A few years ago, the entrance to the MGM Grand casino was quite literally -- a lions mouth. Gamblers trekked right into the underbelly of a giant feline which, at least symbolically, consumed and digested all who entered the passageway between her golden jaws. On February 10, 2007 I walked into the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. I could not possibly have foreseen the lions mouth into which I was entering, nor the public controversy that was about to follow.
Once inside the colossal MGM, which justly bills itself The City of Entertainment, I went to the sportsbook. I cashed a winning sports ticket and collected $1,050. Next, I hiked over to the main casino cage to cash a $5,000 MGM gaming chip. What follows is a verbatim recollection of the conversation which took place at approximately 2 pm that afternoon:
Nolan Dalla: Hi, I would like to cash this $5,000 casino chip.
Cashier: What game did you get this chip from?
Nolan Dalla: I did not get the chip from a gaming table. Ive had it at my home for some time.
Cashier: Why did you have it at your home?
Nolan Dalla: I do not come into the MGM very often. Its been sitting there about a month or so, but I want to cash it since Im here today.
Cashier: Are you a player here?
Nolan Dalla: Yes, I have a One Club Card. I do not have my card with me, but here is my ID (shows valid drivers license).
Cashier: (Looks up status and level of play on computer) Mr. Dalla, I do not show that you have any recent table-game activity.
Nolan Dalla: Yes, thats correct. But, I am an MGM customer. I play poker here, bet on sports, and play some video poker.
Cashier: Ill be right back (Cashier goes over to Cage Manager. A few minutes pass. Cage Manager approaches window).
Cage Manager: Sir, we have a problem. You say you did not get this from a gaming table here at the MGM?
Nolan Dalla: Thats correct. Its been sitting at my home. I obtained the chip at the Bellagio Poker Room about a month ago from a friend.
Cage Manager: Why did he give it to you?
Nolan Dalla: He owed me some money so I accepted the chip from him. Casino chips are frequently passed around in the high-limit section at the Bellagio Poker Room. This is nothing unusual.
Cage Manager: Yes it is. You are not supposed to cash someone elses chip. Who does the chip belong to?
Nolan Dalla: It belongs to me.
Cage Manager: Who did the chip belong to before you got it?
Nolan Dalla: It belonged to (name of person). He lives in (another state).
Cage Manager: (Looks up name of player on computer) I see that (name of person) has not been rated at the MGM in years.
Nolan Dalla: I know nothing about his level of play. I do know he plays regularly and stays at the Bellagio. Isnt the Bellagio an MGM-Mirage property?
Cage Manager: Yes, but thats irrelevant.
Nolan Dalla: Is it irrelevant that I have never had a problem exchanging or cashing chips at the Bellagio in the past? In fact, Ive never had any problem cashing chips anywhere in Las Vegas before.
Cage Manager: We have our own policy at the MGM. They should not allow exchanging chips over there either.
Nolan Dalla: Okay, so what does all this mean?
Cage Manager: It means I am not going to cash this chip. In fact, I am going to confiscate it.
Nolan Dalla: Confiscate it? On what basis?
Cage Manager: We do not cash any chip unless we can verify their source.
Nolan Dalla: So, is your policy that you will not cash a one-dollar ship unless someone can prove where they obtained it?
Cage Manager: Well, we only ask questions about our large denomination chips.
Nolan Dalla: Let me be perfectly clear. I am an MGM customer. I produced a valid ID. I told you where I got the chip. In fact, I got it at another MGM property which has never refused to cash chips of this size. I have never heard of a licensed Nevada casino refusing to pay a customer.
Cage Manager: There is nothing I can do unless you can prove that the chip is rightfully yours and that you got it from one of our gaming tables (he gives a receipt which records that the chip was officially confiscated at the MGM).
Imagine going into a casino and having your chip snatched up by the cashier! When confronted with such an astonishing deed, one has different reactions. After my emotional outrage subsided, a more practical response came over me which sought answers. In retrospect, there are many things I could have done differently. Initially, I might not have accepted the chip from my friend. Perhaps I should have gambled at the MGM for a few minutes and broken down the chip into smaller denominations. Its even been suggested by some who already know about this story that I could have lied and told the cashier that I gambled at the MGM and got the chip at a gaming table.
But I dont like lies. I especially despise the notion of telling them. After all, Ive done nothing wrong here. I voluntarily took possession of a casino chip, which is a common practice inside Las Vegas poker rooms and sportsbooks. High-stakes professional poker players and serious sports bettors are involved in a legitimate cash-based business. This includes backing, lending, and other perfectly legal and customary transactions between players. Are casino chips exchanged in legitimate backing deals between poker players now to be subject to confiscation? These are serious questions with far-reaching potential implications for hundreds if not thousands of players.
A bit of history is in order. The practice of exchanging chips is not restricted to casinos. It is a 70-year-old practice that dates back to the days when gamblers did not want to carry large amounts of cash on their person. Virtually every serious gambler in Las Vegas has carried around large denomination chips, and sometimes, even exchanged them with fellow players. Many casino poker games have included an odd chip or two in the pot from a stray casino. As recently as a few years ago, chips from the Mirage and Bellagio casinos were traded openly in high-limit poker games at Binions Horseshoe. There was a time when casino chips were even used at local grocery stores to buy milk and bread. They were used in restaurants to pay for meals. Casino chips were even dropped into the collection plate at local churches. Casino chips have been Las Vegas unofficial currency since gambling was legalized in 1931. You cant exchange a dollar bill for silver or gold bullion anymore, but an honest gambler could always rely on getting paid in cash if and when he went to a Las Vegas casino with a chip in his hand.
