Monday, Dec. 29, 2003 | 11:39 a.m.
Moments after Kevin Lewis sat down last summer at a high stakes blackjack table inside an Atlantic City casino, the pit boss got the word: Lewis was a card counter.
Soon the "bad news guys" arrived, and Lewis was done playing.
"It was obvious that somewhere and somehow I had been made," said the 30-year-old Lewis, once part of an infamous team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students who won millions of dollars at blackjack by keeping track of the aces and face cards played.
How security pegged Lewis so quickly was no mystery. The casino, like others across the country and around the world, relies on an outside detective agency that supplies an extensive list of suspected cheats and highly skilled gamblers, called advantage players.
The Griffin GOLD's five volumes contain thousands of names and mug shots and can be accessed online. It uses a sophisticated facial recognition program and sends out alerts that notify casinos when a swindler or card counter is on the prowl.
The Griffin's efficacy is legendary.
"I always feared it," said Lewis, who uses a pseudonym to hide his identity because he still plays blackjack.
But the oft-praised and much-dreaded Griffin is not without its critics, who claim the secretive detective agency is prone to errors and smears people without proof.
"In my opinion, it is an incredible compilation ... peppered with mistakes and falsehoods based on some of the grossest hearsay," said lawyer Bob Nersesian of Las Vegas.
Two of Nersesian's clients are suing Griffin Investigations after they were arrested for cheating based on information that came from the Las Vegas company's security database.
Griffin Investigations was incorporated in 1967 by Beverly S. Griffin and her soon-to-be-ex-husband Robert R. Griffin, state records show.
In the beginning, the agency battled small-time casino crooks and relied on shoe-leather detective work, not high-tech gadgets to expose people. Griffin investigators collected intelligence on gamblers who tossed loaded dice, rigged slot machines and marked playing cards. These were cheaters who broke the law.
Card counters, while not welcome in casinos, operate within the law. They don't influence the game's natural outcome, they just calculate the probability of cards yet to be played.
"They are not using a device," said Keith Copher, enforcement chief for the Nevada Gaming Control Board. "They are using their head. If they use some sort of instrument to track cards that would be illegal."
The success of the counters beginning in the late 1970s and early '80s forced the Griffin to evolve as counting rings proliferated and became increasingly sophisticated.
Beverly Griffin likened the counters to competing corporations that threaten the financial health of the casinos.
"They took it from recreational to a business," Griffin said. "They scout. They have people to count. They have people bring the money and place the bets. They are bankrolled."
Little is known about Griffin Investigations, which guards its operations as closely as its database. Other than clients, only state gambling regulators are allowed to see it.
Beverly Griffin declined to say how much her service costs, how many people it employs or how it obtains its information.
However, in a recent deposition, Griffin's manager, Gordon Adams, said the company had six employees and more than 100 clients. The agency obtains its information from the casinos -- among other sources, Adams said.
Armed with the Griffin, security experts at casinos scrutinize players at table games or slot machines, looking for matches in the system.
People are listed in the Griffin for a variety of activities or crimes, such as impersonating casino employees, card bending, stealing chips, coins and purses from gamblers.
"It's very effective in protecting our casino," said Margaret Brooks, director of surveillance at the Bellagio hotel-casino. "We would be missing a lot without it."
Casinos don't react automatically because someone is listed in the Griffin, Brooks said.
"We make our own determination," she said. Casinos are allowed to ban advantage players and may have them arrested for trespassing only if they return. Players are allowed to keep their winnings.
Griffin has helped bust up some of the biggest and most lucrative card-counting rings to roam casino floors. It helped take down Lewis and five other MIT students who operated in the 1990s.
The student's exploits were chronicled in a book called "Bringing Down the House" by Ben Mezrich. The book claims that somebody sold a list of the MIT students to the Griffin, effectively ending their card-counting days. Today all their faces are in the Griffin system.
In Mezrich's book, the MIT math whizzes also suspect an investigator working for Griffin used strong-arm tactics to try to intimidate them. One of them was beaten up by thugs at a casino in the Bahamas. Another had his Boston apartment ransacked; the thieves only took cash and casino chips.
"We never sent anybody, anywhere to beat up anybody," Griffin said. "It's a lot of fiction."
The Griffin's power and reach are very real, according to those being dealt the cards.
"The counter is persecuted for his intelligence. Nothing more, nothing less. Casinos hate savvy players," according to "The Card Counter's Guide to Casino Surveillance," which was published this year.
Michael Russo and James Grosjean were winning big at a Caesars Palace poker table in April 2000. The pair had pocketed $18,000 thanks to a weak dealer who was exposing his cards.
Security guards and Control Board agents soon stepped in and arrested the pair for cheating. Russo was jailed for about 12 hours and Grosjean four days, though charges were later dropped.
Both men sued Griffin Investigations. They claim the Griffin contains "false and fabricated" information about them that led to their arrest. Court records indicate the Griffin had Russo listed as part of "a team of 21 cheaters" and Grosjean "working with card bender on 3-card poker."
The Griffin also lists Russo as an associate of Grosjean, court records show.
"We feel that they defamed them," Nersesian said. "They have no proof to back up the allegations."
Anthony Curtis, a professional card counter plying his talent on the Discovery Channel, said the problem with the Griffin is that cheats and counters are lumped together.
"I've seen myself in the Griffin where they've got me listed as an accomplice with people I don't know. It's ridiculous," said Curtis, also the editor of Las Vegas Advisor, a consumer newsletter tracking casino promotions and gambling trends.
Griffin has heard the complaints, and thinks there are plenty of card counters who would love to see her out of business. Griffin said she doesn't tell casinos what to do with the information, and her company works hard to get the data right.
"We provide information to casinos," she said. "We don't have anything to be ashamed of."
But Griffin concedes even the Griffin GOLD can get things wrong.
"Nothing is 100 percent in this world," she said.
Nobody knows it better than Lewis, who still manages to play blackjack occasionally in Las Vegas.
"It's a cat-and-mouse game," he said. "The mice find ways to make it work."