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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)

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."

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.

One afternoon, with the foursome ahead having agreed to help out with the scam, one guy distracted the pigeon while the other guy smacked his Titleist with a resounding shot that shanked into the woods--unnoticed by the pigeon. Nevertheless, the golfer was looking down the fairway, toward the green, shouting, "Get up there! Don't stop now." He shielded his eyes against the sun, squinted into the distance, and proclaimed, "I hit the green! I might've gotten it in the hole." Suddenly the second golfer turned around and started bemoaning the fact that a hole in one looked very possible. The pigeon complained that he never even saw the shot--not realizing, of course, that this was precisely the point. By the time they got to the green, sure enough, a Titleist awaited them in the cup. What the pigeon will never know is that a member of the foursome ahead of them had dropped the ball into the hole at the request of his two golfing buddies. A couple days later the pair of scam artists chopped up the pigeon's 50 grand. He had no idea that he had been ripped off, and, most remarkable of all, the guys have continued to play golf together. The pigeon remains blissfully unaware that he was cheated.

Entertaining as that story is, there are far easier ways to cheat at golf. According to veteran gambler Russ Hamilton, the easiest way is to sandbag your partner by underperforming and being in on the opposing team's take. Hamilton and another guy were competing in a scramble--in which each partner takes his shots, and the best score for each hole counts toward the final score--for total potential winnings of about $1 million. Early on, though, Hamilton noticed, "Even though my partner usually shoots an 82, on that day he couldn't keep a ball straight. After the fourth hole, I looked at him and said, 'Ralph, I guess it's just me today.' I got out the A game and maintained my composure. Had I become mad and gone on tilt, things would have gotten really ugly. I lost $10,000 and felt lucky. I'll tell you one thing, though; I don't play partners anymore unless I really know the person I'm teamed up with."

Back in the world of casino cheating, where the gambling palaces are far flusher and far more vulnerable than any individual, Gordon Adams fights an uphill battle that requires more than just his A game. He's competing against Internet sites that sell cheating tools to anybody with a credit card, high-tech wizards who have virtual TV studios underneath their shirts, and Las Vegas­based jurors who've dropped enough money in casinos that they tend to side with the cheaters when cases actually make it to trial.   His work is rewarding in that it scrubs at least some of the cheaters away from gaming tables, or, as one casino executive has told him, "For every cheater you keep out of a casino, it is worth at least $20,000 to us." All of this begs the question: Will Adams ever do his job so well that casino cheating will be a thing of the past? "Not a chance," he says, speaking in the confident tone of a man who will never find himself jobless. "Anytime you've got money, you've invariably got people who want to take that money away."

Michael Kaplan is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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