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The Good Life

Cheater Catcher

A casino surveillance expert reveals the card-counting cover-ups, chip-swapping ruses and blunt-force scams of Las Vegas cheaters.
By Michael Kaplan | From Ray Lewis, September/October 2016
Cheater Catcher
Illustration/Riki Blanco

It's a Saturday afternoon in an American gambling city. Over hamburgers and french fries, one of casino-gaming's most imposing security men—an enforcer who specializes in catching cheaters, card counters and a wide berth of players whose techniques can significantly detract from a gambling den's profits—dishes on some of the scariest players in the world. He casually drops names like John Chang (Kevin Spacey's character in the movie 21 was partly based on Chang), Maria T. (brilliant cofounder of a notorious card counting team known as "The Greeks") and Richard Marcus (author of the book American Roulette, which focuses on him and his team of unrepentant cheats). Wearing a baseball cap, chinos, golf shirt and sneakers, he talks about people who, under the right circumstances, can extract sums in the six figures from unwitting casinos in a single day.

For the sake of his career, he asks that we refer to him only as BC (let's say that it stands for Beating Cheaters). He loves the chase and savors victories. For him, more than 20 years in, nailing scammers and advantage players is as much a passion play as it is a job. In fact, it took only one night in a surveillance room for BC to be hooked on finding people who hurt the bottom lines of casinos and tossing them out. Prior to his first stint manning an all-seeing eye-in-the-sky security camera, BC had been hired to do criminal investigations for joints in Atlantic City, using skills he picked up in the military.

After a few years, though, BC left AC and moved to Las Vegas. "I figured I could have a career in Vegas instead of just a job in Atlantic City," he offers. BC almost immediately began working for a major casino company and quickly snagged his seat in the surveillance room. "Right from the start," he says, "I spotted all kinds of shit that other people missed. I guess I have a knack for being observant, and I love it. I got off on tracking people who had no clue that I was watching them. Death from above, baby!"

At first, he watched the entire resort that employed him. BC looked for crooks shoplifting from the sundries shop or lurking near the self-park garage. He began making a name for himself after busting a group of thieves looting $200 robes out of the spa. It doesn't sound like much, but the losses add up. He saw shoplifters and scam artists and a woman who expertly spirited away chips from players' stacks. Eventually, the gaming side of the operation recruited him. "That," BC says, "was when I went on a tear. The first guys I caught were members of a count team from MIT. It was a rush to take them down."

He liked the variety of the job, what he saw while spying on the inner workings of a gambling operation. Watching everything that transpired in the casino, he went beyond simply the playing of games and trying to spot hot-looking chicks sitting alongside their high-roller boyfriends. "You watched it all," he says, his voice still containing a hint of marvel over the visual adventures that still unfold before him each shift. "You watch the cage, you watch the soft count, people bringing in money, money going out, marker redemption. It's not just eyeballing the game. In a big place, you might have five people in the surveillance room." They all work with varying degrees of seriousness and diligence, BC says. At least that's the case in places like Vegas and Atlantic City. But, he adds, at tribal casinos it's something else altogether: "The tribes really understand it. They know it's the tribe's money, not some big corporation's money, and they take care of it."

One of BC's first big catches was a group of con artists pulling off a roulette scam. It capitalized on the fact that when you play roulette, you do not bet with actual chips. You bet with variously colored nondenominational chips that the crew running the wheel gives you in exchange for chips that are actually worth money. Let's say you want to bet $1 per spin, you give $25 and they give you 25 blue chips, it's marked that the blue chips are worth $1 each. They're your color.

That works pretty well until thieves decide to exploit it. "It was early days, I was up in surveillance and they asked me to watch the wheel," remembers BC, who did as he was told. "For two days I saw nothing. Then I got frustrated and started to think about what I would do if I was down there on the floor instead of up here with a camera. I would back up and try to get a broader view. I did it and saw two guys staring at each other and locking eyes. Why would they do that? It didn't look right. They didn't seem to be lovers and appeared to have no interest in fighting. Then a third got into it and they all headed to the bathroom. I later learned that that's where they went to switch chips. Now a new guy comes to the table, carrying a bunch of blue chips in his pocket—though nobody on the game knows it, of course. He wants to play for $50 a spin and announces that blue is his lucky color. He buys $1,000 worth of blue chips and now, all of a sudden, those $1 blue chips that he has in his pocket are worth $50 each. He sneaks them out and snakes the casino. We arrested that group the next day."

BC considers this for a moment and then says, I assume kiddingly, "That one was so good that I kept it as my retirement scam—until a bunch of cheaters beat it to death."

