Monday, April 14, 2008

The Super Savannah Attempt To Cheat Binion's Horseshoe Out of a Cool Million!

Most of you who read this blog are familiar with my notorious "Savannah" roulette cheating move, that has been called my many in the industry the greatest casino cheating move ever conceived. But most of you do not know that I once drew up plans to use the Savannah to cheat the Horseshoe out of a million bucks, which would be the biggest one-shot non-slot machine cheating coup in casino history. I had included a chapter about this "Super Savannah" caper in my original manuscript for "American Roulette" but it was cut due to length constraints. So here are those pages about how my casino cheat partners and I attacked Binion's Horseshoe in an attempt to hit Jack Binion's cage for that cool million.

From American Roulette:

The idea for my Super Savannah one-million-dollar casino move came to me with Binion's legendary Downtown Las Vegas Horseshoe casino in mind. It was the only casino in the world where a million-dollar move was possible. Until then, the largest casino move payoff ever dared by a pastposting or pinching (picking up losers off the layout) team had been a $70,000 prize we tried for on a ten-thousand-franc straight-up monster in Cannes on the French Riviera, which was left unpaid due to the odd French gaming rule that no casino non-roulette chip could be bet on the inside of a roulette layout.
Every May (at that time), the Horseshoe sponsored the World Series of Poker championships which lasted four weeks, culminating in the final championship no-limit event that pays the winner a legitimate multi-million-dollar first prize. The event had obtained enough notoriety by the mid-eighties that it's been televised annually by ESPN ever since.
There were several unique elements about Binion's Horseshoe, but only two of them concerned me: First, it is the only casino in the world that posts no limits on its tables. Like in any other casino, you see a minimum bet posted on a plaque on all its tables, but there is no mention of a maximum. In other words, as ole Benny Binion himself used to love to say, "In my house, you bet whatever the hell you want." As long as he had the cash in the cage to back it up, the Nevada Gaming Control Board had nothing to say.
The second Horseshoe uniqueness concerning me was its light brown ten-thousand-dollar chips that were used solely in the poker tournaments. A player winning a $100,000 first prize was given ten ten-thousand-dollar chips which he could take to the cage to cash out or have a check written to himself against them. The uniqueness about these ten-thousand-dollar chips themselves was that they were the same size as all the other denomination chips in the casino, and moreover, were not overly different in color to Binion's light gray one-dollar chips. These ten-thousand-dollar chips were never in the dealers' racks in the casino, but they circulated freely among the big-time poker players during World Series time.
Which is what put the idea in my head.
I explained it to my partners Pat and Balls one late-April night in 1997 while we watched an NBA playoff game in Pat's apartment. Balls had already been made privy to Savannah and had by then experienced several moves with "her."
"What we do is go into the Horseshoe during the World Series and buy three ten-thousand-dollar chips off one of the winning poker players. If we have to, we pay a few hundred dollars more than $10,000 for each chip, but I don't see why the players would hesitate selling them; they have to cash them out sooner or later anyway...Then once we have three ten-thousand-dollar chips we do the Savannah on a number straight up..."
Balls tilted his head with an oblong effect and started nodding wildly with the cigarette in his mouth. It was comical watching. He understood immediately and knew my plan could work. Pat didn't quite yet get it, so I continued. "...Simple...We bet three Horseshoe light brown ten-thousand-dollar chips on one of the three bottom numbers in the last row...say 36...then we put three or four of their gray one-dollar chips on top, cutting them like we always do with the Savannah move in the columns or the 19 thru 36, so the dealer doesn't see the light-browns underneath. The idea is to make the dealer think that all the chips in the stack are one-dollar gray chips. To hide the light-browns even better, we use a check-bettor to bet stacks of gray chips all around the number; that'll create the camouflage we need. The dealer'll probably think that the same person made all the bets since all he'll see are gray chips. Then he spins the ball. If number 36 comes in, we win a million fifty thousand dollars. If it doesn't, we scoop up the bet and say we didn't see the ball drop if we get caught..."
Everybody laughed because it was ludicrous—but absolutely feasible. The key element in my head was that there was no posted limit on Binion's tables, which meant that if the bet was legitimate—which it would be—they had to pay it. There would be a ton of steam when it won. The first thing the Horseshoe casino would do was go to their surveillance tape—or maybe even before that, call security to have their officers surround the claimer at the table, ready to haul him off to the back room, in the belief that something underhanded had just taken place. If they didn't have it on tape, they certainly wouldn't pay it. They'd tell the claimer something like, "I'm sorry, sir, but the dealer didn't acknowledge the bet, so there is no legal bet." In that case, we decided, it was worth the exposure to file a complaint with the Nevada Gaming Control Board Enforcement Division. We could not be refused payment on the grounds that the claimer was a "known" casino cheater. Even if the claimer had a previous conviction for a gaming offense, they would not be able to use that history for disqualification of a bet. Provided that the claimer was not in the infamous Black Book, he had the legal right to enter the Horseshoe casino and make that bet.
