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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

(continued from page 1)

Even trickier to recognize are some of the techniques employed by computer-savvy card cheats. Such was the case when a team sat down at a Caribbean stud table. "One guy had a tiny TV camera strapped to his wrist under the sleeve of his jacket," recalls Adams. "He angled it to shoot the cards as they came out in the last part of the shuffle. That footage was transmitted to a microwave dish on top of a van in the parking lot. Guys in the van would put the information into a computer, which slowed down the shuffle, read the cards, and sent signals to the players, telling them how to bet and play each hand. This gang was operating in Vegas and the Midwest before finally getting caught in Atlantic City. They were winning $50,000 to $100,000 at a whack."

With the crooks taking advantage of cutting-edge technology, Adams and his colleagues at Griffin have felt compelled to do the same. The result is a system called GOLD (for Griffin's OnLine Database), which allows casinos to get the skinny on suspicious players--even if the table at which a suspected guy sits is in, say, Kowloon and the Griffin's rep, armed with his laptop computer, is in the Stardust parking lot. The GOLD system is an update on the old-fashioned Black Book in which listed criminals are forbidden from entering casinos. The Griffin database is loaded with decades' worth of faces, descriptions, MOs and rap sheets. "I can go out to my car with the laptop and pick up a live photo from quite a number of client casinos around the world," Adams says. "Then I look at the picture and try to recognize the player." If the guy proves to be a known cheater, the casino can focus its surveillance system on him, catch him in the act and take appropriate action.

More likely than not, the scam in question is being perpetrated at a blackjack table, which Adams characterizes as the most vulnerable gaming spot in a casino. Scamming blackjack is so lucrative that legitimate businessmen have actually begun investing their money in backing gangs of blackjack cheaters.

The success that crooks have with blackjack largely stems from their having so much access to so many different cards. It affords myriad opportunities for cards to be daubed with grease, marked with tiny scraps of sand paper, or strategically bent to tip off when a picture card or an ace is coming up. "I've seen people take $300,000 out of a casino in one night by playing blackjack with a cooler," says Adams. "A cooler is a fixed deck that has been switched for the legitimate one. It's usually done in collusion with the dealer. You pay off the dealer and slip money to somebody in the surveillance room who will make sure that the camera is kept off of your table. Then you group six people around a single table, all betting the maximum amount of money. Before the casino can figure out what's going on and slip in to remix the cards, you've got your $300,000 and you're on your way out the door."  

When a cheater is operating solo, he might come into the casino with a small computer attached to his body and hooked up with sensors that signal the best move, with one little jolt for stick and two for hit. "The computer analyzes the cards and tells you everything you need to know," says Adams, taking pains to assert that, while card counting is frowned upon by casinos but not illegal, the use of outside devices is completely against the law. "Back in the early days of computers, people used to wear them in their shoes, and you operated them by moving your toes. But those were big and clumsy, and your shoes had to be so large that something was obviously wrong. Now people carry computers in fanny packs or wear them on their bodies." Needless to say, they're much harder to detect.

Another thing that has changed is the way in which cheaters are handled by the casinos. Today, with most casinos operated as corporate entities, everything is very official and by the book. Get caught passing a cooler into a blackjack game and you can expect to spend the night in the Clark County Detention Center before being charged and ultimately prosecuted. When casinos were owned by individuals, the penalty paid by cheaters was far more painful--as casino proprietors took the offense very personally.

Sid Lewis, a former security man at Binion's Horseshoe, recounts what happened when the late Ted Binion recognized that a particular craps table in his family's casino was not generating the kind of profit that it should have been. "I was watching that table from the eye in the sky," recalls Lewis, "and noticed that as soon as the dice hit the other end of the table, while everybody was watching the dice, the dealer would scoop chips into his pocket. It wound up that he had on a cut-off nylon hose, which fed the chips directly into his cowboy boots. I showed this to Ted and he was so mad that he wanted to shoot the sucker right through the ceiling."

Instead, Binion waited until the croupier's shift was over and walkie-talkied to security: "See that son of a bitch coming off of Table Three? He's walking slowly. Keep an eye on him. Wherever he goes. Don't let him out of your sight!" The dealer was tracked to a men's room, and that was when Binion decided to make his move. "Ted posts a big security guard outside, empties the room, takes his boot, and kicks open the door to the commode where this guy was counting up his take from the night," says Lewis. "Chips flew in the air, in the toilet, onto the floor. But Ted didn't care about the chips by that point. He took out his gun and pistol whipped the guy until his ear was hanging off. The guy is lucky he didn't get killed." Ted Binion wasn't as lucky. He died in 1998 of a drug overdose. His girlfriend and her lover were convicted of murdering him.

Luckily for cheaters, though, not everybody reacts so violently to being ripped off. It's hardly surprising that TV actor Norm McDonald, the former "Saturday Night Live" star who describes poker as "like my favorite thing," was more amused than angry when a player in a Texas Hold'em game appeared to have snookered the table by sneaking a crucial card into his hand. "The guy had a pair of 10s," recalls McDonald. "Then the flop came as 10, jack, queen. Everybody's betting and he stayed in. Then on the turn another 10 came out. The river came up as a third 10. The pot is getting huge. People have straights and flushes and full houses all over the place. But now this guy is stuck. If he shows his hand, it will get called back--because there will be five 10s on the table. So, before the final round of betting starts, he holds up his pocket cards and shows just one of the tens. He acts like he's doing a favor for the entire table, letting everybody know that he's got the hand won with four of a kind and they should save their money. Everybody folds and they're, like, 'Thanks, man.' So he just takes his chips and leaves. Then, four hands later, the extra 10 is found. But it's too late. The dude is gone." McDonald hesitates for a beat, clearly loving this anecdote. Then he adds, "It's the coolest thing I've ever seen."

While Adams's only concern is gamblers cheating the casinos--they, after all, are his employers--anybody who's golfed for money in Las Vegas has most likely learned that local gamblers have no qualms about eating their own on the links. A story circulates around town about three golfers who had gotten into the habit of making reasonably high bets with one another. They began adding bonuses for birdies and eagles and for hitting the green out of the tee box. It was all kept fairly reasonable, though the bonus for a hole in one--which nobody had a real chance of getting--kept on rising, eventually reaching $50,000.

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