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."
In those days Swift pulled a variety of scams, each year pocketing close to $100,000. "The money was good, of course," Swift says. "But the thrill was what kept me going. There's nothing quite so exciting as the charge you get out of outsmarting the house. We didn't steal from tourists; in fact, most gamblers wouldn't even know what was going on if they saw a play happening. We went after the corporations, the house. Making money is fine. But making it through larceny is even better. I think everybody likes the feeling of getting away with something."
One of his favorite schemes involved switching "tops," misspotted dice, on and off Vegas crap tables. When the croupier offered Mickey the casino's dice, he would pick them up and in one deft motion replace them with his own homemade version (complete with imitation logo and serial number) that had been concealed in his palm. The dice looked and felt legitimate, but they had only three numbers printed on them: two, three and six, a guaranteed passing combination. Whenever Mickey shot his tops, a confederate at the other end of the table would load up big bets on the numbers, because rolling a "seven out" was impossible. After a lucrative pass or two, Swift, employing his graceful, sleight-of-hand artistry, would switch the casino's dice back into the game. "You're heart tends to pound a bit when you make the move--you drop the extra dice and you're dead. But I've had a little practice," he says wryly.
In Reno, he "put down paper," introducing "shaded" or marked cards into blackjack games. "It was like playing with the cards face up," he says, smiling almost coyly. In Las Vegas he was hired at a major Strip casino as a roulette croupier and with split-second timing, past-posted, or telegraphed the position of the ball in the wheel, to several agents. "I'd take an extra half second looking into the wheel to get the number and give the office [signal] to the take-off man [big-money bettor], telling him which column to play. Amazing how many times we won."
When Atlantic City casinos opened in the late 1970s, he worked with a gang of engineering experts 20 years his junior, known as the Computer Crew, who played blackjack with the aid of a miniature processor concealed inside the tip of a cowboy boot.
As each card hit the table, Swift would input its value using his big toe to click a solenoid. When the dealer had penetrated deeply enough into the deck, the computer could accurately predict which cards remained and would send an electronic message through a concealed wire leading to a tiny earpiece, directing Mickey to the proper play. "Jersey didn't have an electronic-device law anyway, so it wasn't technically a cheat," Swift says, "but yes, we did play with a pretty big edge."
Electronic technology combined with Swift's sleight-of-hand acumen proved a powerful combination. Using a zoom-lens camera hidden in a woman's pocketbook and law-enforcement-style transceivers with intercanal hearing aids taped inside wigs, Swift and his team of college boys were able to "peek" the dealer's hole card. "It was easy, really. We'd have our girl parked at a slot machine and we'd tell her, 'a little to your left. Up a little more. Down one inch. Got it! Hold your position.' We'd get a perfect picture of the dealer's card on videotape, run it back at slow motion and learn the value." Viewing the card on a video monitor inside a parked van, a confederate relayed the information back to the table via audiolink. Knowing the dealer's total, Swift and his crew gained a 6 percent advantage--triple the edge obtained by the world's most expert card counters.
"Playing with cameras and radios and computers opened a whole new world to me," says Swift. "Old-timers like me were used to getting by on our wits. We had to be good with the hands; we had to have some imagination and skill. I know grifters who would practice the pull-through shuffle 200 hours before they got it right." Swift grabs a deck of cards and demonstrates. "You actually riffle the cards," he says, giving them what looks to be a genuine mix. "But then when you box the two halves together," he says, squaring up the deck, "you pull the halves right through the back. Looks like a legit shuffle, doesn't it? Well, sit in front of a mirror for a couple of months and you can do it, too. Those kinds of skills are vanishing. A few years ago, I saw these young guys coming into the racket with computers and cameras, and it made my pair of tops look like they belonged in a museum."
Swift, however, was not obsolete. The "young guys," an educated breed of sharpies raised on mathematics and "Mission Impossible," revered him and his astonishing talent. There are maybe two of three people in the world who can handle a deck of cards as well as Mickey Swift. Hand him a freshly shuffled and cut deck of cards; he'll deal you four aces. Put those aces in random spots in the middle of the deck; he'll deal you four aces. Deal him any four random cards; he'll change them to aces. The man's hands are legendary.
Combined with their electronic hardware, the Computer Crew knew Mickey Swift's hands would net them $250,000 in 10 minutes. They devised the plan, which they went into seclusion to master.
They rehearsed the play out-of-town for three weeks in the Colorado River village of Laughlin, Nevada, working out the kinks, getting the timing right, betting $5 chips. When the 12-member crew was certain their "move" was undetectable from all angles, when every member of the team knew the play's choreography like a cornerback knows his pass coverage, they moved the show to the big time: Las Vegas.
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.
