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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At a major Las Vegas Strip casino, around 2 a.m. on a Wednesday, when the cacophony of 1,000 slot machines dwindles to random tinkling and the highest roller in the joint is betting a few black chips per hand, four crew members sit down at a $5 blackjack table. Their choice is no accident; having staked out the casino several times in advance, they know that in this pit one surveillance camera covers two tables--a lens is not permanently fixed on their target table. Within 20 minutes, they have "locked up" all seven betting spots, monopolizing the table. Playing the eight-deck shoe on the square, betting the minimum on every hand, the "seat-stuffers" lose a few bucks, but have a grand time doing it, joking with the pit boss, tipping the dealer generously and generally behaving like a quartet of friendly tourists. The casino is glad to have them.
As the four shills dribble away their chips, another player, the stud, moves into a seat on the other side of the pit, directly across from the targeted table. (The stud's dealer and the target table's dealer stand back to back.) He's well-tanned and muscular; the female dealer finds him charming and flirtatious. The pit boss, a chain-smoking ogre in an ugly suit, takes a look at the stud and smirks. The guy is clearly more interested in getting laid than winning money. The casino is glad to have him.
Two big shots, one of whom has a pricey-looking escort on his arm and one of whom is Mickey Swift, float through the casino, pausing occasionally to make a table-limit bet. In the process of getting "built in," they splash a few thousand dollars on craps, blanket the roulette layout with $100 chips and, most tellingly, stuff their pockets with dozens of high-priced long-shot keno tickets. The casino is exceptionally glad to have them.
As the big shots spread their money around, ensuring that the security cameras follow their every move, a new dealer comes on to the target table. Like every other dealer in the casino he just wants to make it through his shift, collect a few tips and go home. Unlike every other dealer in the casino, he's been thoroughly trained by Mickey Swift.
As the dealer moves into position, a drunk, sipping a bottle of beer, stands at a nearby slot machine, blearily chasing a few quarters. Though he'll probably be busted in a few minutes, the casino is more or less glad to have him, too.
When the dealer comes to the end of the shoe, he calls out to the pit boss "shuffle," which he is required to say before touching the cards. The pit boss, fantasizing what he would do with a busty escort like the one with the big shot, absentmindedly calls out "go ahead" and takes a pull on his Marlboro. The dealer executes a legitimate shuffle, dividing the eight decks into two piles of approximately 200 cards, grabbing a chunk from each pile and mixing them together. When he is done, he offers the cards for a cut. The pit boss, dreaming about blonds in low-cut, black dresses, takes a cursory glance at the table and checks his watch.
When the dealer begins to distribute the cards, the drunk wanders over to the target table, apparently a distracted spectator more concerned with nursing his beer than watching the game. In fact, as each card hits the table, the "drunk" whispers its value into his bottle, which has been rigged with a miniature radio transmitter.
A few hundred yards away in the casino's parking lot, a confederate they call the Wiz begins inputting the sequence of numbers into a specially-programmed computer.
The stud continues to play and flirt and lose. The big shots continue to play and yell and lose. The shills continue to play and joke and lose. These are the wee hours on the Vegas Strip and business appears to be churning on as usual.
When the dealer has used up approximately half the cards in the shoe--about four decks--he gives the office to the drunk, who says, "end," into his bottle and wanders off into the night. As the dealer places the cards into the discard rack, a rectangular plastic case to his right, he places a tiny knot of rubber band, called a lug, that's been wedged under a fingernail, on top of the stack. This little pebble of latex will create an infinitesimal break or "brief" in the stack of cards, marking the exact spot where the crew's information stops. It is invisible to the security cameras, but to a trained grifter it denotes the beginning of a "slug" as clearly as a 30-foot marquee advertising the surf-and-turf special.
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