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Liz Benston

Up for rethinking: Ban on cell phones in sports books

18 February 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- If you ever watch the end of a basketball game in a casino sports book and want to call your buddy with the result, don't.

At least not yet. State law has for a decade prohibited the use of cell phone and other electronic devices inside sports books. The purpose is to prevent transmission of betting information across state lines.

But Nevada regulators are now taking another look at the law because critics see it as outdated in a technological age when unlimited betting information and gambling opportunities are available 24 hours a day on the Internet.

For many gamblers, the cell phone ban is a quaint nod to a bygone era when people called corner bookies to place bets via a Las Vegas messenger. Internet gambling and handicapping sites have put many illegal bookies out of business — though they still exist. And casino sports books limit huge bets, wary of illegal betting through messengers wanting to balance their action.

Though many customers think the cell phone ban is an annoyance, some casinos entrusted with enforcing it see it as a bigger problem and are pressing for the change.

"During the course of a day, we must tell 75 to 100 guests that there's no use of two-way communications devices in the sports book," said a tired-sounding Johnny Avello, director of the race and sports book at Wynn Las Vegas. "A good portion of the guests are not relaying information. They might be talking to their wife and kids."

Sports books post signs notifying customers about the ban. But many customers don't understand, Avello said.

"We've received a lot of complaints from customers ... who were just making an innocent phone call," said Las Vegas attorney Barry Lieberman, who represents South Point casino owner Michael Gaughan and opened talks with the Gaming Commission about changing the ban.

Lieberman said the rule might allow electronic communication but simply prohibit the transmission of betting information. How that would be policed is unclear, though Lieberman says most locals know the rules and don't violate them. It's the unsuspecting tourist who gets tapped on the shoulder, he said.

The Gaming Commission will hold workshops to gather comments about proposed revisions, but it hasn't indicated it will go along with the idea. Nevada is the only state that allows betting on most sports and regulators are keen to maintain that status, which means not giving federal authorities a reason to object. The federal government has cracked down on offshore sports books in recent years.

Loosening the rule on electronic transmissions might invite abuse by messengers working for illegal bookies who want to use Nevada sports books to even out one-sided action in Internet casinos.

For now, people like horse race handicapper Vince Evans have to watch out. Evans handicaps using software on his laptop computer. He has been approached by security at several off-Strip casinos and ordered to power down his computer — even though the device isn't connected to the Internet and is not transmitting information.

At one casino, "four security thugs arrived and watched while I powered down the computer and put it into my bag," he said.

Barry Inciong, a Las Vegas visitor from Irvine, Calif., says the cell phone ban is annoying but he thinks it has merit.

"If I wanted to stake out the Hilton and just text bookies all over the country when a line moves in exchange for a cut, I could make a decent living," Inciong said.

"Of course you could still have someone doing this by taking a few steps outside of the restricted area, but I think it would be far more prevalent if communication was allowed."