Monday, January 30, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

House Wins: Top Massachusetts Court Backs Blackjack With a Twist

Casinos that offer some gamblers a stingier payout prevailed Wednesday against gamblers who said the tortured odds allowed operators to unfairly reap tens of millions a year.

BOSTON (CN) — Massachusetts casinos did not break the law in paying only 6:5 odds for blackjack, rather than the more standard 3:2 odds, the state’s high court ruled Wednesday, resolving two enormous class actions.

Although the court said the rules of blackjack as written by the state’s gaming commission were “garbled” and impossible to understand, it deferred to the commission's determination that what the casinos did was OK.

“Therefore, the plaintiffs lose this last bet,” Justice Scott Kafker wrote for the unanimous court, in a 31-page ruling rife with double entendres. “They should have quit while they were ahead.”

The lawsuits claimed that many players were unknowingly steered into a variant where they got only 6:5 for a blackjack — an ace along with a 10 or face card — instead of the traditional 3:2 payout.

On a $20 bet, that’s the difference between winning $24 versus $30. Over hundreds of thousands of hands, the differential amounts to as much as $30 million a year for the casino operators.

A state judge sided with the casinos in one of the cases below, and in the other a federal judge sided with the gamblers. The federal judge then certified the question to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court so it could issue consistent rulings in both cases.

The gaming commission’s rules provide for a standard version of blackjack with a 3:2 payout and a “6:5 variation” in which other factors (such as the number of decks used, splits and insurance) are more favorable to the gambler. But they also suggest the possibility that a casino could pay 6:5 odds without playing the 6:5 variation, which is what was done by the Encore casino near Boston and the MGM casino in Springfield.

After the lawsuits were filed in 2019, the commission clarified the rules last year to say what the casinos did was OK. Still, the lawsuits went forward for the period before the rules were clarified.

The justices were highly frustrated at oral argument by how badly the original rules were written. “What we have here is a mess,” Justice David Lowy complained in April.

In his opinion Kafker humorously described the rules as “an interpretative challenge” and “at least somewhat ambiguous” before concluding that there was simply no good way to make any sense out of them. But he said that the commission’s own interpretation was entitled to deference.

The court was also concerned that what the casinos did was unfair to players, who faced longer odds than at higher-stakes tables with more lenient rules. Lowy in particular had been worried that the casinos were deliberately steering people with gambling problems to the higher-stakes tables with better payouts.

But Kafker said the basic rules of the 6:5 game were displayed on the tables or were otherwise obvious, so players knew what they were getting into.

“The plaintiffs understood the rules and the stakes,” Kafker wrote. “Although Encore and MGM chose to operate a house-friendly game, they did not deceive players into believing it would be more player-friendly than it actually was.”

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.