Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Italian Roulette Cheats: Best in the World!

Cheating at Roulette with the masters.

I am often asked who were the best roulette cheats of all-time. Were they the Serbian computer geeks who used cell phone scanners to beat London's Ritz Casino for $3 million in 2004? Were they the '80s Brit "biased wheel" team who crushed casinos worldwide simply by finding defects in roulette wheels' balances, enabling them to predict which sectors of numbers would come out more than probability would dictate? Were they the notorious Classon Pastposting Team of the '80s and '90s of which I was part?

The answer is none of the above. It's the Italian pastposting team of the 20th and 21st centuries! That's right, they've been around that long; they're generational. I had the pleasure of meeting them right on a roulette wheel in Lake Tahoe, Nevada in 1977. They were in position on the wheel to do a cheating move. The only problem: so were we (my mentor Joe Classon, our roulette mechanic Duke, and team member Jerry). Here is the story of quite a hilarious incident that has to go down as one of the funniest in the annals of casino cheating.

WE WERE in position at a roulette table at Harrah's Lake Tahoe on Saturday afternoon. We had already been paid three times at the Harrah's down in Reno, so we figured that would be a good place to start. The limits at Lake Tahoe were higher than in Reno; they accepted black $100 chips straight up on a number, so we were going to pastpost one (make the $100 bet after the number already won) straight up on the number for $3,500. Number 25 had just come in and I was subsequently signalled to the table to claim the winning bet. Everything was a go and I waited for Duke, the mechanic, to switch the chips. The dealer turned her back and Duke pushed forward. As his hands arrived at the dolly placed atop Jerry's winning chips, there was a crash. The dolly got knocked over and the move-chips in Duke's hand went flying off the layout onto the floor.
The incredible had happened!
That crash was the result of a collision between Duke's hands and the hands belonging to a swarthy European-looking guy sitting between Joe and Jerry along the table. Duke and this other guy looked at each other wide-eyed, both in shock, then they both pulled back their hands. What had occurred was that the other guy, also a roulette mechanic, was looking to do his move the same instant Duke was doing ours.
The middle-aged woman dealer’s head snapped back toward the layout in horror, bulging eyes fixed on her dolly lying incongruently between numbers 0 and 00, all the way at the top of the layout. I saw the expression on her face and thought she was going to drop dead.
Then I witnessed Joe do the most amazing thing I would ever see him do. In the split-second between the collision of the two pastposters' hands and the dealer's cognizance of what had happened, Joe spilled his full glass of tonic water onto the layout, soaking it thoroughly. He then stood up and went into an act I could not believe.
"Oh, I'm so terribly sorry," he began his profuse apology. "I cannot believe that I am such a klutz. Look what I did to the layout. I knocked over your dolly, Barbara. Please forgive me. I really didn't mean to do that…" He went on and on.
When the floorman came over, Barbara was already soothing Joe, just as profusely accepting his apology. "Oh, that's alright sir," she was saying. "These kinds of accidents happen all the time on my table. Don't worry about it."
The floorman instructed Barbara to pay off the winning bets, and after she did he went to the mid-pit podium, returning with several rags to dry up the layout. He then called the cocktail waitress over to bring Joe, who was still apologizing, another glass of tonic water. A few minutes later the game resumed.
When the fracas was over, the guy who’d collided with Duke cashed out his roulette chips and left the table. Then one by one the three remaining male players not with us did the same. It was quite obvious that all four of them were together, which meant that Barbara's roulette table at Harrah's Lake Tahoe that Saturday afternoon was completely filled with pastposters from two different teams and two different countries, probably the only time in the history of casino gambling that such a strange event took place.
Later, back in our motel room just across Stateline on the California side of the lake (we always stayed on the California side for security reasons in case of escape), Joe awoke from a nap with a start. "They didn't have any winning bets on that spin," he said in stark realization. I didn't have the slightest idea what he was talking about. "The guy who bumped into Duke," Joe continued, "did not have any winning bets for the number 25. The only winners on the layout were Jerry's chips straight up on the number and my stack in the 3rd dozen box. Whose chips was the guy planning on switching? Or was he just going to lay in a naked capper?" (when a pastposter slips in a big denomination chip on the winning number, underneath a roulette chip stolen from another player.)
Joe had noticed that three of the other four guys who’d been at that table were playing roulette chips and betting large stacks of about twenty chips on the inside numbers. The fourth guy had been constantly betting on even, so it was easy for Joe to recall that none of them had a winner that particular spin. As far as he could remember, each of the three betting the inside numbers had made two bets, covering a total of six numbers. The more he reflected upon what he was recalling from their betting sequence, the more curious he became. They were much too organized, he decided, to just be laying in naked cappers.
Joe picked up the phone and called Duke and Jerry's adjacent room.
"Come over here," he told whichever one of them answered. "Sorry to disturb your nap but we have to discuss something."
Ten minutes later we were all in our room. Joe explained what he had seen and more importantly, what he hadn't seen. "I want to know what those guys were doing," he said. "Tonight, we're going to suspend operations and find them in the casinos. When we spot them, we lay back and observe. I'm pretty sure I've seen these guys somewhere before and it must have been several years ago, which means they've been around a long time and are extremely good."
Suddenly, I felt as though I had jumped over to the other side of the fence. Now we were looking to conduct a surveillance on another team. It was all kind of ironic—-a pastposting team going under cover to spy on another pastposting team. Since there were only four major casinos on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe, we didn't separate while conducting our search. We entered each casino and spread out around its perimeter, not getting too close to the wheels.
We eventually spotted them, all casually dressed in jeans with sweaters or lightweight jackets, on a wheel inside Harvey's Wagonwheel casino, across the road from Harrah's. Jerry saw them first and immediately signalled the rest of us into the Harvey's keno lounge, where we discussed strategy. It appeared they hadn’t seen us.
