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To Catch a Thief

Security teams use modern surveillance methods to foil con games as old as casinos themselves.
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Costner, Nov/Dec 00

To anyone with a criminal mind, each casino in Las Vegas must resemble a great big, neon-wrapped piggy bank--just waiting to be busted open. Money is the lifeblood that flows through the city's veins, and ostentatiousness is a 24/7 preoccupation in Vegas. The financial fabulousness of the city is epitomized by racks of $5,000 chips, diamond-dipped high rollers and ATMs that dispense crisp $100 bills as if they're pocket change. For a crook to see all those riches--right out there, on display around the clock--without making a grab for them must be the frustrating equivalent of a reformed junkie camping out in a Turkish poppy field. Sooner or later, though, the urge to get that money becomes too much to restrain. That is when cheaters, crooks and con men go to work in Las Vegas.

For Jose Vigoa and Oscar Cisneros the draw of all that dough must have become visceral, for they did something very stupid, very blatant, very brazen: they went on a John Dillinger­style armed robbery spree, knocking down three casinos. When they robbed the Desert Inn, shots were fired at a couple of armored car guards. The Mandalay Bay holdup got them branded as a menace. And for the 6:30 a.m. Bellagio heist, the guys went right to the source, leaping into the cashier's cage, wielding guns and making threats.

Things began to unravel when a Vegas police officer recognized Vigoa behind the wheel of his SUV, matching him with the man on the Bellagio's surveillance tape. Not one to go quietly, Vigoa led police on a high-speed chase, seemingly oblivious to the fact that his wife and daughter were with him. He hit a tree, took off on foot, and was wrestled to the ground by police officers. In summing up the larcenous duo, Lt. John Alamshaw of Las Vegas's police department understated, "We believe they are hardcore individuals. They showed the ability to remain calm in stressful situations."

With qualities like those, gun-toting Vigoa and Cisneros might have found themselves in the wrong branch of the underworld. Casino cheating might have been a more suitable pursuit. It is crime's brainy, white collar profession, and there seem to be few places better than Las Vegas in which to do it. Certainly it is lucrative, as can be attested by the millions of dollars that casinos around the world annually lose to cheaters. Gunplay does not seem to be necessary when you're bilking a casino's blackjack pit of its top denomination chips. You get to wear cool disguises, and the money is so great that nobody batted an eye when news recently broke about a gang of casino cheats cutting an $800,000 swath through Las Vegas--in only one week.

A prime drawback, however, is that sooner or later you will probably find yourself needing to tangle with Gordon Adams, a manager with Griffin Investigations, one of the world's prime organizations for tracking and stopping casino cheats. Adams is a lanky, seemingly reticent ex-cop who speaks in a slow, deep voice with a southern accent lazing around its edges. He has the perfect blend-into-the-wallpaper demeanor for a guy who gets paid to subtly snoop around casinos. His title might make it sound as if he has a desk job, but he is completely hands-on.

Adams and the cheaters play a cat-and-mouse game that precedes the advent of Las Vegas as we know it, which came with the arrival of Bugsy Siegel in 1946. "People started cheating as soon as the first casinos opened around here," he figures, acknowledging that, back then, the casino owners tended to be as dodgy as their most crooked customers. "In the early days you had casinos engineering decks against the players. Let's say a guy was on a run; maybe the casino would send in a new dealer who could deal from the bottom of the deck and even things up a little bit."

These days, though, just about all the cheating is perpetrated against the casinos. As one gaming executive puts it, "Casino licenses are so expensive that nobody wants to risk losing it by being caught cheating his customers." Approaches from the players' side of the table range from the impressively high tech (computers, cameras and complex optical devices are all tools of the modern casino cheat) to the quaintly old-fashioned (slugs for slot machines, loaded dice on the craps tables, and, when all else fails, the slick grabbing of chips from other players). The casinos fight back by hiring organizations like Griffin and wiring their gaming rooms to the hilt.

One casino manager boasts that he has cameras covering every square inch of his joint--from the high-limit baccarat tables to remote corners of self parking. To prove the point, he escorts me up to the surveillance room where a few dozen monitors line one wall, more VCRs than I can count record all of the casino's goings-on, and a few guys sit at the controls, using their lenses to lurk around the casino and focus on the highest stakes tables. The crew is looking for inconsistencies, for guys who are winning too much or--as was the situation recently, in a collusion case between a dealer and player--not losing enough.

"At one of the baccarat tables," says the casino manager, "we noticed that the dealer was treating each of a player's losses as pushes. It was impossible for him not to make money that night. We captured him doing it on tape and now the dealer and the player are bothin jail."

Another player/dealer scam involves the use of something called a "chip cup." It's a piece of hardware that is essentially a hollow, open-bottomed cylinder, topped with a five dollar chip and painted on the side so it looks as if four other chips are stacked below it. "You ask to get change for $25, the dealer loads the cylinder with four $100 chips, and slides it to the player," explains Gordon Adams. "It's a way of embezzling money out of the casino and it can go on all night before somebody on the surveillance camera notices something happening."

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