In such matters, the Gaming Control Board makes the final decision as to whether or not a casino must pay a disputed bet. The Enforcement agents gather the evidence, present it to the three board members, who vote "pay" or "not pay." There are no abstentions, thus either a majority or unanimous decision is rendered by the Board. That decision is final and can only be overturned by the State of Nevada's courts. Not only did we plan to sue both the Horseshoe and the State of Nevada Gaming Control Board in the event we didn't get paid, we would have "premeditated" witnesses present in the Horseshoe casino when all this took place. People who were "clean" had to be present at the roulette table when the $30,000 bet was made. People who could later testify that they saw the claimer make the bet, that they saw and consciously distinguished the light brown ten-thousand-dollar chips from the one-dollar grays. Those potential witnesses would be Raul and Rosa Garcia, a young married couple I knew in Vegas who occasionally helped me cash out chips in casinos, and they could never be connected to any of the three of us. We'd also use some of Raul and Rosa's friends, who were also clean. And as a final coup, the hot information lines at both the Las Vegas Review Journal and the Las Vegas Sun newspapers would be anonymously called as soon as it became evident that the claimer was not being paid immediately. The Horseshoe would not want the negative publicity surrounding its refusal to pay a million-dollar bet when its very existence had been built on Benny Binion's prideful claim to accept any bet.
If the bet won and the Horseshoe did have its legitimacy on tape, I had no idea what would happen. I doubted that they would pay the $1,050,000 on the spot. There would be some sort of investigation. Identification checks and surveillance photos would reveal that a professional cheating team was involved. But again, unsavory reputation cannot be used against a person claiming his winning legitimate bet. The chief of the Nevada Gaming Control Board at the time, Bill Bible, and his two fellow board members up in Carson City would have to render a "pay" decision if all the video evidence supported the legitimacy of the bet.
But would the Horseshoe admit to having it on tape if they indeed had it on tape? Surely that would not be in their interest. As far as surveillance manipulations and tape-doctoring go, I am a casino novice. However, I assumed that if the Horseshoe wanted to "lose" a tape, or simply state that the particular roulette table in question was not being filmed at the precise moment the incident occurred, it could easily do so. Whatever the Horseshoe had or didn't have after the claimer claimed would not change everybody's assumption that somewhere foul play was involved.
The mechanics of the Super Savannah pinch move for chips on a number straight up were exactly the same as they'd been for chips bet on the outside of the layout. It was still the same theory: pick your chips up when you lost; leave them there when you won. The great difference was probability. Any number straight up on a double-zero (some wheels only had a single 0, most had 00 also) wheel had one chance in thirty-eight of coming out, which meant that according to the odds we could reasonably expect to see a winner on number 36 within thirty-eight spins. When doing the same move on the outside 19 thru 36 box, we had eighteen chances in thirty-eight of winning, which was eighteen times greater than when betting on a number straight up. This huge fluctuation of probability forced us to take an entirely different approach to the straight-up Savannah move at the Horseshoe.
Knowing that we could never make the thirty-thousand-dollar bet a second time after having just picked up a loser, we had to implement some sort of time schedule to follow for making the bets. The reasoning for that was simple: If the claimer claimed an unseen thirty-thousand-dollar winning bet that paid $1,050,000, the first thing the Horseshoe would do was review the tapes from the instant the claimer had arrived at the table. That would allow them to see the pickup on the previous spin, and they'd put the whole thing together and the claimer would end up in the Clark County Detention Center just a few blocks away. I also assumed that in the event of a claim, they would review the tapes from all the roulette tables in the casino, to see if the claimer had placed any other roulette bets before hitting his lucky table. Likewise, if they caught a pickup on any of the other tables, the claimer would be locked up. Thus only one bet could be placed on any single shift. To really play it safe, to virtually reduce the probability to zero that the Horseshoe could ever link a claim to a pickup, we could interspace the time in between bets to seven days. I knew that all casinos kept their recorded tapes seven days before re-recording over them. My surveillance operator friend Donnie had told me that all casinos cycled their tape libraries in the same fashion, again in accordance with Gaming Control. By waiting seven days after a pickup to make a new bet, we could eliminate the conspiracy charges that would come with a bust. The obvious negative factor associated with that wait was the possible long duration until fruition. At one bet a week, a slight deviation from normal probability could have us waiting years to catch number 36. Then again, who knew?...We could always get lucky and see the winner come out on the very first spin. We had to decide with what frequency we wanted to risk the exposure. There were numerous alternatives from which to choose. We could, for instance, make one bet every week on each of the three shifts. That would amount to three bets per week, and with a normal probability distribution, we could expect to see a winner within thirteen weeks. If we opted for zero risk as far as the claim-to-pickup linkage was concerned, we'd expect the same winner within thirty-eight weeks.
