The question of why advantage players do what they do is answered in the popular media by images of glitz, glamour, parties, piles of chips, cat and mouse, and youth. The motive is greed and the time frame is now. But there is another class of advantage players (APs) who definitely do not fit this Hollywood stereotype. I’m talking about professional APs – the life-timers. These are individuals with the talent, dedication and bankroll whose chosen occupation is beating casinos at their own games.

There are some famous names in the list of lifetime professionals, with James Grosjean, Billy Walters and Tommy Hyland among those at the top. But there is a long list of others. Some of these individuals have a public presence: they may participate in chat rooms, given interviews or post in online forums. Others choose a quiet and anonymous life.

Beyond the mystique and profit potential of their chosen occupation, a lingering question remains: why this? What is it about being an AP that allows these intelligent professionals to feel like the work they are doing is beneficial to society? Of course, not all of them make this distinction. Some of them really are in it just for the money. Others have found a profession that satisfies their intellectual curiosity. There are a few who thrive on pushing the boundary of what’s legal. But for the rest of the APs, those who want to see societal good result from their chosen profession, what argument do they make that the public at large gains from what they do? There is no universal answer to this question; however, there is an answer that is put forth far more often than any other.

The most common answer to this question comes from a simple chain of logic APs present:

  1. Casinos are evil; people who work for casinos are on the “dark side;”

  2. Society benefits from punishing evil through legal means;

  3. APs legally punish casinos;

  4. Ergo APs have a profession that benefits society.

Of these propositions, (2) is the basis for jurisprudence and (3) separates APs from common cheats and criminals. This leaves only (1) “Casinos are evil” open to debate.

The solution (1) is advanced by James Grosjean, who is famously quoted as saying: "Casinos are vile places, a total scam, a total con."

The word “evil” is a very strong, bringing up memories of unspeakable acts from all periods of human history. However, APs use this word just as easily as Grosjean used “scam,” “con” and “vile.” This rhetorical language covers a huge landscape of possibilities. A casino is a physical building. A casino is a business entity. A casino is an employer. A casino is its employees. A casino is its patrons.

To dig deeper requires asking clarifying questions. What is it about casinos that make them evil? Is it the casinos that are evil or the people who work at the casinos? Are all of the people at every casino evil, or are there just a few bad eggs at some casinos? Is it the business model that is evil or particular aspects of some business models for some casinos? Is it demonic evil, idealistic evil, stupid evil, or some other type of evil?

One argument APs make is to cite atrocities. And there are plenty of atrocities to choose from. The casino industry has a shady history at best. Examples of patron physical and emotional abuse, including illegal detainment, battery, assault and injury by overreaching casino employees and security continue to make headlines. Cheating, lying and outright theft from patrons persist. Mistakes that benefit the house occur far too often. There are breaches of privacy by sharing personal and confidential information. State commissions and law enforcement agencies usually side with the casinos in disputes. The cases APs cite are not exaggerations or mere differences in perspective; they are tangible wrongdoings. The AP becomes a fighter for the righteous cause and a servant of the good. In some cases, the AP becomes a martyr.

But even these atrocities don’t go far enough to explain the AP blanket. There are plenty of examples of similar behaviors in other industries. Why do APs rage against casinos when tobacco, alcohol, defense, fire arms, big oil, credit card companies, Wall Street and the government itself suffer similar ills? Why is beating casinos at their own games the right way to mete out justice against this singular foe? What specific good does beating casinos do? Does it feed the hungry? Does it help save addicted gamblers from their addiction? Does it help pay the salaries of employees who can barely make ends meet and rely on their casino job?

In many ways, it was my inability to answer these questions that led to my downfall as an AP. I simply could not argue that the restaurant server, the gift shop employee and the parking lot attendant were evil. The pit boss and dealer kept the games going. Security kept me safe. The cashier paid the right amount for my chips. The marketing director gave me free rooms and coupons. I was glad these people had jobs that could help them live a better life. Even after I was handcuffed, physically threatened and paraded like a common criminal for hole-carding at Three Card Poker (see this post for the full account), I could not say that casinos were evil, or that the particular casino I was in was evil. It boiled down to specific security employees abusing their authority.

Towards the end of my days as a player, one of my AP friends wrote to me as I struggled with these contradictions:

What is evil to you? Are you saying nothing is evil as long as it is done for the sake of increasing the bottom line? You don't consider violating a player's civil rights just because he legally won money to be evil? Do you think it is okay for casinos to illegally circulate your picture without your permission? To move beyond legal issues, let's look at morals and ethics. Do you not consider it to be evil for the casino to pretend to be a friend to a player, encouraging him to get drunk on free booze served by attractive ladies, and then literally help prop him up once wasted so he can make another bet?

And don’t forget about the children, as another explained:

One of the reasons that casino people and the industry they're a part of are so evil is that it corrupts the values that we as human beings try to instill in our children. When you place people who are not emotionally and intellectually capable of defining the lines that need to be maintained between what is real and what isn't, it can only result in a compromising of the values that make good people good.  No one should ever be lulled into thinking that casinos and their employees have any concern for anyone. They truly are the modern-day vampire, whose only purpose is to suck the blood out each and every one of their customers, and then leave them for dead. It really is an "us versus them."

Most of us believe that in a just society evil should not exist. When evil is found, it should be eradicated through transparent and appropriate legal penalties. This is why society benefits from police, laws, and the justice system. When an AP beats a casino out of a few thousand dollars, is this transparent and appropriate punishment, and if so, who exactly is being punished? Do APs really want casinos not to exist?

The business model for the casino industry is based on attracting players to walk through their doors to play games of chance where the casino has the advantage. A person who works for the casino industry is a person who earns his income directly based on the losses of these players. APs are winning the money that others lose. APs survive based on the losses of common players. This pass-through payment is obvious; APs need losing players just as much as the casinos do. Are APs evil?

Society benefits when an oppressed group stands its ground and shouts to the world: “Here is evil!” Society benefits when our common understanding of evil grows through these demonstrations to encompass any act that degrades the humanity of a class of individuals. Through APs use of the word “evil,” they degrade the class of individuals who share nothing more in common than the legal and legitimate industry they all work for.

Using the word “evil” as a context for justifying the profession of beating casinos is to diminish the value of battles fought by our armies and civil rights leaders. It lessens the memory of the lives lost through terrorist acts. It shuns the suffering of rape victims and child sex slaves. It dismisses the incredible burden of families of murder victims. It forgets genocide. There is evil and there is evil. Casinos are not evil.

My dear advantage player friends, former friends and adversaries, you will have to find another way to justify the value to society of your profession. Maybe you’re in it just for the money.

Received his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Arizona in 1983. Eliot has been a Professor of both Mathematics and Computer Science. Eliot retired from academia in 2009. Eliot Jacobson