Joe told Duke and Jerry to observe them from behind a blackjack table down the pit from their roulette wheel. He told me to go right up and buy-in at their table and watch everything they did. He was confident I'd catch their move. I was surprised at that blatant approach.
"They probably don't know you," Joe said. "You weren’t on the wheel with them at Harrah's like we were. You only appeared when our number came in. If they see one of us, they'll remember. But not you. You're our best chance to pick up on their move."
I took the only vacant chair on their table and bought chips, avoiding eye contact as I watched them bet. Three of the four were betting stacks of twenty roulette chips on the numbers inside, two numbers each like Joe had said. I noticed they each bet two numbers in a different section, covering a total of six numbers in the three sections. Besides that, there were no discernible patterns. They changed the numbers after every spin, but each stayed in his own section. The fourth guy, the mechanic, was only betting the even-money propositions on the outside. When one of their inside stacks on a number won, they got paid. When their stacks lost, they got swept. There was nothing happening out of the ordinary. After forty-five minutes on the table, I got up and met Joe in the keno lounge.
"Nothing's happening," I said. "There is no move."
"There has to be a move," Joe said emphatically. "That guy's hand was not out there to shake Duke's. Go back and stay there until they move."
I went back to the table, observed their unchanging betting patterns for another half hour, and still nothing happened. Then they began cashing out, one after the other, leaving me alone at the table. When I finally got up, I went first to the keno pit, then located my partners in the casino lounge where a band was playing rock music.
"They must have picked up on you," Joe said over the music, putting his drink down on the bar against which we were all leaning. "That's why they didn't move."
"They bet stacks of roulette chips on the numbers, all straight-ups," I said. "Whatever they do, I can't imagine them switching in whole stacks."
"No, it's not that," Joe said. "They're doing something else..."
"You guys shouldn't be following us around." The voice was definitely foreign-accented. It belonged to the other team's mechanic, the guy that had bumped hands with Duke. He took us completely by surprise. "You don't think we're going to put on a show for your amusement, do you?" He was speaking to Joe, not doubting for a second that he was our leader.
Despite that accent his English was perfect, and the guy had class. He invited us all over to a table at the rear of the lounge and bought us drinks. His partners were not with him. "Obviously, you and us are in the same business," he said with a preening smile after sending off the waitress with a hundred-dollar bill. “However, I think the casinos in this pretty little town are big enough for everyone to work without getting in each other's way..."
"The Lido in Lake Como!" Joe cried suddenly. "That's where I know you from. You're Italian."
"Precisely," the now identified Italian said. "If my memory serves me well, you were with a gentleman who looked just like you, but a bit taller—your brother perhaps—and also a pretty woman with auburn hair."
Joe mimicked the Italian's "precisely."
We had a few drinks with the Italian, who was joined fifteen minutes later by his partners. They didn't speak English nearly as well as their boss, but nevertheless, we all shared a big laugh about what had happened at Harrah's that afternoon. One of them was giving a demonstration of the collision between the two mechanics' hands on the roulette layout, going "Boom!" as he threw his arms upward in the air to simulate an explosion. It was really funny and was the first of my downright-fun adventures on the road. After the drinks were finished, Joe and the Italian agreed to divide up the casinos. Since there were four workable casinos on the lake's South Shore—all about the same caliber—we would take two; they’d take the other two, in agreement not to step on the other guy's turf for the remainder of that and the following weekend. We took Caesars Tahoe and the High Sierra; they’d stay in Harrah's and Harvey's. After they left, Joe shook his head and said, "They have a fifth guy. He's the one that picked up on us following them. I made a mistake. Now they know all of us but we don't know one of them. Don't think for a minute they're not going to spy on us to see what we're doing. We can't do anything but roulette for the rest of the time up here. I don't want them knowing we also work craps and blackjack."
Joe was really bugged about not finding out what the Italians' move was. He knew it was big. Unlike us, the Italian team only worked the wheels, and had been doing so for years. For a team to make a living off the casinos with just one move, it had to be really powerful.
Several times over the coming years we would run into them in different casinos all over the world. Always an agreement was made not to encroach on each other's turf, and sometimes we dined and drank together—but we never identified their fifth partner. However, one balmy night in the Bahamas when I was leading my own pastposting team on an island road trip some fifteen years later, I walked into Merv Griffin's Paradise Island Resorts Casino and caught the same group of Italians—-with a new member or two—-doing their move.

Like Joe had said, it was a beauty. What they did must have taken years and generations of Italian casino cheaters to master. They bet their six stacks of roulette chips on six numbers, two in each section. When one of their numbers won—they just left well enough alone. When their numbers all lost, they fabricated a winner. The mechanic, the same guy who had approached us in the lounge at Harvey's, simply slid their stack of chips which was closest to the winning number right on it, before the dealer could mark it with the dolly. If, for example, the winning number was 5 and one of their stacks was on 4, he would slide that stack of chips onto number 5 with a movement so deft and swift it defied reality. They used a split-second distraction on the dealer that involved one of them away from the sliding stack asking the dealer for change at the crucial movement. This move was unbelievable and the real killer was that they could stay on the same table and repeat it several times, as long as they didn't pick up steam. Their roulette chips were worth either $1 or $5, depending on the casino limit. Which meant that in a casino with a hundred-dollar straight-up limit, they were bopping them for $3,500 a shot.

After witnessing their move three times, I shook my head in disbelief and then pushed it out of my mind—for I knew I could never even dream of replicating their craft—not with Joe, not with anybody—not with ten, twenty or even a hundred years of experience. It was only my grand Savannah move that would one day prove to be even better than the Italians.