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Cheatin' Man

A Notorious Cheater Reveals How He Beat the Casinos for a Living
Michael Konik
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

In the long run, after thousands of hands of blackjack, hundreds of pulls on the slot machines and dozens of complimentary drinks, nearly everyone who plays casino games on the square will lose. That's the way the gaming industry works. The house has the edge; the house gets the money.

Unless you are a skilled "advantage player," there are only two ways to consistently beat the casinos: be enormously lucky, or cheat. The average gambler makes his bet and hopes for the improbable. Sophisticated gangs of hustlers choose to help themselves.

In fact, according to many gaming experts, it's impossible to quantify the amount that crews of skilled casino cheaters steal each year--although $50 million, they say, would not be an unreasonable figure. "We spend a hell of a lot of money trying to catch these crooks," says the manager at a prominent Glitter Gulch casino. "And every time we come up with a new technology to prevent large-scale cheating, the thieves seem to come up with a way to bypass it. It's a never-ending cat-and-mouse game."

Dice mobs, who switch-loaded or misspotted dice into casino craps games, can grind out thousands of dollars a day. "Slot crews," expert locksmiths capable of decoding key tumblers with merely a glance, manipulate the progressive jackpots on unwatched slots. And crews of "muckers," sleight-of-hand artists who can "hold out" extra cards in the palm of their hands, taking them in and out of casino games at will, can make a blackjack hand of virtually any total.

One notorious gang, led by a well-known organized-crime figure, is believed to have netted more than $80 million before being "ratted out" by an accomplice who feared he was about to be murdered. Thanks to Orwellian surveillance cameras and dishonor among thieves, the cheaters, like serial bank robbers, are almost always discovered and sent to prison.

Except one team. The most ingenious crew ever to work the American casino circuit stole more than $3 million a year for five years. And never got caught.

One of the most accomplished gang of swindlers in the history of the larceny business is "in retirement," its members either dead, gainfully employed in the upper echelons of respectable corporations or relocated to tropical islands. Their story has never before been told. But their ringleader is willing to reveal how he and his crew of grifters pulled off the greatest play in casino history.

An invidious subculture of con men, liars and cheats has descended from the crooked riverboat gamblers immortalized in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi. Among crossroaders, secretive men (and a handful of women) who play everything from carnival games to three-card monte to bar dice, the legendary ringleader of this famous modern gang, is known as Robert "Mickey" Swift*. In several decades of hustling he's amassed an encyclopedic compendium of swindling knowledge and a small fortune in misbegotten gains--perhaps nobody in the world knows more about cheating than Mickey Swift.

From humble, even squalid, roots in the Depression-era rural South, Swift traveled across the country with a band of scrappy old-timers, learning 1,000 deceitful ways to separate a mark from his money. He learned how to play backgammon with "juiced" (magnetic) dice, how to work a deck of "strippers" (cards with an irregularly shaved side), how to hold out the aces, how to execute a false shuffle and how to mark cards with everything from petroleum jelly to perspiration. It took many hard years of itinerant grifting, but Swift eventually evolved from a small-time "nit" to a master of chicanery.

He settled in Las Vegas in the early 1970s. "Back then it had a frontier-town feel," he recalls in a hushed drawl that belies his heart-of-the-Confederacy upbringing. "It wasn't a city filled with resorts and volcanoes and kiddie rides. But one thing has always been the same: there's always been plenty of money here, plenty worth going after."

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