Making The Mark
- December 1, 2015 |
- By Michael Kaplan
Sitting across the table from me, contemplating the lunch special at a Chinese restaurant in suburban Las Vegas, the man who calls himself Dustin Marks looks neither devious nor notorious. He's so nondescript, so devoid of a big personality that you wouldn't give him a second consideration. He certainly does not look like a person who used highly developed skills to break laws, loot casinos, infiltrate from the inside and do it all without ever breaking a sweat. But during the 1980s and into the '90s, he ranked among the most successful, most enduring blackjack cheaters in the world.
Best of all, he's never been caught.
Despised as he may be by the casino personnel he swindled, Marks is a man who would return your wallet if he saw it drop on the ground. He pays his bills on time and wears a seatbelt. A model citizen, he lives a quiet life and obsesses over mountain climbing, evangelizing about the teamwork that comes with scaling sheer walls of rock. Looking back at what he used to do, he has no guilt or remorse. His only regret is that, early on, he neglected his health and physique. He ate too much and failed to exercise. "That," he says with a rueful smile, "is never a good thing."
For Marks, now 57, larceny began with magic. He grew up in the Midwest and, through a family friend, got exposed to sleight of hand. Cards clicked for him. He liked how they felt on his fingers. He enjoyed tricking people and making them think he was doing the impossible. An avid reader of books on card maneuvers, he noticed that a number of magicians lived in Las Vegas.
In the 1970s and '80s, legerdemain thrived in Vegas. Masters of the craft resided there and made good money performing in casinos. Daniel Cross, for example, was the man to see at Desert Inn if you were into close-up card tricks.
Upon graduating from college, Marks moved to Vegas with the hope of learning from the world's best. He got a job selling health-club memberships and began attending weekly meetings of a loosely knit group known as Gary Darwin's Magic Club. While perfecting his moves, he fell into card counting and later learned a technique known as hole carding (it involves playing against sloppy dealers who inadvertently reveal their hole cards). But, more important to Marks, was his proximity to master magicians. "My knowledge and skills [at sleight of hand] skyrocketed," remembers Marks who released a memoir entitled Cheating at Blackjack. "Magicians would do pseudo gambling routines. They were interesting, but I didn't know that I wanted to get into cheating until I saw what was possible. I met the right guy and everything changed."
The right guy was a veteran cheater who Marks refers to as JS. He was an elusive figure who had apparently once worked in a downtown casino, running a cheating scam from the dealer's side of the table. Marks tried finding him there, but the pit boss said that JS had left the business and moved to the East Coast. "I didn't believe him," says Marks. "I started hanging around the Gambler's Book Club [a now defunct store that had been a prime resource for all sorts of cheaters, gambling fans and advantage players], became friendly with one of the guys there and asked him to call me if JS ever showed up. After two months I got the call. I lived 20 minutes away from the Book Club and drove there in eight."
Marks saw his quarry standing in the store. He walked up and bluntly wanted to know if the man's name was JS. "That depends on who's asking," JS replied.
They talked for a bit and JS suggested that Marks follow him home. "The guy turned out to be a master of everything," says Marks, still marveling over it all. "As a player, as a dealer, you name it and he knew how to do it. He showed me how to stack a blackjack deck, how to deal seconds, card mucking, switching cards. There were blackjack moves, poker moves, gin rummy moves, dice moves. Six hours later, I left his house and realized that if I ever got as good as him I could get the money and never be caught. I realized that he was light years ahead of the casinos. He saw that I had an okay pair of hands and could be trained."
Soon after, JS spent a couple of days teaching Marks to deal blackjack. A day after that, Marks scored a job with a downtown casino. He practiced stacking the deck on the job and at home, videotaping himself moving winning cards to the top of the deck. Finally, when he watched the video and couldn't recognize himself doing the move, he knew he was ready. "My first agent came in, he bet table maximum on the first hand of each new deck, $500 or $1,000, and he always won," Marks recounts. "After the first hand, I would signal what I had. If I pushed my stomach into the table, I was pat. Away from the table, and I had a stiff hand. I was making thousands of dollars a week without ever getting greedy."
Marks claims to have never felt any guilt over his escapades. "I saw dealers being treated like crap," he says. "And casino bosses, for the most part, were idiots. They had no clue and couldn't conceive of the possibility that the people who worked for them could be sharper than they were. You have to realize that I have always been honest in every other area of my life. I've never played poker because I don't want to take a player's money—even without cheating. But the casinos weren't really being hurt; they were never going to go begging for money."
