In the 400-year history of Massachusetts, Tommy Hyland can now claim to a rare distinction: He is among the very first to be thrown out of a state-licensed business for doing math in his head.
Hyland, a professional blackjack player who travels the country and uses card-counting strategies to improve his chances of winning, says he was kicked out of MGM Springfield earlier this week, and unceremoniously escorted off the property.
Though card-counting is not illegal, casino companies hate it and will refuse to let what they call “advantage players” place bets. (For his part, Hyland prefers the term “skilled player.”)
MGM Springfield’s president, Mike Mathis, declined to say just how the casino recognizes card counters, but confirmed the casino has confronted “a handful” of them since opening Aug. 24. As the first licensed resort casino in Massachusetts, MGM Springfield offers the first live table games, such as blackjack.
“Bottom line, it is permissible under state law, under our regulations, because we’re private property, to [remove] anyone we identify as an advantage, card-counting player,” Mathis said Thursday. The practice of removing card counters “is generally accepted through most jurisdictions, because those individual are also taking revenue out of the state’s hands.”
The Massachusetts Gaming Commission, through a spokesman, confirmed that “ultimately, the decision to remove a patron is under the purview of MGM management.”
Card counting was the technique employed by the famed MIT Blackjack Team, which inspired the 2008 movie “21.”
Among top-echelon blackjack players, Hyland, 62, of New Jersey, is well-known. He has been playing the game professionally most of his life.
“I’ve had some tremendous wins and devastating losses,” Hyland said. “Overall, I’ve done well enough to make a living at it.” As an occupation, he likes gambling for the independence it offers and the mental challenge it provides.
Of course, in a game that involves luck as well as skill, even the best players lose money sometimes. Hyland said he has made two trips to MGM Springfield and finished down about $3,000. (The state’s cut will be $750.)
To put it simply, card counters keep track of the cards that have been dealt onto the blackjack table. From what has been dealt, they deduce what cards have not yet been played.
If lots of high cards are still available, the upcoming hands favor the player. You might want to increase your wager.
Lots of low cards remaining? That favors the house.
There are different techniques to keep track of the cards. For example, a card counter may maintain a running mental number, adding or subtracting as each card is dealt. When that number hits certain benchmarks, the player knows whether the odds are in his or her favor.
In addition to banning players, casinos will attempt to frustrate card-counters by shuffling the deck more often to ruin the count.
Hyland freely admits he has been thrown out of other MGM properties, and he is sure they have his photograph in a file of skilled players, shared among all of the company’s casinos. The casinos also hire people who understand card counting to work in security and be on the lookout for players who are using such techniques, he said.
Sometimes, he said, casino employees who recognize him will wave him off as soon as they spot him, saying, “C’mon, Tommy, you know we can’t let you play here.’ ”
Others, such as MGM Springfield, he said, are much more brusque.
“They act like there’s something underhanded about it,” he said. “I’m just using math and memory.”