07/09/2003 11:00PM

Taking an edge and getting punished

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LAS VEGAS - Casinos need gamblers. That's a pretty obvious statement. After all, if people are unable or unwilling to play games of chance, the casinos would all fade away.

More than 35 million visitors come to Las Vegas every year. A lot of them come to gamble, but over the years casinos have found that some people come for the weather, the sightseeing, the shows, the shopping, the nightlife, and everything else the town has to offer. Many of those visitors were found to be uneducated about casino games and perhaps intimidated by trying to learn in a live gaming situation with their hard-earned money at risk.

So, what did the casinos do? They started offering free gambling classes. They would teach novices how to play the games and how to increase their chances of winning. Also, as more gambling books became available, you could find them in casino gift shops, as well as blackjack "basic strategy" cards and similar aids.

Of course, there was an ulterior motive: Casinos wanted the neophytes to feel comfortable and gamble. People were not as upset about losing their money if they felt they had a fair shake, and they had fun while doing it. They would tend to see it as entertainment, with the chance to win big.

But what happens when the student surpasses the teacher, when the gambler uses this knowledge to beat the house?

It's a slippery slope, and a classic example of a Catch-22, which Webster's defines as "a paradox in a law, regulation or practice that makes one a victim of its provisions no matter what one does."

Like any other company, Las Vegas casinos can refuse to take your business. But there are limits.

A disturbing in-depth article in last Sunday's Las Vegas Review-Journal brought a lot of this to the forefront. Reporter Rod Smith detailed several cases where gamblers claim to have been detained, handcuffed, strip-searched, interrogated, and threatened by casino security guards. They are described as "advantage gamblers," who find a weakness in a casino game through their intellect, either through card-counting, noticing "tells" when a dealer checks a hole card, tracking biased roulette wheels, or taking advantage of favorable pay schedules in slot machines.

These aren't cheaters - they're just looking for an edge and betting when they find it. It's just like a sports bettor who pounds inaccurate gambling lines. It's not illegal, but the casinos don't like it.

Now, that's where the Catch-22 comes in. The casino is full of "advantage gamblers." Isn't that everyone's goal? It's a dream scenario, one that was demonstrated in the movie "Rain Man" with Dustin Hoffman's autistic character counting cards for Tom Cruise's character.

In horse racing, we generally don't have to worry about such issues. With parimutuel wagering, the house - in this case both the host track and the race book - takes its cut and redistributes the rest to the winners. Race books historically have been great about providing as much information to help players handicap, whether it's in reduced price (or often free) copies of the Daily Racing Form, statistical information, or in-house handicappers. You're not betting against the house, and they're more than happy if you win, especially if you churn that money back into the pools and they continue to take their cut.

But even race books have received criticism lately for their decision to not take or limit the amount you can wager on house quinellas (bets that casinos book themselves when a track doesn't offer quinella wagering), specifically when two horses appear to hold a strong edge over their rivals.

It causes a lot of bad will when gamblers think they have found a good bet and it's taken away from them.

So, it's good to see that in response to last Sunday's Review-Journal story, the Nevada Gaming Control Board is looking to get a clarification from the state attorney general, former Gaming Commission chairman Brian Sandoval, on how to deal with advantage gamblers. The Board wants to make sure casinos are handling these cases in a fair way and not overstepping any bounds.

Besides, if gamblers fear being treated that way, you can see what that would do for business. Players have to believe they have the ability to win, especially by skillful means, or they will stop playing.