At the time, Marks figured that life could not get any sweeter. Then a call came from JS. He was forming a large-scale cheating team for a major play and asked Marks if he wanted to be part of it. "Of course I did," he says.
It would be an inside job in the blackjack pit of a Laughlin, Nevada, casino. The play worked like this: As the dealer tucked his bottom card, he subtly flashed the first hit card to his partner in the number-one seat. The beauty of the play was that it happened so quickly, so subtly, that only the player would be able to glean the card. Done right, there would be virtually no chance of them getting picked off. Making it even stronger, when the dealer picked the cards up off the table, he would flash the first card that his partner would be dealt for the next hand. All told, they were playing with a 50-percent advantage, meaning that for every $100 bet they would end up with $150.
After managing to get hired as a dealer and showing up for his first shift, Marks felt as if he had stepped into the big leagues. "I remember walking into the pit, looking around and recognizing dealers who were in on it, players who were in on it, the pit boss who was part of our crew. All told, we had six cheater dealers, 15 players and a boss. We played the flash around the clock and took a ton of money out of that casino."
As wins piled up, players got backed off, never mind that the casino's managers had no clue as to what was going on. But the pit boss, the man who had put it all together, aroused little suspicion. Looking back, Marks remembers him with a degree of fondness that sounds slightly surprising under the circumstances. "He wasn't a card mechanic or anything, but he was a serious criminal. Hardcore. The joke about him was that he would steal a hot stove. But he and I got along very well. We both made a lot of money from this play and I thought he was a good guy. I learned a lot from him and I trusted him. Maybe it was a matter of honor among thieves."
Random polygraphing of dealers further thinned the cheating team's ranks and, in the end, it came down to only Marks and JS remaining.
By this point, Marks had added in additional cheating maneuvers, and he figures that they were playing at a 75 percent advantage with JS betting the table maximum every hand. "JS was winning so much that people came to watch him," remembers Marks. "There was a crowd standing behind him. The bosses [not in on the scam], other players at the table, the eye in the sky, they were all watching him. None of it bothered us. Then, one night, two guys from the game came over to me on my break. They said they wanted to talk to me. They were from gaming control. Now, I can't tell you why this is, but, for some reason, when things really go south, a sense of calmness comes over me. They asked if I knew JS. I said that I knew him from seeing him play. They asked if I had ever worked at a casino where JS used to work. I told them no, and that was the truth. Then they told me that they thought I was giving up hole card information in exchange for tips. At that point I realized that they had no knowledge of what was going on; we were doing a lot of things but hole carding wasn't one of them. We didn't need to do that. The power in the conversation shifted and I knew that they had nothing on me."
JS got banned. Marks got politely fired a couple of weeks after his conversation with the gaming guys. This chapter ended, but he emerged with valuable knowledge, a massive bankroll and a brimful of confidence. "I had a good education," he says. "I was turned out by some of the best ever. I came back to Vegas and decided to analyze every aspect of blackjack. I wanted to come up with techniques that would make it impossible for them to catch me. I wanted start my own cheating team."
To hear Marks tell it, the life he lived as a cheater sounds pretty perfect. But he paid a price for what he was doing—even as he was doing it. He lived in secrecy, could rarely be himself and never really enjoyed the money. "I didn't drive a flashy car and lived in the same house," he says. "My girlfriend-turned-wife didn't know what I was doing. She liked the money but wasn't the right type to be involved, even though she wanted to be. I didn't need fancy stuff and don't care about food. On the job [when he was dealing in order to quarterback the cheating plays] I kept to myself. Last thing I wanted was a square dealer associating with me and getting in trouble if I got popped. I wanted people to think that I was just some boring guy."
Heading up his own team, Marks took cheating moves to new levels. He had a play in which the dealer would quickly, imperceptibly riffle the corner of a deck so that his partner could see the next card to be dealt. They trained their eyes to catch the card in a quarter of a second. Just in case somebody happened to look over, blockers kept the move invisible to everybody save for the one person who was supposed to see it. Marks came up with cover plays to make it look like his agents were losing. When agents were away from his table, he dealt ultra fast in order to get in more hands per hour and increase the table's overall take.
