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Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Travel

When High Rollers Get Screwed Over by Vegas Casinos, They Call This Guy

There's a breed of professional gambler known as advantage players. They employ perfectly legal methods -- counting cards, tracking shuffles, peeking at the hole cards of sloppy dealers, etc. -- to extract piles of money from casinos. And even though they’re breaking no laws, casino bosses despise them. Sometimes they treat these advantage players -- also known as APs -- like cheaters. Security guards handcuff them, not-so-veiled threats are made, their chips are refused. Occasionally the APs will even get thrown in jail.

And then they call Bob Nersesian.

Based in Las Vegas, operating out of a house converted to an office, situated in the shadows of shimmering Strip casinos, Nersesian, 59, is the go-to guy for advantage players who think they have been wronged. He’s taken large casino companies to court, stood up to cops and overly zealous security guards, pressed executives to cash-out winners. While he has no interest in representing cheaters, Nersesian, author of a recently published book entitled The Law for Gamblers: A Legal Guide to the Casino Environment, stands up for brainy and talented players who bring down the house and sometimes burn it to the ground.

On a sunny afternoon in September, Nersesian took time out from defending his big-betting clients to tell us what happens when gamblers win too big and casinos get out of line. Here he is, in his own words.

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Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Back in 1996, about five years after my wife and I moved from Detroit to Las Vegas, I played in a friendly poker game with four other lawyers and a construction guy. We spent more time drinking beer than playing cards and the stakes were something like 25 cents to a dollar. So none of the players were major gamblers -- including the construction guy who told us about being roughed up by security guards in a casino. They mistook him for an undesirable of some sort. He was handcuffed, taken into a back-room, and threatened -- before they realized that they had the wrong person.

Hearing his story, debating whether or not he had a case against this particular casino, the other lawyers said, “You’ve got dick. You can’t get anything from a casino.”

I said, “Wait a minute. We’re talking talking about false imprisonment and battery here. Once you’re handcuffed, it becomes battery.”

What happened to our friend didn’t seem right and, as things turned out, it wasn’t. He and I sued the casino and we wound up with a five figure settlement. The case never even came close to going to trial. The lawyers in my game were stunned. They didn’t get it. They said they didn’t think I could get money out of a casino -- especially via settlement. For most plaintiff attorneys, settlements are driven by medical expenses. My cases don’t have medical expenses.

What they do have are people employed by large corporations getting way out of line. Even before cases involving casinos came across my desk, I knew what card counting was, I knew what advantage play was, and, from what I heard, casino people were insane to think they could get away with handcuffing customers, threatening them, and dragging them into backrooms.

I’ve received oblique threats from casino executives -- one said to me, “You think you can keep getting away with this? Your time will come!”

I further confirmed this after a business-law client of mine -- an insurance salesman who card-counted on the side -- got handcuffed and back-roomed at the old Maxim casino. He wasn’t doing anything illegal -- you get amazing results when the law is on your side -- and Maxim settled with us. It went that way for a while. My name started to spread. People found out that I was willing to go up against the casinos and I began getting calls. Into the early 2000s, it wasn’t enough to transform my business, or to become a major component of my practice -- which centered around card dealers, car manufacturers, and business litigation -- but I found these cases to be interesting. I liked the idea of getting justice for people who had been abused by casinos.

Other people, though, aren’t so crazy about it. I’ve received oblique threats from casino executives -- one said to me, “You think you can keep getting away with this? Your time will come!” -- he was either talking about me losing my license or threatening me with bodily harm -- and then there are the local lawyers who believe that what I do is completely wrong. Their collective attitude is that casinos are the lifeblood of Las Vegas, of our community, and that I shouldn’t go against them.

Obviously I disagree with that. In fact, I think I’m doing a service to Las Vegas. When there are 10 major gambling destinations in America and 1,000 minor ones, would you go to a place where security guards kick your ass for no reason? Or to the place where you feel safe gambling? I am helping to maintain the latter.

Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

"The casino’s goons beat the sh*t out of him" 

I had done no more than 14 of these cases when a series of career changers came up. In 2001 or 2002, James Grosjean and Michael Russo -- two of the smartest, sharpest advantage-players in Las Vegas -- came into my office. I had never heard of these guys before, but they had an incident at Caesars Palace. James had been in jail for four days and Mike had been held for one day. They both posted bail. The casino accused them of card-bending -- which is an illegal way of subtly marking cards -- while playing the game of Three Card Poker.

But these guys were not card benders. They did a move known as hole carding -- where you prey on weak dealers who are accidentally exposing their hole cards. It’s not illegal, and I watched them doing it on surveillance video. Looking at the video, you can see exactly what was going on: They were taking advantage of the sloppiest dealer you ever saw. Hell, if I was sitting at a table with that dealer, I would have been hole carding as well.

In my opinion the casino knew exactly what they were doing and the card-bending accusation was completely fabricated to get the guys in more trouble. James and Mike were handcuffed and thrown in jail. We received a highly publicized jury verdict on that case. But it got better. An organization known as the Griffin Detective Agency was employed by all the casinos in town to help monitor APs and cheaters. They published a large book with photos of these people on one page and whatever they were thought to be doing on the facing page. It said in the book that Mike was a card-bender and that James associated with criminals. Neither of those allegations were true -- and they contributed to the Caesars incident. We sued Griffin and received a six figure sum for defamation of character. The debt seemed to prompt Griffin to file bankruptcy.

At around the same time, James was just walking through a former casino called Imperial Palace. He wasn’t even gambling. But personnel there were in the midst of investigating a team of advantage players that they thought James was a part of. The team was hole carding and signaling one another -- two things that are completely legal, by the way. That fact that James was not even part of this team didn’t seem to mean much. He was spotted in the casino, casino security people and agents from the Gaming Control Board pushed James against a wall, handcuffed him, and held him against his will. Through all of that, they could not identify a crime that he had committed. I thought it was outrageous -- and a jury agreed. He received $100,000 in compensatory damages and a verdict of $500,000 in punitive damages.

These cases got a lot of public attention -- James and Mike broke through walls that the casino industry had set up and they they liked talking about it. Plus they were intimately involved in putting together their cases. They know so much about how the casino industry works and are so good at strategizing that they proved to be extremely helpful.

Though Grosjean got treated badly, one of the worst abuses of power that I’ve seen involved a known advantage player -- a guy who excelled at card-counting, sorting, sequencing, shuffle tracking -- he was just the best in the world at everything. He got spotted eating dinner in a casino. Security responded by having some guards hold him down on the floor while others kicked him repeatedly. He was internationally famous for legally winning lots of money from casinos, so the casino’s goons beat the shit out of him. That makes no sense, and it resulted in a healthy but confidential settlement.

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Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

The fine art of suing the cops

It really gets crazy out there. One case I’m working on now involves a hairstylist from New Jersey who was counting cards at the Hard Rock, got backroomed, was threatened, handcuffed, and had his cellphone taken away -- all because he refused to show his ID while trying to cash out some chips. Then there’s the guy I represented who had been ace sequencing at blackjack -- following shuffles in a way that allowed him to predict when the very valuable aces will be coming his way. He made a big bet, received the ace, and the casino decided to cancel the hand. That is completely ridiculous. But he remained reasonable. In the aftermath, all he wanted was to be paid what getting an ace for your first card is worth -- 50.4% of your bet. But the casino wouldn’t give him that. Instead, when he returned, hoping to obtain a copy of the surveillance footage, he wound up getting tackled and dragged to the security office.

Sometimes you don’t even have to gamble to find yourself receiving unwanted attention. Casinos regularly do sweeps for prostitutes. They look for attractive women, well-dressed and unescorted by men. My client was a very attractive topless dancer and a nursing student but not a prostitute.

