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Scammers

Hi-tech scam artists target casinos around the world in a never-ending game of cat and mouse
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
George Lopez, January/February 2010

For weeks, casinos in Great Britain, had been enduring a thrashing. Three-card poker, an indisputable sucker game designed to be virtually unbeatable by players, was getting taken down. At first, the wins were attributed to old-fashioned variance. But, then, one night, when Bit Chai Wong, a 39-year-old regular at the tables in Southwest London's Mint Casino, won 34 out of 44 hands, her luck had clearly gone off the charts.

As her chip-stack grew, surveillance supervisors and pit personnel became increasingly suspicious. A white van, which had been parked outside the casino for much of the night, further raised cause for concern. The local police department's Gaming Unit came by for a look. Bobbies raided the van. They discovered computers and a signal-receiving dish being used inside the vehicle. Swiftly, all doubts were vanquished. The big winner was also a big cheater.

Masterminding this operation from inside the casino, a former chef by the name of Yau Yiv Lam sat at the gaming table with a tiny, digital movie-camera up his sleeve. He positioned the lens low enough to capture cards as they were dealt. Images instantly transmitted from Lam's camera to a computer inside the van. An accomplice in the van ran footage in slow motion. They viewed clear pictures of cards that the dealer was receiving.

Player Bit Chai Wong wore a tiny earpiece that received information from a spotter inside the van. Armed with casino gambling's golden ring-knowledge of the dealer's cards-she strategized accordingly.

As acknowledged by Scotland Yard, the gang won in excess of £250,000, and some casinos lost as much as £38,000 to the team over the course of a single week. Each participant in the plot was sentenced to nine months in prison (though Wong and the man in the van had their time behind bars reduced to community service).

Judges, prosecutors and casino executives marveled over the fact that nothing like this had been seen before in England. Maybe they should get used to it. According to Richard Marcus, an acknowledged scam-artist and author of the cheater memoir American Roulette, "[High-tech cheating] is getting more common everyday, though high-tech cheats are still a very small minority. It is evolving by constant improvements in technology."

On our side of the Atlantic Ocean, two years ago, a similarly high-tech deal was poised to go down in Atlantic City. As the Borgata held a $1.7-million poker tournament in its card room downstairs, a game of a very different sort had been meticulously engineered to unfold inside one of the posh casino's guest suites. Collaborators allegedly convinced an unsuspecting player, identified only as J. H., to participate in private games of Chinese poker, chess and backgammon. Unbeknownst to him, a combination of hidden cameras, marked cards and computers in an adjacent room would make the outcome a faite accompli. According to the New Jersey office of the attorney general, the equipment was there to divine optimal strategies, which would have been communicated to the team's shill via a tiny earpiece.

Luckily for J. H., who would have most likely been fleeced out of $75,000, word leaked to the state's Gaming Enforcement authorities. The alleged scammers were busted before they could do any damage. According to the New Jersey attorney general's office, three of them have since pleaded guilty to third degree attempted theft by deception. The fourth person, initially charged in this matter, was casino security guru Steve Forte. He's maintained his innocence from the start and charges against him have been dropped.

Audacious as those tech-oriented plots sound, Marcus warns of a new threat on the horizon: "Using lasers to mark cards will be the biggest scam of the coming years."

Cheating has been around as long as gambling. Back in the old days, Amarillo Slim Preston remembers catching a couple guys who were pulling off a primitive version of the Atlantic City caper: Without the benefit of cameras or computers, they simply drilled a peephole in the ceiling, made sure that Slim was properly position, peeked at his cards, and somehow relayed the information to a confederate playing against him.


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