Casinos hoping odds in SJC case tilt in their favor

High court takes up challenge to blackjack rules

COULD A DISPUTE over the payout odds for blackjack actually rise to become a case before the Supreme Judicial Court? You bet.

In an unusual case, the state’s highest court will consider whether the state’s two casinos – Encore Boston Harbor and MGM Springfield – were legally allowed to offer less favorable odds than is typical in their blackjack games.

The SJC will hear arguments in the two cases Wednesday.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission sets the rules that casinos must abide by in their games. But when a dispute arises, it can go to the courts. In this case, after two judges decided the same issue in different ways, the SJC decided to intervene.

The case centers on the rules of blackjack. Typically, blackjack is played with odds of 3 to 2. That means if a player’s cards add up to 21, he or she is paid $150 for a $100 wager. But the game can be played with 6-to-5 odds – a payout of $120 for a $100 bet. Generally, the 6-to-5 odds – which are less advantageous to the player – are paid out in a variation of the game with slightly different rules that increase the player’s advantage.

Until the lawsuits were brought, however, Encore Boston Harbor and MGM Springfield were running blackjack games with the traditional rules — but with 6-to-5 odds. At Encore, the tables with 6 to 5 odds were generally ones where players could wager lower amounts.

In one of the cases, A. Richard Schuster vs. Wynn Resorts Holdings, Schuster, a blackjack player, filed a lawsuit arguing that Encore Boston Harbor should not be allowed to give a 6-to-5 payout without changing the rules to the 6-to-5 variation of the game. A similar case was brought by a player named Ted DeCosmo against MGM Springfield.

A Superior Court judge dismissed DeCosmo’s lawsuit against MGM, finding in favor of the casino. But a US District Court judge ruled in favor of Schuster, saying Encore could not give the lower payout.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission, whose Investigations and Enforcement Bureau examined the issue, has said its rules allowed 6-to-5 odds even with the traditional blackjack game, and the casinos did nothing wrong. After the US District Court ruling, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission clarified its rules to make clear that casinos could allow a 6-to-5 payout under traditional blackjack rules, as long as the odds are displayed in plain sight so players are aware of the rules. Those changes went into effect in October 2020.

The SJC took up the case to clarify the law in light of the disparate judicial rulings. While neither case challenges the Gaming Commission’s amended rules, attorneys for the players seek to have the casinos compensate players who were paid out using the lower odds during the time between when the casinos opened and when the Gaming Commission clarified its rules to explicitly allow the lower odds in traditional games. MGM opened in August 2018 and Encore in June 2019.

Schuster, in an SJC brief, pans the new rules as “anti-consumer” and says they will “bilk Massachusetts consumers out of an additional 30 million dollars in Blackjack revenues each year” — though he is not challenging the Gaming Commission’s authority to set those rules.

The casinos say they are simply playing by the rules. “There is no mystery behind why both gaming licensees, the [Massachusetts Gaming Commission], the [Investigations and Enforcement Bureau], and the Superior Court below have all concluded that the Blackjack Rules permit the challenged 6 to 5 blackjack payouts: they do,” attorneys for MGM Springfield wrote.