When I moved to Las Vegas in the early nineties, I had no idea I would get wrapped up in the world of gaming surveillance and intelligence. In fact, I had no idea I would soon be immersed in a high stakes game of cops and robbers.
My first glimpse into this world was unanticipated. Having just arrived, I needed a couch for the house. After finding a used couch in the newspaper classifieds, I called a guy and drove to his house to inspect it. While making small talk I asked him what he did for a living – and he said he played blackjack for a living. Striking me as odd, I asked him if he was a card counter. He said "Nope, what I do is hard core, I’m talking about the difference between pot and heroin!" When I asked what technique he was using and he only raised his eyebrows and smirked. Then he proceeded to show me a drawer of disguises, which included glasses, fake mustaches and other such stuff.
About a year later I learned about a certain blackjack surveillance team that had identified 12 dealers in the state of Nevada that each had a slight aberration in the way they dealt blackjack. This aberration opened the door to very specific exploitation. Only a small handful of opportunists knew the identities and shifts of these dealers, and they were exploited at low volume in an effort to remain undetected. And thus, the identity of these 12 dealers was very tightly held, their specific identity still unknown at that time.
Was the hard core guy who sold me the couch involved in this particular scheme? I’ll never know. And as it turned out, I would come to know many schemes. What kind of schemes you ask? Well, try these on for size:
Some players mark cards with a material during the game that only they can see (e.g., via special contact lenses). Others bend cards ever so slightly enabling them they visually recognize them later. And there was one time when someone was able to secretly modify manufacturing die – the die used to print the playing cards. Imagine that, the deck comes out of the wrapper and out of the box and the cards are already marked!
When the new one hundred dollar bill came out, new bill validators were required in slot machines. Shortly thereafter, a team from the Pacific Rim region discovered that when a certain bill validator was used in a conjunction with a specific brand of slot machines, there was a problem. Actually, not a problem for them. A member of the team would feed a hundred dollar bill into a machine in certain states, and the machine would spit the hundred dollar bill out. At the same time it would register a hundred dollars in credit. In other words, the one hundred dollar bill lasts all day. In short, after about $1.2 million dollars walked out the door over a two week period, the casino woke up to this hardware vulnerability.
Once a customer conducted a two week surveillance operation against a specific roulette table – tracking the every outcome (which number the ball fell into). After some mathematical modeling in his hotel room, he determined not only that the wheel was not perfectly balanced but also where on the board the ball would have a tendency to fall. Placing bets favoring the known bias allowed this player to walk away with $5 million over the next few weeks. Oh, and in case you are wondering, there is no crime here … the casino simply closes the table for repairs and the player gets to walk with the money.
Card counters (now called "advantage players") are another thing all together. While card counting is not illegal as it requires only mental skill, if a casino determines that you have figured out how to change the odds of the game (albeit even in your head), they can ask you to leave. Fortunately, when card counters count and bet according to the count, they are very easy to detect. Unfortunately, the now infamous "MIT" card count team (as brought to life in the book "Bringing Down the House") developed and fully exploited a different technique. The first player, a professional card counter, performs the counting function while playing without any significant variation to his bet. When the deck has a favorable count the first player covertly signals a second player. The second player then joins the game making only large bets. Separating the counter from the bettor presented gaming organizations with a very serious detection challenge.
When a dealer can be co-opted into helping a player, really bad things happen. For example, when the dealer lets the player introduce a new deck on the game (i.e., the dealer willingly swaps the shuffled deck with the player’s perfectly sorted deck) this scam can cost a casino a quarter of a million dollars in just 15 minutes.
Then there was the programmer at the gaming manufacturer who inserted some malicious code into the video poker machine so that it would deliver royal flushes at his will.
And how about this for high tech: Some teams send players to the table wearing an infrared lighting source, a mini-camera, batteries with a heat shielding system and an antenna. A truck in the parking lot receives the broadcast video via a satellite dish-like antenna. The operator in the vehicle slows down the video to determine a card value or card sequence and then radios the player (via an ear piece) with very helpful insight e.g., the next card is a four!
Wild uh? Actually, these examples are just the tip of the iceberg. The ingenuity of the opportunist is most amazing.
So how do these groups operate and how do casinos detect and preempt this kind of activity? Good question. And the subject of some forthcoming posts … so stay tuned!
On An Unrelated Note: A few weeks ago I coincidentally ended up sitting next to a US Senator on a commercial coast-to-coast flight. While I read up on the FISA debate, he played a pong-like game on his phone almost the entire time. Hello?