Hi-tech scam artists target casinos around the world in a never-ending game of cat and mouse
From the Print Edition:
George Lopez, January/February 2010
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More recently, some casinos employed an automatic card-shuffler, with a glass door, for use in the game of baccarat. The naked eye could see that cards were being legitimately shuffled but could not make out the cards themselves. That changed when one of history's most notoriously innovative cheaters, a man who prefers to remain anonymous, aimed a small camera at the glass door.
Employing a strategy that a Chinese ganag might have adopted, he shot the cards in slow motion, imagery beamed out to a control vehicle in the parking lot and a big-betting accomplice received verbal cues on whether to bet player, banker or tie. "But they were stupid about how they did it," says a seasoned gambling professional we'll call Charlie Simon. "They took over the table, made max bets on nine or 10 hands in a row, and everybody won. The cheaters were never caught, but the casino realized that it had a problem. The quick, temporary solution was extremely low tech: A strip of black-tape across the exposed portion of the machine."
These days, no casino supplier would dare make a piece of equipment so obviously vulnerable. But they don't need to. With the advent of easily accessed technology and rock-bottom wages for casino personnel who work on the front lines, ambitious cheaters can have their way. "When it comes to cheating, the first thing you need to do is separate the amateur from the professional," says Simon. "The amateur gets drunk and tries to cap a bet. The professional cheats, a small minority of people who systematically take a lot of money out of casinos, they use a broad array of sophisticated, high-tech stuff."
Bernard Ko, who consults on gaming and game-protection in California, points out that for the most innovative cheaters with a high-tech bent, tools of the trade have become frighteningly discreet. "There was a dice cup that had a tiny camera on top," he says. "In Pai Gow Poker, three dice are rolled inside a metal cup to determine which cards go to which players. With the camera transmitting information from inside the cup, and cards or tiles marked with infra red ink, visible only with special glasses or contact lenses, the cheats have a huge advantage." Ko hesitates for a beat, before explaining that strict procedures forbid players from betting after the dice settle. But, he acknowledges, dealers, for various reasons, sometimes fail to follow those procedures.
This item, ingenious as it may sound, is just the tip of the iceberg. Many cheating devices get exported from the Far East, which has evolved into a kind of Rodeo Drive for unscrupulous gamblers on shopping sprees. Ko, wanted to see what the cheaters have to work with. So, through some of his less savory connections, he arranged to pose as a potential customer. He approached a company in Canton, China, that produces and sells high-tech cheating devices.
Ko recalls being ushered into a posh office, where an attractive woman offered him a cappuccino. "They gave me the VIP treatment," he remembers of employees from the company that sold infrared paints, tables built for pulling off deceptions, and a dealer's shoe that makes it easy to deal seconds. "A lot of what they had were for home games and underground clubs-which totally turned me off to the idea of gambling in one of those places," he says. "I saw a mah-jongg setup in which tiny cameras [not unlike the hole-card cams now used for legitimate purposes in televised poker tournaments] faced the players' tiles so that all the hands can be watched on a monitor in an adjacent room."
Surprisingly, though Nevada is clearly a hub of gambling in the United States, it is not necessarily a hub of cheating at table games. That distinction goes to California, a place where gambling handle for Pai Gow Poker is among the highest in the country, where the gaming is sometimes loosely monitored and where old-school card rooms may have limited incentive to protect the games that they spread.
That last condition is due to the fact that the California card rooms (but not the state's Indian casinos) were initially designed as enclaves for poker. Rules mandate that the gambling operations can make their money from raking games-that is, taking a little bit out of each pot, as is common in poker-but cannot profit from their outcomes. That is, the house cannot have an active interest in beating players.
In order to get around that rule and still provide customers with popular table games, such as blackjack and Pai Gow Poker, the California casinos initiated a system in which outside entities or players bank the games. Therefore, people from outside of the casino benefit from players at the table. The casino simply gets a percentage of the money wagered, regardless of who wins.
Buy into a blackjack game in any California card room, such as the well-known and well-run Commerce Casino, and you will encounter a stolid looking person holding piles of cash and chips. This person does not deal but does pay out and collect. Because the casino does not lose money if people cheat, operators are less likely to install state of the art surveillance equipment and they have limited incentive to enforce rules that protect the games.
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