A judge in Atlantic City on Friday ordered the Golden Nugget casino to let gamblers cash in nearly $1 million worth of chips they won at a card game using decks that were unshuffled.
Superior Court Judge James Isman also told the casino it cannot seize more than a half-million dollars' worth of winnings it already paid out to some of the gamblers involved in the games.
The casino plans to appeal the order.
"I wasn't cheating," one of the gamblers, 51-year-old Michael Cho of Ellicott City, Md., said after the judge's ruling. "I didn't do anything illegal. It wasn't right for them to get the money."
The dispute stems from games of mini-baccarat held at the casino on April 30. Unbeknownst to either the players or the casino, the cards put into use for the games were not shuffled as their manufacturer, Gemaco Inc. of Kansas City, Mo., had promised. Over a speakerphone in the judge's chambers, the company's attorney, Jeffrey Mazzola, acknowledged the company had erred.
"There was a mistake made at the Gemaco facility, which we freely admitted," he told the judge. "This was a one-time, isolated mistake, but it occurred. It's supposed to be a game of chance. It changed from a game of chance to a windfall for the individual players. What we have now is individual players coming to the court asking for a free payday based on a mistake that took place."
Lawyers for the Golden Nugget said the pattern of cards became apparent to players, who had been wagering $10 a hand and suddenly upped their bets to $5,000 a hand. The cards did not come out of the chute in numerical order, such as 2-3-4-5. Rather, they came out in a predetermined pattern that the manufacturer lists as a proprietary secret, the attorneys said.
But it did become obvious to the players.
"Anybody could see that, that was the dream we all look for," Cho said.
But Cho said he and the other gamblers still faced risk because they had no idea how long the pattern would endure. It lasted at least 41 hands, during which the players won more than $1.5 million. Despite its suspicion that a sophisticated cheating operation was under way, the casino did not stop the games.
"We took a chance on every hand we bet, that it wouldn't change," he said. "We didn't know if it was going to change. That's called gambling."
The Golden Nugget had sought a ruling barring the gamblers from cashing in more than $977,000 worth of chips they won from the game but still have in their possession. The casino also wanted the judge to order the return of more than $500,000 in winnings it paid out to some of the winners immediately after the games.
The judge denied both requests, saying there will be time to address those issues as the lawsuits filed by both sides come to trial. He agreed that the gamblers did nothing wrong, and even though they discerned a pattern, the judge said there was no guarantee it would not change at any moment.
That drew an angry response from Steven Scheinthal, the Golden Nugget's executive vice president and general counsel, who began yelling at the judge that he did not have all the pertinent information in the case, including evidence of how the casino maintains the players violated house rules by sharing money and chips among themselves during the games to avoid individual betting limits.
"I've been on the bench for 12 years now, and I don't believe anyone has ever spoken to me like that," Isman said. He advised the Golden Nugget it could appeal as soon as Tuesday, which is exactly what its lawyers said they plan to do.
"It was a rigged game," attorney Louis Barbone said. "We walked in that day believing everything was on the up-and-up. We walked out $1.5 million in the hole."
The casino claims the vendor's failure to shuffle the cards made them "defective" and in violation of state gambling regulations mandating fair odds for both the casino and its customers.