|By Oliver Staley, The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, Tenn.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Sep. 21, 2004 - A Tunica jury awarded a former Grand Casino employee $60,000 after she claimed she was wrongly fired for refusing to manipulate a high stakes blackjack game played by then-Tennessee Titan Yancey Thigpen.
Pat Cuneo of Olive Branch, a longtime Grand floor supervisor, said she refused to ask a dealer to change the shuffle in an effort to break Thigpen's streak of winning hands, which added up to $600,000.
Cuneo objected because she said changing the shuffle -- altering the set pattern of shuffles each casino uses -- would violate the Grand's internal policy.
Cuneo, 55, filed her lawsuit shortly after she was fired in 1999. She has soon hired by the Horseshoe, and the jury's Sept. 10 award represents her lost wages and benefits.
While Cuneo asked for punitive damages, the judge did not permit the jury to consider them because of insufficient evidence, according to Cuneo's attorney, Jim Waide of Tupelo. Waide said Cuneo would likely appeal that decision.
"We think the jury should have been allowed to consider punitive damages," he said. "It would be a substantial amount, considering the casino's net worth."
Attorneys for the Grand did not respond to calls asking for comment, and officials at Caesars Entertainment, which owns the Grand, declined to comment.
Casinos use set shuffle patterns to prevent collusion between dealers and players. They can deviate from the pattern when a player is suspected of counting cards or identifying cards in the shuffle, but Cuneo said Thigpen, who had previously suffered heavy losses at the Grand, was not a card counter.
Thigpen, who has since retired from the NFL, was betting $5,000 a hand and playing three hands at a time. He ended up winning about $200,000 that night, Cuneo said.
"If Yancey had been losing $600,000, would the Grand alter the shuffle?" she asked. "If they hadn't been trying to cheat him, why change the shuffle at all?"
Thigpen could not be reached Monday.
Cuneo said she objected to changing the shuffle in part because casino employees had just been instructed never to deviate from the set shuffle. The day after she protested, she was fired.
"I was just devastated," she said. "I was a widow at the time. It was my only means of support."
Under Mississippi law, a company can fire an employee for any reason other than refusing to commit an illegal act, Waide said.
It's unclear, however, if changing the shuffle was illegal, because it likely would not have affected the game's outcome, said Viktor Nacht, a Las Vegas publisher of books on blackjack.
There's a popular misconception that aces and face cards tend to run together in blackjack, even through shuffles, he said. Changing the shuffle wouldn't make a difference in Thigpen's game, he said.
"It's unfortunate, but professional players, and even some amateurs, know more about how odds work than people who work at casinos," Nacht said.
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