Casinos and Cake-Makers and Freedom

“I love blackjack, but I’m not addicted to gambling, I’m addicted to sitting in a semi-circle” – Mitch Hedberg

In 1962 Edward O. Thorp became the first person we know of to prove that blackjack could be beaten by counting cards. In perhaps what was not the best business move, Thorp published a book on the subject (Beat the Dealer), revealing to anybody who cared to read that the game could be beaten.

The general idea is that the game has memory. There are certain probabilities of winning and losing a hand that are a function of what cards you have, what card the dealer is showing, and what cards remain in the deck. It’s this last part that is critical. On a fresh deck your expected return from playing “optimal” strategy is slightly negative. However, if the remaining cards in the deck are more heavily weighted to “big cards” (10, J, Q, K, A) then you actually have a slightly positive expected return when playing optimal strategy. So, the general idea goes, you play optimal strategy, bet small when the count is against you, and bet large when the count is in your favor. You can, in this fairly straight-forward way, gain a positive expected return from playing blackjack – and make a ton of money in the process if you have a big bank roll.

Casinos do not like losing money. Some players win and some lose, but on average the house always wins because the games are always slightly positive expectation for the house (and negative expectation for the player). They do not like it when somebody figures out how to turn the tables against them and make a game positive expectation for the player (and thus negative for the house). So, they have tried a number of methods of putting an end to card-counting.

First they tried to claim it was illegal under “bunko-steering” laws. This attempt lost in court. How can a player possibly be told he must not act in his own best interest with publicly available information? Next they tried to change the rules of the game so that the card counters couldn’t gain an advantage. For example, they changed the rules about when you could split cards and double down. It turns out that these minor changes can make the game negative expectation for the player no matter how good of a card-counter they are – but it also makes the game even greater negative expectation for the average Joe player … and people stopped playing blackjack (and the casinos stopped making money).

Next they came up with limiting the betting range. If card-counters needed to bet high sometimes and low sometimes, the casinos could thwart them by limiting the bets to a specific amount per table (e.g. $20 a hand, no more, no less). This worked at stopping the card-counters, but it also hurt business (just like the rule changes did). People didn’t want to be forced to bet a specific amount so they stopped playing, and the casinos made less money. Next they shuffled more frequently. This too worked but it slowed down the rate of profit. Shuffling the deck after every hand eliminates the prospect for successful card counting, but it also slows the game down dramatically and hurts profit margins.

Finally the casinos found the necessary policy tool: the right to refuse service. They would simply look for the tell-tale signs of card-counting and kick people out who were suspected. “It’s our casino, our private business, and we can deny service to anybody we want for any reason we want at any time we want – no explanations necessary.” This did it. The solo card-counter was all but finished. The battle wasn’t over of course. The counters formed teams that could effectively bet high & low without getting caught, and then casinos eventually introduced automatic shufflers to allow fast game play and effectively reshuffle after each hand. But for our purposes, the policy of interest is refusal of service.

Did they have a right to do this? Did the casinos have a right to offer a service and then decide to deny that service to certain patrons? I contend that freedom and equality demand that they did have the right, and continue to have the right do manage their business in whatever way they see fit. It’s private property, private business, private interaction, and freedom of association. I do not have an unassailable right to gamble at a Las Vegas casino, therefore my rights have not been violated if the casino denies me service. (For the record, I have never set foot in a casino.)

Ahh, if only cake-makers had the same rights as casinos.

Jack Philips owns Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, CO. Philips is a Christian and holds that homosexuality is a sin. (This isn’t a post about homosexuality, but the Bible is unambiguous on the issue.) In 2012 Philips refused to bake a cake for a homosexual “married” couple because he said it violated his Christian beliefs.  Just last week a Denver judged found that Philips had “discriminated” against the couple and could no longer refuse service to gay couples.

What, pray tell, is the difference here? Why can a casino refuse service while the cake-maker cannot? Welcome to Thought Police America. You are allowed to hold whatever religious beliefs you want, hold whatever thoughts you want, say whatever you want, so long as you do not violate the state-religion’s doctrine of multiculturalism when exchanging the state-religion’s idol of money for the production of your life (which presumably is something wholly owned by you.)

I don’t happen to agree with Philips application of Biblical teaching here. I don’t find it to be a violation of conscience to produce a cake for a wedding that I find objectionable. To my knowledge the gay couple requesting the cake had not claimed to be Christians (in which case Philips would have a legitimate argument based on 1 Cor 5:11). But if they were simply looking to buy a cake making no pretense of Christian adherence, then I find no fault with the cake-maker. But I fully defend Philips right to deny service to whoever he wants, whenever he wants, for whatever reason he wants – it’s his business. Freedom demands it. Equality demands it. As it stands, Philips is made less equal, a second class citizen, because of his religious adherence. Is this still America?

From the article:

“At first blush, it may seem reasonable that a private business should be able to refuse service to anyone it chooses,” Judge Spencer wrote on Friday. “This view, however, fails to take into account the cost to society and the hurt caused to persons who are denied service simply because of who they are.”

I get the argument here, but how is it that a person has a right to acquire my services if I choose to deny them? By entering the workforce did I surrender my freedom? Did I become a slave by simply deciding to work for a living? Is it only the lazy who have full freedom of association?

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