The era when the customer was king all but ended on February 10, 2007. For years, card-counters and so-called advantage players have been hassled by casinos and were even sometimes refused payment on their winnings. Nevada attorney Bob Nersesian, who has represented many professional gamblers in lawsuits with casinos, wrote some very good advice in his book Beat the Players. His book provides a checklist in case if what to do when a casino refuses to pay a player.
Unfortunately, I read Nersesians advice after the incident. Nonetheless, I followed his recommendation and immediately contacted the Nevada Gaming Board. The NGB is a public institution entrusted with the important task of enforcing state gaming laws. In essence, the NGB is the only organization with the power to force a casino into paying off a customer. I hoped and trusted that the NGB would investigate the matter, and rule in my favor.
If the MGMs refusal to cash my $5,000 chip was a slap in the face, my visit to the NGB in Las Vegas was a punch in the stomach. Upon my arrival, a Gaming Enforcement Agent took me into a small room. I was interviewed for approximately 20 minutes. It was explained to me there was nothing the NGB could, nor would do on my behalf (Note: For a more detailed report of my interview with the NGB, please see the latest edition of The Intelligent Gambler).
When the Las Vegas Sun heard about my story and published an article on March 9, 2007 (Chips no longer good as cash, by reporter Liz Benston), I expected the MGM Grand to finally come to its senses. Jeopardizing the publics trust cant possibly be good for business. After all, a customer must have confidence in the unwritten and unspoken bond which exists between casino and player -- that the bearer of a chip will get rightfully paid when that time comes. Several gambling forums (including 2+2) lit up with news that I had been stiffed by the MGM. I heard from some gamblers who stated they would not play at that casino again. Sadly, throughout the entire ordeal the MGM has ignored this story, hoping (I presume) that it will disappear and fade away.
Well, this story will not fade away. Its important for five-thousand very good reasons, and more. This controversy centers on matters far more meaningful than money, and that is principle. It is about the standards and practices of a powerful billion dollar industry and the rights of all gamblers. It begs the central question do gamblers have rights? To take such a draconian measure as confiscating a casino chip, must a casino prove criminal activity -- or at least have justifiable concerns based on Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) or knowledge that the player is part of an ongoing investigation? Arent customers and gamblers are entitled to the benefit of the doubt? With so much money potentially at stake each time a customer goes to the cashier, the burden of proof should be on the casino to prove wrongdoing, not the other way around. It is not up to the gambler to prove he is innocent. What kind of system of justice would that be? In tourist-dependent Las Vegas, is it now up to gamblers to prove the source of each and every casino chip when asked?
Since I am not a criminal, nor are there any indications I am a target of suspicion, it appears the MGM Grands sole reason for refusing to cash my chip is based on aggressive enforcement of the (little-known) rule that the chip must have been purchased from or won from the MGM. Everyone involved knows that the chip likely came from a gaming table, months ago. But since it is difficult (if not impossible) to prove that now, the MGM gets to keep the money. How convenient for them. Do you think they might take a different approach if the regulations required them to immediately turn the money over the government or the Nevada Gaming Board rather than keeping it? Rest assured, MGM corporate stockholders -- the next quarterly report will have an extra $5,000 in the kitty.
Can this nightmare happen to you? Perhaps, yes. My advice to anyone who gambles in Las Vegas, particularly at the MGM Grand, is the following:
(1) Always have your play tracked at any gaming table. That way, the casino has a record of your visit. If you wish to gamble anonymously, then find somewhere else to play.
(2) Following a session, immediately cash out all chips. Do not remove any chips from the casino.
(3) Do not exchange or accept chips with other gamblers. One of you risks not getting paid.
(4) Never accept a color up. Large denomination chips may ignite an inquiry at the cage. Dont risk it.
(5) Always be truthful when asked questions. Telling the truth has not served me well in this matter, but its better than getting caught in a lie, which can jeopardize getting paid.
It is a sobering blow to witness such a profitable and powerful corporation resorting to such petty tactics. It is particularly disconcerting to someone who loves living in Las Vegas and working in the casino industry to be the subject of such technicalities and abuse of power. Its even more distressing to learn that the government body entrusted to protect my rights seems utterly disinterested in doing what is right.
If it can happen to me, it can certainly happen to you. Indeed, the profound words of playwright Paddy Chayefsky were never so fitting in describing todays casino industry when he wrote Network back in 1976. He could have just as easily been talking the MGMs corporate attitude today and the extinction of rights of individual gamblers:
What is finished is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. Its the individual thats finished. Its the single solitary human being thats finished. Its every single one of you out there thats finished. Because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. Its a nation of 200-odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-than-white, steel-belted bodies totally unnecessary as human beings and as replaceable as piston rods.
This article written by Nolan Dalla. 2+2 Internet Magazine.
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