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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Blackjack and Cognitive Enhancement

Blackjack players who “count cards” keep track of cards that have already been played and use this knowledge to turn the probability of winning in their favor. Though many casinos eject card counters or otherwise make their task more difficult, card counting is perfectly legal. So long as card counters rely on their own memory and computational skills, they have violated no laws and can make sizable profits.

By contrast, if players use a device to count cards, like a smartphone, they have committed a serious crime. For example, several iPhone apps helps players count cards and at least one has a “stealth mode” that lets users surreptitiously enter data and receive feedback. In response, the Nevada Gaming Control Board issued an open letter reminding the public that using such an app when betting at blackjack violates the state’s antidevice statute which provides for up to 6 years imprisonment for a first offense. Somehow using a device to augment our abilities to remember and to calculate turns a perfectly legal activity into an offense with a very serious penalty.

The fact that we do not criminalize natural, unassisted card counting raises interesting questions of criminal and constitutional law: Could we criminalize natural card counting without violating fundamental principles that protect thought privacy? (Email me for a manuscript on that question.) In this recently published paper, however, I focus on a puzzle about technological enhancement. Namely, can we justify criminalizing device-assisted card counting but not unassisted card counting?

The importance of the question extends beyond the world of blackjack and casino gaming because it appears, at least superficially, that antidevice statutes criminalize a kind of technological enhancement. Some ethicists distinguish therapies that seek to return us to normal, healthy functioning from enhancements that promise to give us extraordinary abilities. People are often much more comfortable with therapies (e.g., drugs or devices to treat attention deficit disorder) than with enhancements (e.g., drugs or devices to give us better-than-normal concentration).

As a historical matter, casinos lobbied for antidevices statutes in the 1980s to protect their revenue as computers were becoming more popular and accessible. I focus on a deeper question: Is there any moral justification for permitting an activity, like card counting, when it uses only our natural abilities but severely punishing the activity when it is technologically enhanced? I consider a couple of possible justifications for the differential treatment and suggest that both are lacking.

[Adapted from Criminalizing Card Counting at the Blackjack Table]

Posted by Adam Kolber on April 30, 2013 at 07:14 AM | Permalink


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Thanks, Ted for your very sensible analysis! I do vaguely note that anti-device laws were a response to casinos concerns about profitability when computers started to become more portable. And I think I make something closer to your point in my manuscript. But the main reason I say little about it is that I'm not trying to give a historical account of why we treat devices differently. Instead, I'm exploring whether there is a moral justification for doing so.

On certain views a pareto-improvement account of the current state of the law could be viewed as a moral account, so perhaps I should say more about it. But your comment speaks to whether casinos should be permitted to eject rather than whether or not we ought to have device laws. For example, perhaps casinos can do a good enough job of ejecting those they think are using devices without relying on heavy criminal sanctions. In any event, thanks for looking at the piece, and I welcome any other thoughts you may have about it.

Posted by: Adam Kolber | May 6, 2013 12:09:21 PM

The paper ignores a pragmatic reason for the distinction: by permitting natural card counting, casinos encourage and win money from incompetent card counters who suffer from Dunning-Kruger effect. Permitting the use of a computer enhancement to play perfectly optimally, however, would end the practice of incompetent card counting (and likely even regular play, simce even non-counters would buy an app) and would require countermeasures that make blackjack much less fun for everybody. I don't know a single card counter who wants to permit mechanical enhancement; indeed, the vast majority are unhappy with the New Jersey court decision barring the barring of counters, because the resulting countermeasures make it too difficult to play blackjack profitably in Atlantic City. The fact that Las Vegas casinos, by and large, refuse to adopt these countermeasures show that the status quo cat-and-mouse game is a Pareto improvement by which both card counters and casinos do better (at the expense of incompetent card counters).

Posted by: Ted | May 6, 2013 11:02:37 AM

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