One of the great things about working surveillance or on the casino floor is all the crazy flim-flammery you get to witness. From his vantage point, BC took in a team of Chinese card markers who kept tiny razor blades under their fingernails and used them to lay in all-but-imperceptible scratches that marked cards. "They were Tongs," he remembers. "They would have chopped me up and killed me. The operation was called Jade Blade." But he points out that he's seen an easier way to mark cards: You Superglue a grain of sand to your finger and use it to slightly indent the backs of aces and face-cards to crush Casino War, a ridiculous sucker bet to which nobody in the casino normally pays a whole lot of attention.

Beyond all that, one of his more memorable moments came when he had the opportunity to witness a team of Asian cheaters who performed money-making magic by literally having cards up their sleeves. It begins with getting your hands on a casino's deck of cards. "That's not hard," insists BC. "I've got decks of cards from multiple casinos at home. How did I get them?" The question is rhetorical and hangs in the air. Armed with their decks, the Asian team pulled one key card ahead of time. In this case, the game being played was baccarat, so the key card would be an 8. Slipping the card into the game—after creating a winning hand for yourself—is fairly easy for those who have the stomach and dexterity for it. The hard part can be to slip a card of the same denomination out of the game.

The reason this is necessary, says BC, is because cards in the game get inspected after being used. If there is, say, an extra 8 of spades in the decks, questions will be asked and video will be reviewed. "The agent watching the play caught it," remembers BC. "Security got called but they had no idea about what they were getting into. They tackled the cheater without realizing that the card in his pocket was our evidence. We needed it in order to prove he was guilty. Quicker and smoother than you can imagine, the cheater pulled out his card, folded it up and swallowed it. Clearly this was a practiced move and not the first time he had done it. We had no evidence of what had occurred. It was brought before the Gaming Commission and they said, ‘You have no proof. Pay the man. Have a nice day.' "

But that may not even be the smoothest cheating move he's witnessed. While BC has no love for those who get over on the house, he does grudgingly respect them and offers props to operators who excel at the dark art. Among the top is a notoriously talented cheat by the name of Richard Marcus. He perfected a play that he came to call the Savannah, named after a blond-haired porn star for whom he had a particular fondness. Marcus would play a hand of blackjack, with, say, three green $25 chips stacked in front of him. If he lost, he would give up $75. If he won, though, Marcus would slip in a yellow $1,000 chip and remove the bottom green. He did it with the speed and smoothness of a close-up magician. Nobody saw it happening and he'd essentially be risking $75 with the opportunity to make $1,050 if he won.

But Marcus added a component to the maneuver that impressed BC. "As soon as the dealer paid him, he swapped the chips in and out, grabbed the dealer's hand and told her that she mis-paid; it was sheer beauty in that it not only pulled off the play but actually blocked everyone's eye from the swap," BC says, shaking his head, clearly impressed. "That one thing threw everything off and put the whole pit out of synch. There's a good chance that if the dealer has been working there for 25 years, he's the first person to have done that, to have touched the dealer's hand. They focused on that rather than on the bet. Marcus and his crew probably got told not to touch anyone, but it was after the fact. It was too late. His touching the dealer was like somebody throwing cold water in your face for no reason. You just paid him and moved on. I caught him and came to know the play but actually enjoyed watching him work. Like I said, it was really beautiful."

Other moves were more blunt-force, less artful and sometimes left BC wondering why the perpetrators bothered doing them in the first place. He remembers seeing one successful card counter—counting will get you thrown out of the casino but not arrested—who actually crossed over to be a hard-core cheater, doing the very things that will land you in jail. In particular, BC saw him pulling a move known as card bending. It is exactly what it sounds like: You over-handle the aces in a deck and bend them slightly. This allows a player to easily cut to that card since it is lifted up from the rest of the deck—and to know when the dealer has one.

"Members of this particular team made a million dollars counting," says BC, "and they did it relatively quickly. I couldn't understand why they would cheat. Then I found out that it's because cheating allowed them to make $2 million in half the time that it took to earn $1 million by counting."

Inside his home, BC maintains a dense library of books on cheating and advantage play. He has volumes by Steve Forte (a former casino consultant who has since been shamed over accusations that he participated in a poker scam at Borgata), James Grosjean (the brilliant advantage player whose Beyond Counting is a bible for those aiming to legally win in casinos) and Celine (the pseudonym for a former surveillance man, now deceased, who wrote a slender volume that tipped off advantage players about how things work on the other side of the camera lens). He even has a few albums released by Daryl Purpose, a seriously gifted advantage player who performs folk music on the side. Purpose has been known to take out his phone and show off video surveillance footage that depicts him cutting to a royal flush and winning $100,000 for his fleet-fingered efforts. "I like Daryl's playing," says BC, referring to the professional gambler's music. "He's pretty talented."

