the person who was beating them in their stead. And the compensation and bonuses by Pinnacle were usually high enough to convince the bettor that they were better off on the other side of the bet. Pinnacle also proudly once bragged that they won on sports that were perennial losers for sportsbooks simply because they had the sharpest staff in the business setting the lines. Many of these books also took advantage of the Betfair betting exchange to help layoff some action that they didn’t want.

Betting in 2021

Nowadays, however, books are quick to ban players and the majority of professional sports bettors claim it's because the new sportsbook managers in the United States got their training in the U.K., where the philosophy is that for business purposes, if someone is consistently winning - then they need to go. Rather than using the winners to help set the best lines, the belief is that it is better to simply cut off winning players  at the pass. They also tend to try and convince successful bettors to bet on a sport they aren't good at instead to help minimize the player's profits or to make limits so small that the players just leave on their own accord.

William Hill limit ban winnersOne William Hill bettor told me that he was making a lot of money betting the awards shows like the Oscars, Golden Globes and Grammys. He said his bets were quite small and he didn't bet on anything outrageous, yet because he was consistently winning, his limits kept getting cut to the point where in this year’s Academy Awards his limit was an amount to win of $10. So, in better words if he liked a film that was 5/1 odds, he could bet $2 on it. And a customer of a different U.K. book said that he was winning so much on NFL money lines that the sportsbook told him he could only continue betting the money lines if he bet on the spread as well. To make things worse his limits for the money line were about 1/5 of the limit for the spread. Not surprisingly he took his action elsewhere. His comment to me at the time was "name any other business where they tell you that you have to buy a product you prefer less? Imagine going to a pharmacy and being told that you can only buy a vial of Tylenol if you buy 5 vials of Advil as well." Many books also keep raising the spread to help stave off losses, particularly on U.S. sports. The days of the five, or even 10, cent baseball line is long gone and one is lucky to even find a 20 cent line on the sport.

All of the people mentioned, including White and Walters, had the same argument and complaint, namely that the casinos and sportsbooks only focus on the wins and don't consider the losses. While White admits that he is up overall because he's a good blackjack player, he also said that for every major seven figure winning day there were far more days with seven figure losses. And Walters said that he had streaks where he couldn't catch a win for months on end. As well, all the bettors mentioned also pointed out one undeniable fact – they were doing nothing wrong. If someone is caught cheating in a casino by marking cards, using sleight of hand when rolling dice or similar, then they deserve to be not only banned, but charged. But if the person is successful simply because they are good at their vocation, most analysts agree they shouldn't be penalized for it. But the counter argument by most of the new casino operators is that they are a business and like any business aren't going to continue offering a product or serving customers who eat into their profits, especially if they are publicly traded and must answer to shareholders.

So, the Dana White story once again raises the age-old question of whether casinos and sportsbooks have the right to cut off winning players. And, more importantly, whether they should be doing so, or whether it's a better strategy to celebrate those wins and possibly even hire the players to help the casino and sportsbooks get a better edge. It is a tough call and there's no question that casinos can't be equated to most other businesses since gambling is the only industry where one side must lose if the other wins. The Covid vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna were a win-win since the companies made a lot of money from developing and selling the product while the consumers and governments benefitted because it has helped stave off a deadly virus that has devastated people and economies for over a year. But it's hard to see the win-win when one side shows a huge loss simply because the other side had the huge win. In the case of Dana White, he said he was very disappointed with the Palms decision, but he also said the championship blackjack belt is one thing he will always cherish and is more valuable to him that the inability to play blackjack at that particular establishment.

Read insights from Hartley Henderson every week here at OSGA and check out Hartley's RUMOR MILL!

Sign-up for the OSGA Newsletter!

Every week get news and updates, exclusive offers and betting tips delivered right to you email inbox.