Monday, Aug. 30, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
In a darkened conference room at the Tuscany, a group of casino surveillance managers lean forward in their chairs for a closer look at video footage of a man strapping a metal device to his left wrist and concealing it in his jacket sleeve. Caught red-handed by the casino, he is now demonstrating his crime to police.
“Now, watch this,” says Bill Zender, a security consultant who teaches casinos how to spot gambling cheats.
The man in the video takes the two cards he is dealt in a baccarat game and holds them up to the camera with his left hand, lowers his hand for a second, then holds up both cards again. One is a new, more favorable card that he has slipped out of its hiding place in the metal device as the less favorable card took its place.
The man glances nervously about the nondescript room, far from the glitz and glitter of the casino floor. Caught by a Cambodian casino, he is being asked to demonstrate his crime for the benefit of police. Behind him, a soldier in uniform holds a machine gun — foreshadowing the man’s uncertain future in a less forgiving culture for criminals.
Another part of the film shows the man’s stash spread atop his hotel bed: card-switching equipment, cards from multiple casinos and designer watches to bribe casino managers and other employees.
Although this might sound like an exotic crime in a far-off place, Zender — a former Nevada casino regulator and manager — warns that it is being imported here. This is his first seminar devoted to baccarat, the only Nevada game that is growing despite the recession. Asians, who have not been as hard-hit by the economic downturn, are flocking to baccarat to test their luck.
Many baccarat players are Asian gamblers from outside the United States and Chinese-born Americans who come to Nevada for bigger gambling action, Zender says.
With baccarat’s growth has come a spike in theft, especially in California, where card rooms recently introduced a version of baccarat that is more popular with players. Those games are nearly identical to games offered in Nevada and elsewhere around the world. The new games are a shorter drive for Californians and in many cases can be played for less money.
Some California casinos have dozens of baccarat tables going at all hours, dwarfing the pits in Las Vegas properties and creating potential training grounds for cheaters, Zender says.
Although few people will try to cheat a casino game, baccarat — a high-limit, raucous game with simple rules and no strategy decisions to complicate the flow of the cards — is “ripe for the picking,” he says.
In fact, the largest cheating ring of all time involved baccarat: Some industry insiders say the San Diego-based Tran Organization may have stolen up to $15 million from dozens of casinos in more than 10 states and Canadian provinces over a four-year period until it was taken down by the FBI in 2007.
The group’s ringleader pleaded guilty in 2008 to scamming up to $7 million from as many as 27 U.S. casinos, including Palace Station, and was sentenced this year to nearly six years in prison. More than 30 co-conspirators have pleaded guilty in the scam, which involved bribing dealers to execute an incomplete or “false” shuffle of cards.
The crooks tracked the cards the first time they were played, alerting accomplices when the same combination of unshuffled cards appeared in the deck again. By knowing the outcome of the cards beforehand, the cheaters could make multiple winning bets.
Unlike blackjack and other card games where players may choose whether to receive more cards, baccarat requires players to draw a third card depending on the sum of their hand, allowing cheaters to determine the order of multiple hands in minibaccarat games where cards are reused.
“If I know what the next 40 cards are going to be, that’s about eight hands in a row” where a player can bet low or high and maximize his profit, Zender says.
Some cheats have worn baggy sleeves to switch out cards or have used accomplices, trading cards underneath the table. Others mark cards before they are dealt again.
“It’s high tech and low tech,” Zender says.
But casinos are catching on, and vendors are trying to keep up with a slew of gambling equipment aimed at improving security and profit, including preshuffled packs of cards, “smart shoes” that hold shuffled cards on a table game and can detect the order of cards as they are dealt, and playing cards embedded with radio-frequency identification chips. Using chip readers built into tables, casinos can track each card as it is played, detecting unusual winning streaks or foreign cards introduced into the game.
Besides high limits that can start at $100,000 per hand at posh Las Vegas casinos, baccarat is known for the curious antics of its players, which can include tearing cards after a losing hand, yelling for the desired outcome and jumping up from the table before uncovering a crucial hand that could mean the difference between losing and winning the equivalent of five years’ salary.
On Friday, Caesars Palace agreed to pay a $250,000 fine for allowing a man to walk and dance on a baccarat table while the game was being played. The player compromised the security of the game as well as people’s safety, regulators say.
Although standing on a table is unusual, other forms of childish behavior are common among high rollers, Zender says.
“It’s an annoyance casinos put up with for bigger players. If I’m playing $25 a hand at a minibaccarat at the Plaza I might be a big player and get away with something, but if I’m at Caesars betting $100 a hand they’re going to ask me to leave. If I’m betting $100,000 a hand they’re going to let me do it.”
Security experts aren’t easily distracted by such antics, Zender says. Moreover, casinos are watching tables more carefully these days because of the economy, which has forced debt-ridden companies to cut back and grab profits where they can.
“They sweat the big action” while fighting over a limited number of high rollers by offering discounts on gambling losses and other perks, Zender says.
Meanwhile, cheaters — some of them employees — will take their shot at a time when Las Vegas casinos don’t want to spend money on training, Zender says. (Las Vegas casinos were mostly absent from last week’s seminar, which was attended by supervisors of California casinos.)
“One, they don’t want to spend the money,” Zender says of Las Vegas properties. “Two, they think they know everything. With the major corporations there’s a big push now to cut back and save every penny.”
And yet, the risk-reward balance that largely deters crime has changed in this economy, he says.
“People think, ‘My life is going down the drain anyway.’ ”