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On Saturday night, students looking to gamble were unpleasantly surprised to find the annual Casino Night party had been shut down due to legal concerns, and a new party, “Elite,” had taken its place. Contributing reporter VIVIAN YEE investigates.

As they left the Morse and Stiles dining halls on Saturday night, students said one thing was clear: they missed the “casino” in Casino Night.

In a move that provoked disappointment and resentment among many students — and put nearly $4 million in fake money to waste — Ezra Stiles College Master Stephen Pitti ’91 announced Friday that Yale’s popular annual Casino Night party had been canceled due to legal concerns. Still, students headed to the Morse and Stiles dining halls all the same Saturday night, saying afterward that, for the most part, they enjoyed the stand-in party “Elite.”

Officials at the Connecticut Division of Special Revenue, which oversees gambling throughout the state, determined that Casino Night, which traditionally features roulette tables and gambling with fake chips, would violate Connecticut’s Act Repealing Las Vegas Night Games. Enacted in 2003, the state law prohibits “the playing of a casino gambling game such as blackjack, poker, craps, roulette, or a slot machine.” Even recreational casino-like events held after high school graduations and proms are not permitted under the act, according to the department’s Web site.

DSR officials brought the legal concerns to the attention of the Yale Police Department last week, which in turn informed Pitti and Morse College Master Frank Keil on Friday afternoon.

In an e-mail message to all Stiles students, Pitti said the state’s gaming commission has “become more active in monitoring (and prosecuting) events of this sort over the past year,” making it impossible for the event to go forward as planned.

Casino Night has been a campus fixture since at least the early 1990s, and the myth that Rolling Stone magazine once ranked it among the top 10 college parties in the country persists among students.

“Seriously? Why is Connecticut so lame?” was Jennie Nevin’s ’10 first reaction to the announcement, echoing the chorus of disbelief among students who questioned why the law would affect Casino Night, since the event uses fake money.

In its place, Ezra Stiles and Morse colleges held a party organizers called “Elite” in the colleges’ dining halls Saturday night. The event featured cocktails and non-alcoholic “mocktails,” jazz, an outdoor cigar lounge and dancing.

Members of both colleges’ councils said they heard “rumblings” on Thursday night that Casino Night might have to be canceled, but the colleges’ masters did not confirm anything until 2 p.m. Friday after discussions with the University’s Office of the General Counsel all morning.

Keil said he initially thought the DSR’s decision was a “misunderstanding” since Casino Night does not actually involve prizes or money. Although Pitti and Keil attempted to mount a rapid appeal to the gaming commission asking for an exemption, both masters said, University lawyers eventually concluded there was not enough time to salvage the event before Saturday.

“Despite intense efforts made by the General Counsel’s office, it eventually became clear that we would have to obtain a specific exemption from the state to host Casino Night or run the risk of being in violation of Connecticut state law,” Keil said in an e-mail message to the News. “It simply wasn’t possible to get such an exemption in time.”

Students interviewed expressed frustration over the last-minute notification, which forced Casino Night’s organizers to revamp their event — which cost more than $8,000 — within a day’s time.

But after the initial disappointment, Kaitlin Kelly ’10, vice president of the Morse College Council, said on Friday that she was resigned to the situation.

“The facts are that we found out today, and this is coming from higher than Yale,” she said, adding that she and the other members of the college councils had scrambled since Friday afternoon to organize the new party.

Organizers billed the new event as a “half twenties dance party, half nineties crazy club party” with formal dress, cigars, a live jazz band, a DJ and refreshments. They said they hoped the chance to dress up and dance would attract students; Kelly predicted it would be “the sickest party planned in 24 hours that Yale has ever seen.”

The event not only had to overcome the change of theme, but the troublesome weather, too. On Saturday night, the rainy, cool weather kept some students away. Several freshmen interviewed said they had been looking forward to Casino Night because of its reputation as one of Yale’s best parties but did not think it was worth it to venture outside for Elite.

But many others, making the best of the situation, decided to go despite the changes — and said they found the event surprisingly well-attended.

“I thought it’d be fun to get dressed and go out even though there wasn’t fake gambling, and I’d heard that a lot of people were going,” Kristin Johnson ’12 said. “It was definitely fun from 11 to 12 and a lot of people were there.”

Despite Elite’s apparent success, the loss of Casino Night “is a blow,” said Pitti, who himself was a member of Stiles as an undergraduate. The two masters would not make any guarantees, but Keil said they would be working with the Office of the General Counsel in the coming months to see if Yale can obtain an exemption to allow Casino Night to return.

“I am cautiously optimistic that, when we are able to present the case of Casino Night in detail to the state, they will see that it is not really the kind of situation that should fall under the law and that it should be granted an exemption,” Keil wrote.

Students who purchased advance tickets for Casino Night can present their tickets at a table outside of Commons today from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a full refund, according to an e-mail message announcing the new event.