10/16/2003 11:00PM

In all blackjack wars, casinos hold upper hand

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Columnist Jim Murray once wrote: "Everybody wants to be something, whether it's president of the United States or lead tenor at the Met. Some people want to be first-string quarterback or a heavyweight contender. Me, I always wanted to be barred from a casino."

It's a great line, but maybe being barred from casinos is not as much fun as it used to be.

Name a gambler who wouldn't give his eyeteeth to know he can win money by beating the races, or in the case of a casino, beating the house. There's an old axiom that money won is much, much sweeter than money earned.

There are a small percentage of gamblers who win consistently. In horse racing, the casinos love them. The more the players win, the more they churn the money through the tote machines creating more hold for the casinos. That is the beauty of the takeout in parimutuel wagering.

In nearly all other casino games, the opposite is true. Winning players, called advantage gamblers by the industry, can make a sizable dent in the casino's winnings.

At last month's Global Gaming Expo here in Las Vegas, industry analysts estimated that advantage players can skim as much as 3 percent of a casino's winnings for the year.

The most popular cases involving advantage players are in blackjack. The Nevada Supreme Court has ruled that card counting, shuffle tracking, team play, etc. are legal. However, casino operators have the right to ask players who win using those skills, or any player for that matter, to leave the premises.

Blackjack players are fighting back but it's more than an uphill climb. Only two states, Missouri and New Jersey, have rules in place to protect card counting as legitimate and legal. Last August, the Ameristar Casino Hotel in Kansas City was fined $25,000 by the Missouri Gaming Commission. The penalty was for refusing to deal to a card counter.

Those casinos do have weapons at their disposal in the blackjack wars. Some countermeasures include the right to shuffle at will, prohibit players from joining a game in mid-shoe, allowing only one spot per player at a table, and raising or lowering the minimum and maximum bets at a table at will.

Keith Copher, chief enforcement officer for the Nevada Gaming Control Board, said at the Global Gaming Expo that gaming regulators seldom get involved. Still, some players have complained that they've been roughed up, detained, had their winnings confiscated, or been charged with a minor offenses by overzealous security.

Bobby Siller, a Nevada Gaming Control Board member, said that such complaints are civil issues between the advantage players and the individual casinos.

Apparently long gone are the days of Benny Binion, who welcomed all bets, and the bigger, the better. It has been replaced by a slot-machine mentality where management can account for the wins and the losses in very strict terms.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up Show.