Joseph Shiraef, a Georgian blackjack player and card counter, is suing the Ameristar Casino in Black Hawk for illegally detaining him for what he claims was a legal activity: card counting. The case has been in front of the US District Court for the District of Colorado since October 2022. Mr. Shiraef is seeking $3 million in damages – $1.5 million in economic and compensatory damages and $1.5 million in punitive damages.
The plaintiff has complained that since he was detained with no probable cause, his 4th Amendment rights against reasonable searches and seizures were violated. The casino management subjected him to acts of false imprisonment and also refused to cash in his chips. His complaint also accuses the Black Hawk City police of failing to train their officers properly.
The Legality of Card Counting in the US
Card counting is the art (mostly mental) of keeping tabs on the cards that have been drawn, vis-à-vis the ones that are yet to be dealt with. The objective of counting cards is usually to try and gain an advantage over the house in the game of blackjack. It has always been considered a gray area, especially given that it is more of a mental activity than a physical one.
In Colorado, mentally counting cards is perfectly legal, provided that the player is purely relying on their mental acuity and not on any device, object, or other person. That said, in Shiraef’s case, Colorado Gaming agent Nguyen is heard on the mobile video stating that card counting is, in fact, illegal in the state of Colorado. He said:
“I’m going to go review the videos. If the videos show that you were committing a crime by cheating or counting cards, you will have a warrant for your arrest. In the state of Colorado, that’s not allowed.”
During the incident, the player was down $4,000, and after being left with $1,800 worth of chips, he was approached by a casino floor manager demanding to see his driver’s license. Shiraef had declined, notifying the staff of the wristband that indicated that he had already presented his ID when entering the premises. And for unknown reasons, he was still restricted from withdrawing the remaining chips and prevented from leaving the casino.
In his opinion, the casino was persistent in getting a hold of his ID for the sole purpose of sharing his details with other casinos so as to get him banned from accessing other casinos. In the video footage, Shiraef is heard outright inquiring whether counting cards can warrant an arrest, to which Nguyen responds:
“It is illegal. It is a form of fraudulent activity in the state of Colorado.”
This exchange, which took place in front of Black Hawk Police Patrol Sgt. Whitman has drawn the public's attention, some of whom are advocating for the casino to be held accountable for what happened. Due to the detainment, Shiraef ended up missing his flight home that evening. The trip to the casino was a detour after a long layover at the Denver International Airport while awaiting his flight earlier that day. Shiraef told FOX31.
“I have to laugh about it myself. It’s the only way I can cope with how ridiculous it was when I watched that video. It was definitely not a funny evening for me, though, at all,”
Shiraef has given statements insisting that the only wrong thing that happened was him being held against his will, which he claimed left him in utter shock. He had told FOX31 Problem Solvers:
“Well, I knew that it was wrong, and I was just kind of in a state of shock at how ignorant city officials were acting,”
The Colorado Department of Revenue Chimed In
This incident happened in October 2021, and the federal lawsuit names three parties as the defendants. They are the casino, Gaming and Leisure Properties (Ameristar’s parent company), the city of Black Hawk, Nguyen (a Colorado Gaming Commission agent), and Whitman (a city police officer).
On Wednesday 3rd, a judge granted some motions to dismiss the accusations against Gaming and Leisure Properties, the City of Black Hawk, and Whitman. Shiraef then responded by filing other motions to have the judge reconsider his decision. However, the motions to reconsider were also dismissed. On the flip side, the verdict also allowed the plaintiff to carry on with its cases against the casino as an entity, as well as Nguyen, who no longer works for the DOR. DOR spokesman Daniel Carr responded to some of the issues raised in the lawsuit, saying:
“A gaming officer must thoroughly investigate the incident to ensure that Colorado Rules have not been violated. In the incident you have inquired about, the player left in a rush, unbeknownst to the gaming officer or casino operator, after refusing to comply with Colorado statutes that require patrons to produce IDs, exhibiting suspicious behaviors. Due to the behaviors, the patron was confronted dutifully by a Gaming Officer to investigate the suspicious activities.”
Carr added that while a casino reserves the right of admission once it has ascertained that a player is really good at counting cards, it is not illegal. On the other hand, marking cards or using some technological means to count cards is unlawful.
Shiraef Case Might Have Just Received a Shot in The Arm
Following the judge’s decision to dismiss Shiraef’s reconsideration motion, there is a high chance that the case against Ameristar and Nguyen will proceed stronger than before. The mobile video is the crucial piece of evidence, and since both Ameristar staff and Nguyen prominently feature, it will be what makes or breaks the entire case.
Experienced card counters have always been considered a threat in some premises as their mental skills give them some edge over the house. As the case unfolds, it is sure to remain in the spotlight, serving as a focal point for discussions about the rights of gamblers and the responsibilities of casinos in maintaining security and fairness on their premises.