A Notorious Cheater Reveals How He Beat the Casinos for a Living
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95
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In those days Swift pulled a variety of scams, each year pocketing close to $100,000. "The money was good, of course," Swift says. "But the thrill was what kept me going. There's nothing quite so exciting as the charge you get out of outsmarting the house. We didn't steal from tourists; in fact, most gamblers wouldn't even know what was going on if they saw a play happening. We went after the corporations, the house. Making money is fine. But making it through larceny is even better. I think everybody likes the feeling of getting away with something."
One of his favorite schemes involved switching "tops," misspotted dice, on and off Vegas crap tables. When the croupier offered Mickey the casino's dice, he would pick them up and in one deft motion replace them with his own homemade version (complete with imitation logo and serial number) that had been concealed in his palm. The dice looked and felt legitimate, but they had only three numbers printed on them: two, three and six, a guaranteed passing combination. Whenever Mickey shot his tops, a confederate at the other end of the table would load up big bets on the numbers, because rolling a "seven out" was impossible. After a lucrative pass or two, Swift, employing his graceful, sleight-of-hand artistry, would switch the casino's dice back into the game. "You're heart tends to pound a bit when you make the move--you drop the extra dice and you're dead. But I've had a little practice," he says wryly.
In Reno, he "put down paper," introducing "shaded" or marked cards into blackjack games. "It was like playing with the cards face up," he says, smiling almost coyly. In Las Vegas he was hired at a major Strip casino as a roulette croupier and with split-second timing, past-posted, or telegraphed the position of the ball in the wheel, to several agents. "I'd take an extra half second looking into the wheel to get the number and give the office [signal] to the take-off man [big-money bettor], telling him which column to play. Amazing how many times we won."
When Atlantic City casinos opened in the late 1970s, he worked with a gang of engineering experts 20 years his junior, known as the Computer Crew, who played blackjack with the aid of a miniature processor concealed inside the tip of a cowboy boot.
As each card hit the table, Swift would input its value using his big toe to click a solenoid. When the dealer had penetrated deeply enough into the deck, the computer could accurately predict which cards remained and would send an electronic message through a concealed wire leading to a tiny earpiece, directing Mickey to the proper play. "Jersey didn't have an electronic-device law anyway, so it wasn't technically a cheat," Swift says, "but yes, we did play with a pretty big edge."
Electronic technology combined with Swift's sleight-of-hand acumen proved a powerful combination. Using a zoom-lens camera hidden in a woman's pocketbook and law-enforcement-style transceivers with intercanal hearing aids taped inside wigs, Swift and his team of college boys were able to "peek" the dealer's hole card. "It was easy, really. We'd have our girl parked at a slot machine and we'd tell her, 'a little to your left. Up a little more. Down one inch. Got it! Hold your position.' We'd get a perfect picture of the dealer's card on videotape, run it back at slow motion and learn the value." Viewing the card on a video monitor inside a parked van, a confederate relayed the information back to the table via audiolink. Knowing the dealer's total, Swift and his crew gained a 6 percent advantage--triple the edge obtained by the world's most expert card counters.
"Playing with cameras and radios and computers opened a whole new world to me," says Swift. "Old-timers like me were used to getting by on our wits. We had to be good with the hands; we had to have some imagination and skill. I know grifters who would practice the pull-through shuffle 200 hours before they got it right." Swift grabs a deck of cards and demonstrates. "You actually riffle the cards," he says, giving them what looks to be a genuine mix. "But then when you box the two halves together," he says, squaring up the deck, "you pull the halves right through the back. Looks like a legit shuffle, doesn't it? Well, sit in front of a mirror for a couple of months and you can do it, too. Those kinds of skills are vanishing. A few years ago, I saw these young guys coming into the racket with computers and cameras, and it made my pair of tops look like they belonged in a museum."
Swift, however, was not obsolete. The "young guys," an educated breed of sharpies raised on mathematics and "Mission Impossible," revered him and his astonishing talent. There are maybe two of three people in the world who can handle a deck of cards as well as Mickey Swift. Hand him a freshly shuffled and cut deck of cards; he'll deal you four aces. Put those aces in random spots in the middle of the deck; he'll deal you four aces. Deal him any four random cards; he'll change them to aces. The man's hands are legendary.
Combined with their electronic hardware, the Computer Crew knew Mickey Swift's hands would net them $250,000 in 10 minutes. They devised the plan, which they went into seclusion to master.
They rehearsed the play out-of-town for three weeks in the Colorado River village of Laughlin, Nevada, working out the kinks, getting the timing right, betting $5 chips. When the 12-member crew was certain their "move" was undetectable from all angles, when every member of the team knew the play's choreography like a cornerback knows his pass coverage, they moved the show to the big time: Las Vegas.
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