Cigar Aficionado

Hi-tech scam artists target casinos around the world in a never-ending game of cat and mouse

For weeks, casinos in Great Britain, had been enduring a thrashing. Three-card poker, an indisputable sucker game designed to be virtually unbeatable by players, was getting taken down. At first, the wins were attributed to old-fashioned variance. But, then, one night, when Bit Chai Wong, a 39-year-old regular at the tables in Southwest London's Mint Casino, won 34 out of 44 hands, her luck had clearly gone off the charts.

As her chip-stack grew, surveillance supervisors and pit personnel became increasingly suspicious. A white van, which had been parked outside the casino for much of the night, further raised cause for concern. The local police department's Gaming Unit came by for a look. Bobbies raided the van. They discovered computers and a signal-receiving dish being used inside the vehicle. Swiftly, all doubts were vanquished. The big winner was also a big cheater.

Masterminding this operation from inside the casino, a former chef by the name of Yau Yiv Lam sat at the gaming table with a tiny, digital movie-camera up his sleeve. He positioned the lens low enough to capture cards as they were dealt. Images instantly transmitted from Lam's camera to a computer inside the van. An accomplice in the van ran footage in slow motion. They viewed clear pictures of cards that the dealer was receiving.

Player Bit Chai Wong wore a tiny earpiece that received information from a spotter inside the van. Armed with casino gambling's golden ring-knowledge of the dealer's cards-she strategized accordingly.

As acknowledged by Scotland Yard, the gang won in excess of £250,000, and some casinos lost as much as £38,000 to the team over the course of a single week. Each participant in the plot was sentenced to nine months in prison (though Wong and the man in the van had their time behind bars reduced to community service).

Judges, prosecutors and casino executives marveled over the fact that nothing like this had been seen before in England. Maybe they should get used to it. According to Richard Marcus, an acknowledged scam-artist and author of the cheater memoir American Roulette, "[High-tech cheating] is getting more common everyday, though high-tech cheats are still a very small minority. It is evolving by constant improvements in technology."

On our side of the Atlantic Ocean, two years ago, a similarly high-tech deal was poised to go down in Atlantic City. As the Borgata held a $1.7-million poker tournament in its card room downstairs, a game of a very different sort had been meticulously engineered to unfold inside one of the posh casino's guest suites. Collaborators allegedly convinced an unsuspecting player, identified only as J. H., to participate in private games of Chinese poker, chess and backgammon. Unbeknownst to him, a combination of hidden cameras, marked cards and computers in an adjacent room would make the outcome a faite accompli. According to the New Jersey office of the attorney general, the equipment was there to divine optimal strategies, which would have been communicated to the team's shill via a tiny earpiece.

Luckily for J. H., who would have most likely been fleeced out of $75,000, word leaked to the state's Gaming Enforcement authorities. The alleged scammers were busted before they could do any damage. According to the New Jersey attorney general's office, three of them have since pleaded guilty to third degree attempted theft by deception. The fourth person, initially charged in this matter, was casino security guru Steve Forte. He's maintained his innocence from the start and charges against him have been dropped.

Audacious as those tech-oriented plots sound, Marcus warns of a new threat on the horizon: "Using lasers to mark cards will be the biggest scam of the coming years."

Cheating has been around as long as gambling. Back in the old days, Amarillo Slim Preston remembers catching a couple guys who were pulling off a primitive version of the Atlantic City caper: Without the benefit of cameras or computers, they simply drilled a peephole in the ceiling, made sure that Slim was properly position, peeked at his cards, and somehow relayed the information to a confederate playing against him.

More recently, some casinos employed an automatic card-shuffler, with a glass door, for use in the game of baccarat. The naked eye could see that cards were being legitimately shuffled but could not make out the cards themselves. That changed when one of history's most notoriously innovative cheaters, a man who prefers to remain anonymous, aimed a small camera at the glass door.

Employing a strategy that a Chinese ganag might have adopted, he shot the cards in slow motion, imagery beamed out to a control vehicle in the parking lot and a big-betting accomplice received verbal cues on whether to bet player, banker or tie. "But they were stupid about how they did it," says a seasoned gambling professional we'll call Charlie Simon. "They took over the table, made max bets on nine or 10 hands in a row, and everybody won. The cheaters were never caught, but the casino realized that it had a problem. The quick, temporary solution was extremely low tech: A strip of black-tape across the exposed portion of the machine."