Through it all, he never felt any serious heat and limited the number of confederates he would get involved with. The fear was that one of them would get arrested on the outside or caught by casino security for some other infraction and become incentivized to roll over on Marks' crew. This point was driven home when he veered away from blackjack and got involved in a one-off craps scam.
"It was designed to take place in a major casino and involved a guy putting in a die that couldn't 7 out," he recounts. "But too many people were involved, word spread and lots of gamblers were going to backdoor the game. Everybody wanted to play in a craps game where the shooter couldn't 7 out. Then a source told me that the casino was going to be loaded up with gaming control people. Apparently a boss got popped for something else, and he gave up the game. He said we would be there. But, since we knew, we canceled the play. They were all there for nothing. Hopefully they got mad at the boss and made him do extra time. He deserved it."
Marks was also careful as to where he would execute his cheating. Somebody wanted to hire him to stack a deck at a Binion's Horseshoe blackjack table. The player would be wagering $5,000 per hand. The earn would have been substantial, but Binion's had a reputation for being particularly nasty to those who cheated, especially if they were working from the inside, as Marks would have been. "I heard where they wanted to do it and asked, ‘Are you crazy?' I wanted to know nothing more about the play. I have no idea whether or not they did it, and I didn't want to know."
For a while, he ran a card-switching team, which had him playing alongside a partner and using his card-trick techniques to produce one strong blackjack hand out of four cards. It makes the game easy to win. He considered getting into card mucking—introducing new cards into play—but considered it too risky. Same thing with swapping out a rigged shoe of cards for the existing one. But when a rogue scientist from NASA approached him with a pocket-sized computer, Marks found yet another way to illicitly extract money from casinos.
It started with a shoe of cards being played in a traditional manner. A partner entered each card, in order, into the pocket sized computer. The shoe played through in a normal way. The dealer then did a false shuffle, designed to look good to surveillance but not change the order of the cards as they had been remembered by the computer. Through various vibrations, it gave advice on how to play each hand.
The person holding the computer signaled the big player who was betting table maximum and operating at what Marks estimates to have been a 95 percent advantage. "We won a ton of money with that," he says. "The computer had the whole shoe figured out. At the end of the night we would go back to JS's house with stacks of $100 bills. The beauty of the play is this: Once the money hits the table, there's nothing for the casino to see. We did it in big casinos on the Strip, places that were willing to take the action. Why would we want to bother with little joints where they would sweat us? The risky thing was the guy wearing the computer. If he got caught there was no escape."
Good as the money may have been, Marks was smart enough to know when to exit. Soon after the computer play, he felt his passion beginning to drop off. He had made more money than he knew what to do with and wasn't sure how to top that high-tech maneuver. Plus, maybe, as he got older, he became increasingly cognizant of the risks he was taking and the heavy consequences that would be paid if he were to be caught. Imprisonment was not part of his game plan. He eased himself out by doing some low-edge card counting in Mississippi before he eventually gave up on all of it.
Maybe he dropped out at a good time. Before long, automatic-shuffling machines would make what he does obsolete in many instances. Surveillance cameras improved and casino security got savvier. Eventually, cheating tools manufactured in Asia removed all the artistry from the game. "What we did took a lot of practice," he says, passing on a cup of tea from the waitress and nibbling a bit of dessert. "And it was so much fun. I
remember one partner with whom I took down games. We were so good that we could practically read each other's minds. We played against a pit boss who got so nervous about our winning that he would start sweating profusely. It was pathetic. We bit the insides of our cheeks to keep from laughing, knowing that it was never a question of if we would win. It was only how much could we win and not look suspicious."
Since his salad days as a cheat, Marks has lived a leisurely life. He's even helped out casinos by providing demonstrations on cheating methods in order to educate the casino bosses. "I'd explain the moves and they still couldn't understand what I was doing," he says. Marks has also delighted a clutch of card counters at the Blackjack Ball, a secret gathering held each year for those who devote their lives to beating casinos. He made enough money that he hasn't had to work and has no regrets about getting out while the getting was still good. One place you won't see Dustin Marks is in a casino. It's been decades since he's placed a bet.
"I never was fond of gambling," says Marks. "When I had to do cover plays, it was boring. When I had to deal on the square, I hated it. I don't have any interest in gambling. I am the kind of guy who always wants a sure thing."
Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.