Now the crew goes into the four-corner offense, slowing the game down. They ask for change. They pause before requesting a hit. They consult the pit boss for advice on how to play a pair of eights. They buy the Wiz time to crunch the numbers through his computer.
Minutes later, a runner meets the escort in the ladies' room, where she receives a $100 bill that has the Wiz's computer-generated "answers" scribbled on it, numbers like 51, 50 and 42. These numbers instruct the players to play five spots and take one hit; play five spots and take no hit; play four spots and take two hits and so on. Given the sequence of numbers that has just run through the target table, the Wiz's computer has derived an optimal playing strategy that will bust the dealer virtually every hand.
The dealer comes to the end of the shoe. As he collects and pays off the final bets, the big shots split up, taking seats at the two blackjack tables on either side of the target table. They each plunk down large cash bets, in this case, $1,000. The surveillance cameras on either side of the target table zoom in like Patriot missiles on the big-money action, leaving the middle table unwatched. The pit boss snaps out of his reverie and takes a step closer to one of the big-money tables.
The dealer at the target table calls out "shuffle!" Without looking away from the big shot, the pit boss calls out "go ahead."
At that moment, the stud starts shoving an accomplice, who, on cue, has started a fictitious argument. They swear and yell and push each other to the brink of punches. All eyes in the pit, including the boss', turn to them. With neither spectators nor supervision, the dealer at the target table splits his cards at the lug mark, divides the decks into two stacks and proceeds to "shuffle."
But the cards never change place.
As taught by Mickey Swift, the greatest card manipulator in the business, the dealer executes a "zero shuffle," a blatantly false mixing action, similar to the "pull through," that, when viewed from the security cameras above, looks like the real thing.
As the dealer squares the cards back to their original, prerecorded order, the escort approaches the pit boss and asks that some complimentary Champagne be sent to her table. The boss gives her a yellow grin and happily obliges. Without letting his eyes leave the escort's alluring backside as she sashays to her table, the pit boss says, "OK, good luck, fellas."
One of the shills cuts to a "crimp," a small, signatory bend between two cards, bringing the computer-analyzed "cooler" (prearranged sequence of cards) to the top of the shoe.
At that moment, the seat stuffers decide they've had enough. They cash in their chips, sheepishly ask for a comp to the coffee shop and say good night. The big shots move in.
"How you fellas doing tonight?" the pit boss asks, flashing them a fraudulent smile.
"Hell, I'm down about 20 grand," Swift lies. "I'm leaving town in the morning and I'd love just to get even." He fishes a handful of $500 chips from his sports jacket and plunks them down on the first betting spot. "Whadda you say? Think we can get the table limit raised here? Maybe, I don't know, $5,000 a hand?"
"Let me see what I can do," the pit boss says. He calls upstairs. Security tells him these two suckers have been walking around the casino all night littering the place with money. The shift manager gives the green light--and he's thrilled to have their action. "Besides," the pit boss whispers into the phone, "they're coming in on a freshly shuffled shoe, so they're definitely not card counters. Let's fade 'em." He turns to the big shots. "OK, gentlemen. You got it."
Based on where the escort rests her hand on the big shot's shoulder, Swift and his colleague know how many spots to bet and how many hits to take. On the first round, they make five $5,000 bets and take one card. "Boy, my heart's pounding now," Swift announces. The dealer busts. Then they make three $5,000 bets and take no cards. Again, the dealer busts. They make six $5,000 bets and take two cards. Once more, the dealer busts.
In three minutes they're up more than $70,000.
"I better stop," Swift tells the pit boss, who tries vainly to maintain a facade of friendliness. "This is unbelievable luck! Unbelievable," Swift exclaims.
The pit boss, still certain he's got a couple of fish on the hook, doesn't want to lose their business, especially before they give back some of their "lucky" chips. "We'd love to have you stay," the boss says. "Is there anything I can do for you? Dinner? Are you staying here? I could get you our nicest suite."
"Nah, we better just go," Swift says.
"Are you sure?" the boss says, almost pleading.
"Well, OK. A few more hands. We'll play until we lose two hands in a row," Swift says, knowing that won't be for a while. More than 50 hands and $200,000 later, the escort signals to Swift that the crew has come to the end of their computer cooler. "Tell you what," Swift says to his big-shot buddy, "let's play until we lose a hand." They gamble three hands on the square before finding a loser.
"Thanks," Swift says to the pit boss, pushing in a mountain of chips. "That was fun."
The boss nearly chokes on his words. "Thank you, gentlemen. Remember, if you care to stay, we're very glad to have you."
"You know what?" Swift says. "We're very glad to be here."
Michael Konik is the gambling columnist for Cigar Aficionado.