These days, no casino supplier would dare make a piece of equipment so obviously vulnerable. But they don't need to. With the advent of easily accessed technology and rock-bottom wages for casino personnel who work on the front lines, ambitious cheaters can have their way. "When it comes to cheating, the first thing you need to do is separate the amateur from the professional," says Simon. "The amateur gets drunk and tries to cap a bet. The professional cheats, a small minority of people who systematically take a lot of money out of casinos, they use a broad array of sophisticated, high-tech stuff."

Bernard Ko, who consults on gaming and game-protection in California, points out that for the most innovative cheaters with a high-tech bent, tools of the trade have become frighteningly discreet. "There was a dice cup that had a tiny camera on top," he says. "In Pai Gow Poker, three dice are rolled inside a metal cup to determine which cards go to which players. With the camera transmitting information from inside the cup, and cards or tiles marked with infra red ink, visible only with special glasses or contact lenses, the cheats have a huge advantage." Ko hesitates for a beat, before explaining that strict procedures forbid players from betting after the dice settle. But, he acknowledges, dealers, for various reasons, sometimes fail to follow those procedures.

This item, ingenious as it may sound, is just the tip of the iceberg. Many cheating devices get exported from the Far East, which has evolved into a kind of Rodeo Drive for unscrupulous gamblers on shopping sprees. Ko, wanted to see what the cheaters have to work with. So, through some of his less savory connections, he arranged to pose as a potential customer. He approached a company in Canton, China, that produces and sells high-tech cheating devices.

Ko recalls being ushered into a posh office, where an attractive woman offered him a cappuccino. "They gave me the VIP treatment," he remembers of employees from the company that sold infrared paints, tables built for pulling off deceptions, and a dealer's shoe that makes it easy to deal seconds. "A lot of what they had were for home games and underground clubs-which totally turned me off to the idea of gambling in one of those places," he says. "I saw a mah-jongg setup in which tiny cameras [not unlike the hole-card cams now used for legitimate purposes in televised poker tournaments] faced the players' tiles so that all the hands can be watched on a monitor in an adjacent room."

Surprisingly, though Nevada is clearly a hub of gambling in the United States, it is not necessarily a hub of cheating at table games. That distinction goes to California, a place where gambling handle for Pai Gow Poker is among the highest in the country, where the gaming is sometimes loosely monitored and where old-school card rooms may have limited incentive to protect the games that they spread.

That last condition is due to the fact that the California card rooms (but not the state's Indian casinos) were initially designed as enclaves for poker. Rules mandate that the gambling operations can make their money from raking games-that is, taking a little bit out of each pot, as is common in poker-but cannot profit from their outcomes. That is, the house cannot have an active interest in beating players.

In order to get around that rule and still provide customers with popular table games, such as blackjack and Pai Gow Poker, the California casinos initiated a system in which outside entities or players bank the games. Therefore, people from outside of the casino benefit from players at the table. The casino simply gets a percentage of the money wagered, regardless of who wins.

Buy into a blackjack game in any California card room, such as the well-known and well-run Commerce Casino, and you will encounter a stolid looking person holding piles of cash and chips. This person does not deal but does pay out and collect. Because the casino does not lose money if people cheat, operators are less likely to install state of the art surveillance equipment and they have limited incentive to enforce rules that protect the games.

"Casinos in California lack financial motivations [to protect the games]," says Ko, explaining that banking operators pay large sums to back the games and make a ton even when they do get cheated. "That's a big problem, and it can create situations where dishonest people get away with a lot. For them, some California card rooms and some Indian casinos [that can easily operate with fairly fluid oversight as well] are best. A lot of the big cheating teams don't bother with Las Vegas. Why would they need to?"

According to an anonymous source with connections to a popular card room near San Francisco, a classic high-tech scam unfolded there. Pai Gow Poker tiles (which are favored over cards by serious Chinese players) were marked with infrared ink. A cheater at the table aimed a cell phone-customized with camera and infrared filter, though he could have just as easily worn specially equipped glasses or contacts-at the tiles and knew precisely what he would be dealt and which tiles the dealer held.

The criminals involved in this scam pulled down $1 million in a single day, and it was very much an inside job. "A floor man, who was involved with the group, felt remorseful," the source tells me. "He spoke with the casino's owner and revealed everything. Word filtered to the group that was banking the game [and, ultimately, being ripped off]. But they were already making an awful lot of money and, as a result, were eager to avoid upsetting the casino and risking their concession. So they opted not to press charges. As is too often the case in California, the cheating team got away with it."