While many in the business make little distinction between legal and illegal maneuvers, BC finds himself particularly taken by the craftsmen who devise ways of winning big without breaking laws. He admits that his quest to focus on the brilliant rather than the lawless has probably prevented him from shutting down some big-time cheaters. But, as Woody Allen said when making excuses for being romantically involved with Sun-Yi Previn, "The heart wants what the heart wants." BC's heart wants to match wits against players who skirt the law but do not break it.

He knows that many of the advantage players are near geniuses and operate differently from those with larceny in their souls. He brags about the scalps he's taken. There's Rob Reitzen whose team was called Core. "He wore a hat in the casino that said Core on it," recalls B.C. "I busted him because he was giving us the finger." Then there was Frank Schipani, inventor of the big player move, in which a bettor slips into a blackjack game and wagers only when the count is high. And, of course, Jeff Ma, a key member of the MIT blackjack team who later made a fortune in Silicon Valley and now serves as ESPN's "predictive analytics expert," a fancy title for a mathematically inclined handicapper.

"It's fun to compete against them," says BC, summarizing what he loves about the business. "Following their trail is a challenge. It's like playing a game and trying to win. When you do win, it feels good. You figure out what these guys are doing and get a nice kick out of it. You solve a new puzzle each time."

Many of his victories involved less notorious targets but were just as satisfying. One night he took down a team that had essentially taken over an entire casino with card counters and spotters monitoring more than a dozen blackjack games and calling in big bettors to make large wagers as soon as a game turned suitably advantageous.

Another time a multicultural team showed him how to card count without appearing to be doing it. They employed correlation betting:  instead of having one or two players betting to the count, they had four or five players betting all over the place, but, cumulatively, betting correctly. For example, if the right bet is $250, but one guy bets $500, another bets $150 and a third bets $100, you get the money out there without it looking obvious. "Between the money they won at the table and the comps they hustled and sold," he says, "this team earned somewhere between $13 million and $15 million—and it took us a while to catch them and shut them down."

He watched in amazement as an Australian group combined a series of plays at a single table-hole carding, ace sequencing, shuffle tracking, card counting, probably more-to realize maximum advantages. Impressed by how effortlessly it all seemed to come off, BC says, "There was a lot of brainpower firing at that table. It was not a normal situation."

He's also seen regular, losing gamblers get brought in to make advantage plays tricky to detect and difficult to curb. After all, the last person that a casino wants to risk offending is a cash-bleeding high-stakes whale. That makes him the perfect person to do the betting for a team that knows how to play at an advantage. Along those lines, BC remembers a now-deceased gambler by the name we'll call Jack Stuart. "He was a million-dollar player and we beat the snot out of him for a long time," says BC. "Then the tables suddenly turned and he was kicking our ass."

It could have been luck, but BC instinctively believed that it must have been something else as well. Then, circulating through the casino, he noticed a career card counter at a blackjack table. A colleague had spotted Stuart and the counter deep in conversation, off of the gaming floor but still on property. "Sometimes you have to make a mistake for us to catch you," says BC, pointing out that the collaborators gave themselves away. "That was their mistake: talking to each other in the casino. Once I knew of them being together, their scam was easy to figure out. Stuart played baccarat, which is his game of choice. At appropriate moments, the counter signaled him and he walked away from baccarat. All of a sudden he said he was bored and wanted to hit the blackjack table. He'd come in, make some large wagers-way more than he bet at baccarat-and disappear as soon as the count got bad."

Acknowledging that it's not easy getting a casino to okay ejecting a longtime loser like Stuart, BC managed to secure the necessary clearance. "I told Stuart he couldn't play with us anymore and he laughed. He didn't care. He was just a wealthy guy trying to get his money back. He thought it was all very funny."

As BC finishes this story, he looks around. Early-birders settle in for dinner. The afternoon has pretty much passed. Outside of the restaurant, dusk descends. Casino lights switch on. Evening encroaches and BC's people come out. Benders, scratchers, counters and hole-carders are all preparing to hit casinos and take them down.

Knowing that we'll finish soon, I have one last question. What would BC do if he wanted to get over on a casino? He answers without hesitation. "I'd sit at a blackjack table with a Coke in front of me," he begins. "As soon as I get dealt two aces, I would spill my drink on the cards and make it look like an accident. The casino will pull those two aces out of the game and replace them with two new aces. Then, every time I cut the cards, I'll be able to see where the two new aces are," says BC referring to the fact that the edges of those cards will look newer and cleaner than others in the deck or decks. "I would sit there, cut to aces and bet big on that one hand per shoe."

That said, BC gets up. He's poised to spend the night pursuing his adversaries in the casino, and it's clear that there's no place he would rather be.

Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.


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