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An initial investigation into the claims of a lawsuit alleging Encore Boston Harbor is duping customers by paying out at less favorable odds for blackjack wins found that the Everett casino is not violating any Gaming Commission rules or regulations, a commission official said Thursday.
The lawyer suing the Wynn Resorts casino for allegedly cheating players out of money by paying out a blackjack — when a player is dealt an ace and any card having a point value of 10 — at 6-to-5 odds rather than at 3-to-2 odds said Thursday he plans to pursue his case regardless of the commission's ruling.
Reading attorney Joshua Garick on Monday filed a class action complaint against Encore Boston Harbor on behalf of client A. Richard Schuster claiming that the new Everett casino "brazenly stolen and will continue to steal" from customers by ignoring "established rules of the game of Blackjack to increase its statistical advantage and lower the lawful payouts owed to its customers."
"While this may not sound significant, an analysis using conservative estimates and assumptions suggests that the aggregate loss to Massachusetts consumers is astounding. Assuming an average wager of $50.00 per hand and 80 hands of Blackjack per hour, Encore's customers can expect to lose $35.60 per hour more than the losses they are already expected to incur in a fair Blackjack game that complies with Massachusetts law," the suit alleges. "This means Encore is stealing $85,440.00 from its customers each day, or well in excess of $30 million each year."
After the suit was filed and attracted media attention, the Gaming Commission added a discussion of it to its agenda for Thursday's meeting.
"This lawsuit had people very concerned about whether Encore Boston Harbor, and indeed the commission's oversight, was appropriate," Commission Executive Director Edward Bedrosian said. "In terms of integrity of gaming, we thought it was appropriate to get in front of the commission as soon as possible."
Bruce Band, assistant director of the commission's Investigations and Enforcement Bureau, said his team of investigators "reviewed the claims and have preliminarily found Encore to be in compliance with the commission's rules and regulations for paying out blackjack."
Band said the Gaming Commission's rules for blackjack use "6-to-5" in two different ways: One is to refer to a variation of blackjack that uses different dealing procedures than the standard game. That variation is authorized in Massachusetts but has never been dealt, he said. The other reference to "6-to-5" in the rules relates to standard blackjack and "includes options for the gaming licensee to pay out those wins at 3-to-2 or 6-to-5."
He said the payout for a blackjack must be displayed on each table at the casino and that the preliminary investigation found that the payouts for blackjacks are properly displayed on Encore Boston Harbor's tables.
"I feel the lawsuit is completely without merit," Encore Boston Harbor President Robert DeSalvio said Thursday. "There's really no issue at all on blackjack. None. Zero. The rules are the rules and we are following the rules exactly. And that's what you heard from the commission today."
Encore Boston Harbor offers 3-to-2 payouts on blackjack at 64.5% of its blackjack tables and pays out at 6-to-5 at 35.5% of its tables. DeSalvio said the odds usually depend on the wager per hand; when players must bet larger amounts of money per hand, the casino is more likely to pay out at more favorable odds.
"Clearly, customers can make a choice and that is very common in our industry. Typically, it depends a little bit on the limits of the games and so there are different variations," he said.
Garick said after the meeting that he was "disappointed" that the commission "conducted what they claim to be an investigation into our allegations" in such short time and then presented its findings while sitting at the same table as DeSalvio.
"We've read the regulations and it's our interpretation of those regulations that the game of blackjack does not allow an eight-deck shoe where they pay 6-to-5 odds on a blackjack," he said. "We intend to fully raise all these issues to a judge rather than in a commission where the inspector and representatives of the casino are sitting at the same table."
Garick, who said no court date has been set for his suit, said he has no plans to sue the Gaming Commission but is "absolutely confident that the Encore casino is not in compliance with Massachusetts gaming regulations."
Asked about the commission's reference to the option for a casino to pay blackjack wins at either 3-to-2 or 6-to-5," Garick said the option "doesn't exist."
"My reading of the regulation shows that that doesn't exist," he said. "So we're going to fully explore this, we're going to bring this to the attention of the judge and we'll see what the judge has to say."
The commission's rules for blackjack contemplate a situation in which "the licensee chooses the option to pay a blackjack at odds of 6 to 5 and doesn't use the 6 to 5 variation."
The lawsuit Garick filed also claimed that Encore lowered "the lawful payouts owed to its customers" by only dispensing whole dollar amounts at slot machine ticket redemption kiosks located around the casino floor.
When a player leaves a slot machine, the machine prints a voucher with the player's balance which can then be redeemed either at a cashier's cage — where the teller can dispense cash and coin — or at a kiosk that will dispense cash and another voucher for the balance of change. That voucher can either be redeemed at a cashier or played in a slot machine.
The lawsuit alleged that "Encore always rounds down, meaning a player will forfeit any amounts of the ticket above the last whole dollar amount" and that "all unclaimed funds are retained by Encore." DeSalvio and Band said Thursday that those claims are unfounded; unclaimed winnings revert to the state's gaming revenue fund.
"There is no way, shape or form that any customer is not getting exactly what they should get and nor is there any opportunity at the end of the year for unclaimed property to come back to the" casino, DeSalvio said. "There is no way possible that we would want to keep one penny of any customer's money."
He said Encore does not dispense coins at its self-serve redemption kiosks — MGM Springfield and Plainridge Park Casino both dispense coins from their machines — for "customer service" reasons because it would require employees to constantly refill the coins in the machine and could result in delays redeeming vouchers.
After the Gaming Commission looked into the claims in the lawsuit, Encore added small signs to its redemption kiosks notifying players that the machines only dispense cash but change is available at the cashier booth. At the suggestion of commissioners Thursday, DeSalvio said the casino will consider adding some coin-dispensing machines to the casino floor.
"If I can actually add another option that would yet again make it even more convenient, happy to do so. We will certainly take a look at that and review that," he said. He added, "It's very easy to implement that."
Garick said he was pleased to hear Thursday that Encore has already taken some action to make the voucher redemption process clearer for gamblers.
"I think that indicates they knew there some issues with the way that they were dispensing change to customers," he said.
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