Conventional wisdom holds that the most destructive cheating scams require cooperation from inside. However, according to Elija Zuniga, who now works privately as a casino consultant but used to focus on gambling as a special agent with the California Department of Justice, a nervy, coordinated team can do a lot of damage on its own. "I've seen guys switch in shoes rigged with mirrors [that reveal cards as they are dealt] or dice cups containing magnetized dice," says Zuniga, acknowledging that such slight of hand may sound daunting but that, in the moment, it's doable for a well-oiled group. "In considering this, you have to imagine a table full of bettors and back bettors [the practice of betting on someone else's play is allowed in California]. So you've got a total of 25 bettors at the table, five of whom are in on the scam. They're leaning in, asking questions, tipping, discussing the outcome of the last hand, speaking in different languages. You wouldn't be able to handle it. I've seen this move on tape. At its best, it is artful and beautifully done. These guys can give lessons to the CIA."

High-tech cheating may be most easily pulled off in California, but it is by no means limited to that state. In fact, when it comes to rigging slot machines, Las Vegas is a prime target.

During past decades one-armed bandits were overwhelmed with so-called light wands, which are basically wires topped off by tiny lights on the end. These would get worked in through the compartment from which payoffs get retrieved. Shining brightly, the light tricked the payout mechanisms-which were triggered with flashes of light from inside the machine-into continually releasing money.

In another instance, a particularly ingenious cheater came up with a computer chip that would make machines release money on his terms. This particular scam artist, a rogue gaming agent, would open up a machine and swap out its legitimate chip for the new one. He'd have it programmed to make a massive payout only after coins were inserted in a certain pattern-say two coins, then five, then one, then three, etc.-that square players would be unlikely to inadvertently mimic. "With the chip in there, they were set," explains Tommy Carmichael, inventor of the light wand, one of the world's more notorious slot cheats, and today a lighting engineer with his own company, Knight Lighting, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. "They could walk away from the machine and have it pay out days or even a week later. At that point, after they were clearly not associated with the machine, a team member would come in, insert coins in the proper order and look shocked as the slot machine hit a jackpot."

According to Carmichael, the scam could still work today-so long as you had a gaming agent pulling it off. Otherwise, current slot machine security measures (which include computer chips encased in plastic that will rouse suspicion if broken) make it a lot more difficult.

Don't worry, though. The high-tech cheaters have come up with something else. According to a well-placed source from inside that world, "When you insert a bill into a slot machine, it reads the denomination based on a magnetic strip going down one-quarter of the bill. This prevents counterfeiting. But the way you get around it is by designing a metal coil that mimics the magnetic field of a $100 bill. You place it on the surface of a $1 bill and pull the coil out as soon as the machine reads it and sucks down the bill. Now you've got $100 worth of play for just $1"

A similar, albeit grayer-area, move can be pulled off at the tables of casinos that have become reliant on high denomination chips implanted with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) capabilities. The idea is that not only can the casino know who has won certain chips (and thereby thwart advantage players from having confederates cashing out for them), but the RFID technology is also used to track play and recognize comps that a gambler would be entitled to.

According to Max Rubin, gaming consultant and author of Comp City, "It reads chips through sensors inside the table. But, in the same way that it reads chips placed in the betting circle, it also picks up signals from chips pressed beneath it. Play for $100 per hand and between hands press a $1,000 chip up against the bottom of the table. Suddenly you significantly increase your average bet, which results in your getting credit [and comps] for being a much bigger player than you truthfully are." However, he offers a caveat: "I know that this used to work. It may or may not still."

Elsewhere, nefarious folks have used lasers, timers and microprocessors to calculate the speed of a roulette wheel, the ball spinning around it and the so-called "decaying orbit." Armed with that information, supposedly they can then predict an area on the wheel where the ball is likely to drop. According to the BBC, an Eastern European team utilized this method to snake £1.3 million from the Ritz Casino in London.

Though their approach is far from perfect, the reality is that cheaters don't need to come up with scams that are completely foolproof. After all, in order to make games appealing to gamblers, the house advantage is fairly thin. In fact, when it comes to roulette, the casino's overlay is just slightly more than five-percent. As Zuniga wearily puts it, "Bad guys only need a little bit of success and a small edge to make a lot of money. If they're not too greedy, they can keep it going for years before the casinos find out."

Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.