She was in a Vegas casino, security assumed she was hooking -- never mind that she was waiting for her boyfriend to join her for a late dinner -- and pulled her into a back room with a number of supposed working girls. They ran her ID and she did not come up as somebody who had previously been ejected from a casino. But security decided that they still had probable cause to take her into custody. They didn’t have cause. The judge agreed. I can’t give you the total amount of money that we got -- the settlement is confidential -- but I can tell you that the Las Vegas police gave us in excess of $50,000. That was huge. Any time you get more than 50 from the city, you have dinged them. They nearly never have to pay. The law is stacked against anyone who sues the police.

I’ve found that a number of casinos don’t like to pay either. Thankfully they’ve become less likely to beat the crap out of you, but they find other ways to illegally intimidate advantage players -- and one way is to not let you cash out your chips. Late one night I received a call from a woman we’ll refer to as Mary Smith. She was being confronted by three casino security guards and a police officer in Tunica, Mississippi. The casino refused to cash her chips and she was being accused of cheating.

I got a cop on the phone and said, “What cheating? I know this person. She is my client. She does not cheat.”

The cop told me she was card counting. I said, “Sir, that is not cheating.”

He asked me to hold on a minute and began interfacing with people from the casino. They agreed that card counting is not illegal and the cop was told that he got called there because she refused to leave. I heard him say to the casino security guards, “But she has $30,000 in chips! Cash them out and then she will leave.”

He left with his $70,000 and I got a spiffy check: $10,000 for working from noon to 4:30 on a weekend day. It was nice and easy.

So that got resolved easily enough. Other times it can be trickier. Late on a Saturday morning, a guy called to tell me he was being held in custody. He was an advantage player who had a particularly smart, legal, way of winning casino drawings. He won $70,000, filled out a W-2 with his correct social security number but gave a different name and showed an alias ID -- a driver’s license from Alabama. They said he gave a wrong name. But what’s a name? People call me Bob, but it doesn’t say Bob on my ID. As for the ID he showed them, in Nevada it’s illegal to use a driver’s license that does not have your birth name on it. But the law here defines a driver’s license as a document issued by the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles. What my client showed is not a license issued by the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles. It is a piece of paper. It’s nothing.

I did my best to explain this to the police officer. He listened and disappeared for a few minutes. Then the guy came back, handed me my client’s Alabama driver’s license and grudgingly said that my client should be allowed to receive his money. He left with his $70,000 and I got a spiffy check: $10,000 for working from noon to 4:30 on a weekend day. It was nice and easy.

A license to steal

Indian casinos are tougher. They’re located on sovereign land, and that pretty much gives them licenses to steal. For example, there was a team of advantage players in Arizona who took advantage of a slot-machine promotion. By playing under certain conditions on a slow day of the the week, they were able to realize a 2.7% advantage on the machines -- all perfectly legal and offered voluntarily by the casino. It may not sound like much, but the team was comprised of several players and they were each putting through $500 per minute. So they were earning around $800-per-hour each.

They played those machines as often as they could, they crushed them, and the casino eventually figured out what was going on. Officers from the state police, the sheriff’s department, tribal police, and casino security all put my clients into a backroom and interrogated them. My clients were honest. They said that they beat the machines because of this advantageous promotion. But casino security didn’t seem to care. They took whatever money my clients had in their pockets and pushed them out onto the street -- and the cops helped. I got the money back, received a couple-hundred-thousand-dollars from the state and resolved the matter with individual security officers. You have to remember that outright theft occurred in this case; they had no right to take my clients’ money or to detain them.

People hear stories like this and they realize that I work with a lot of very sharp gamblers. It usually leads them to ask me about my own gambling habits. I enjoy craps a lot, but I don't play it very often because I’m too cheap. And here is the other thing: I know the law of large numbers; I know that I can’t beat the game in the long run, and I don’t like giving money away to casinos.

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Michael Kaplan, a journalist based in Brooklyn, is a senior features writer at the New York Post. His work has also appeared in DetailsWired, Playboy, and The New York Times Magazine. He covers gambling for Cigar Aficionado, and is the author of four books. NY. Follow him @kaplanwords.