Saturday, March 08, 2008

Casino Cheaters Tracking Cards Inside Automatic Card Shufflers!

Jeff Jonas is an expert on the Las Vegas gambling/surveillance industry. As the founder and chief scientist of Systems Research & Development, he helped build numerous casino surveillance systems that are widely in use in casinos throughout the world. At a conference on emerging technology in San Diego on Thursday, Jonas revealed some secrets he learned about the casino industry, one of which even caught my eye. But first he stated his opinion that Vegas seems to put an enormous focus on high-tech security, but in some ways the casinos are just doing enough to get by. He pointed out that they spend the minimum amount of money on security and surveillance and would rather buy three more slot machines and make money. In other words, even though they spend a fortune on state-of-the-art surveillance equipment, it is a paltry sum compared to what they spend on raw gambling equipment.

A major casino like the Bellagio probably has 2,000 cameras connected to 50 monitors, with just a few people watching live surveillance, Jonas said. But the information is there to be scrutinized when casinos notice players winning unusually large amounts of money. In one case a dealer who claimed his family had been threatened helped players win $250,000 at a blackjack table when they passed him a "cooler" (deck of prearranged cards) to use in the game.

"They didn’t detect this as it happened," Jonas said. "Most of the videos the casinos collect are just used forensically. When the table loses a quarter of a million dollars they go back and replay it nice and slow, see that little piece of video, and it’s time to make some calls."

Jonas made references to the MIT Blackjack card counting team to show how easily surveillance departments are fooled in spite of all the equipment. He then gave examples of some really hardcore and effective scams:

The infinite hundred-dollar bill: One team took $1.2 million off a casino in two weeks when it discovered that a new hundred-dollar bill could be fed into a certain slot machine and, if they hit a button at just the right time, the machine would give them $100 worth of credit while spitting the actual $100 bill right back into the player’s hands.

The chip cup: The chip cup looks just like a stack of $5 chips, but it’s hollowed out and can hold a few $100 chips. Using the chip cup, a dealer and player working together can make a killing.

The palm: A player palms a card and trades it with a neighbor to make a better blackjack hand. This trick is decidedly low-tech, but nearly undetectable when done with great skill.

The specialty code: A programmer who worked on a video poker game snuck in some code that produced an automatic royal flush if a player followed a specific sequence of betting over the course of seven or eight hands.

But the best, and the one that really impressed me, was when Jonas showed photos of one player who was wearing buttons that were actually infrared cameras, capable of capturing the identity of cards as they pass through a shuffle machine. One shuffle machine in particular had a tiny hole that revealed each card, but not to the naked eye. The infrared camera illuminated the card, and the video images were transmitted to a vehicle in the parking lot, where collaborators slowed the video down and could tell their player in the casino which card was coming next. Hitting on 17 is a smart move when you know a four is coming next. Beating the shuffling machines is definitely avant-garde in the realm of casino cheating.

Jonas also enlightened the audience about how casinos constantly, almost obsessively, track their legitimate players. For tax reasons, casinos have to track players who cross certain winnings thresholds, such as $2,500 and $10,000, he said. If you win this much money, expect to be followed even if you haven’t told anyone your name. "If you show up and don’t tell them who you are, and play at one table and then move to another, and then move to an entirely different area of the casino and then you go to your room and change and come back, they’re obligated to try to track you through all of that."

I think that's a bit much!

Sensors are everywhere in casinos. Each resort has tens of thousands of sensors, every doorlock system, every slot machine, ATM machines, point of sale machines, it just goes on and on. "There might be more sensors per square foot than anywhere possibly other than a battleship," Jonas informed.

Then there's the criminal tracking side. For instance, casinos must do their utmost to ensure that people legally excluded from casinos by the Nevada Gaming Control Board do not enter their premises. These people sneaking through can subject casinos to large fines. The job gets harder for casinos when criminals start recruiting people to help them, in some cases people the casinos are unfamiliar with, and in other cases high rollers who have lost a lot of money and would therefore not be suspected of cheating. "They have false identities," Jonas said. "They just make up names, they buy fake credential packages. When you get to know who they are, they go distances far away, start recruiting people you’ve never seen. They train them in their own lab, so the first time they step foot in a casino, they’re a pro."

One system Jonas developed for casinos more than a decade ago uses facial recognition technology to quickly compare suspected cheaters with mug shots and uncover fake identities.

I must say that this guy Jonas is surely on top of his field.