We didn't spend as much time churning over that issue as one might have expected. The decision was simple. Given the facts that we were already the most ill-reputed casino cheating team in America, and that none of us had ever served a day in prison for the thousands of felonies we'd committed during our careers, one slip-up into a conspiracy charge and we'd all draw the maximum sentence. The Horseshoe was also a Griffin Investigations client. Imagine if they got their hands on an air-tight case against me, I thought, before rendering my opinion that since none of us were desperate for the immediate windfall of cash, we could wait out the goddess of probability and continue working the other Vegas casinos in the interim. Both Balls and Pat agreed that it would be stupid to risk putting our asses in a conspiracy net just out of impatience. So we decided that once a week on a different shift we'd make a concealed $30,000 bet under three one-dollar gray chips straight up on number 36. When it lost, we'd scoop up the bet and replace it with six one-dollar chips. When it eventually won, we'd leave the three ten-thousand-dollar light brown and three one-dollar gray chips on the layout and fight for the $1,050,000 payoff. As far as Raul and Rosa were concerned, we'd pay them for their time spent at the horseshoe, plus give them a piece of the big payoff—if and when we received it.
The World Series of Poker started the last week of April. We had to be careful about how we approached a player possessing the ten-thousand-dollar chips. Any steam getting them would blow the move in its incipient stage. We couldn't just approach him and say, "You wouldn't be interested in selling some of your ten-thousand-dollar chips, would you?" We needed to integrate ourselves into the poker playing world. To do that, Balls was the most qualified among the three of us. He was certainly the ablest player and he already knew some of the Vegas tournament heavies. We decided to have him sit down at some of the high-stakes side games (poker games not part of the World Series Tournament) and rub elbows with the tournament winners, eventually asking them if he could buy their ten-thousand-dollar chips because he didn't like carrying cash with him up to the room. Each of the seven tournament winners during the first week of the World Series played in side games after the tournament event that he'd just won. Balls got into all those games, more times than not ending up in a seat next to the champion. I had urged Balls not to gamble too much on the hands, just to play conservatively so we wouldn't get buried trying to get the big chips. With Balls you always had to be careful. He was capable of going off for the whole damned bankroll.
Balls did not succeed in procuring a single light brown chip. The first tournament-winner he sat down next to seemed annoyed enough by the cigarette smoke coming out of Balls's mouth not to want to hear the words that accompanied it. I asked Balls to stop smoking but that was impossible. He'd no sooner abandon the move entirely. Another winner clammed up completely after Balls asked to buy his chips. He started overtly guarding the stacks of black hundred-dollar chips he had in front of him on the table, thinking that Balls might be a chip thief. When I saw Balls's reckless attempt to use his charm on the middle-aged woman who had just won the two-hundred-thousand-dollar first prize in the 7-card stud tournament, I realized how fruitless this was turning out to be, but at the same time, the woman's brushing Balls off gave me another idea: Cassandra, a hot Asian babe I knew from around town.
She gave me a friendly kiss on the cheek when I found her at her usual Mirage poker table. "I have a proposition for you," I said after the kiss. "I want you to play poker for me down at the Horseshoe."
"You're going to pay me to play poker?" Cassandra was smiling dollars—again.
"You could say that." I explained to Cassandra what I wanted her to do: sit down in the high-stakes poker games next to male tournament winners and seduce them into selling their goddamned ten-thousand-dollar chips. She agreed without asking any questions. Her price was fair enough—$1,000 per chip.
"A thousand bucks per chip!" Pat raged upon hearing that. Even Pat Mallery, who really was one of a breed of big spenders that always picked up checks and left huge tips, found Cassandra's demand a bit exorbitant.
"What do you want me to do?" I said, exasperated. "If we wait for Balls to get three ten-thousand-dollar chips, we might not get them until next year's tournament—if we still have any money left. At least that Chinese poker-playing whore will get us the damn chips."
Cassandra got the chips within her first hour playing next to a big and fat well-known poker-playing and cigar-chewing Texan who had won the day's five-card draw lo-ball event. I had passed Cassandra $30,000 in cash and $3,000 in black chips for use in the game. She lost $2,000 playing, and with the $1,000 she charged me for each chip, the mission accomplished cost us five grand, the most money ever lost during a buy-in procedure. Well, I looked at it as a long-term investment. If within the next year we hit the million-dollar-plus payoff, it would have been a heck of an investment.
On May 3, 1997, Pat, Balls, Raul, Rosa and I surrounded a roulette table on the graveyard shift at the Horseshoe. It was nearly five o'clock in the morning and the casino was dead, except for the same poker game in which Cassandra had bought the chips that was still going strong. We had decided that Pat would be the claimer for the move because he was the only one of the three of us who had never been back-roomed in a casino, and was therefore unknown to Griffin, at least as far as his identity was concerned. Balls would be the check-bettor, betting stacks of dollar gray chips to camouflage Pat's six-chip bet of three light brown ten-thousand-dollar chips with three gray chips on top. My job was to engage the dealer in constant conversation so his attention would always be diverted from Pat's bet. With three ten-thousand-dollar chips placed underneath, we couldn't depend on chip camouflage alone to prevent the dealer from seeing them.
Raul and Rosa had been the first two players to approach the table. They each bought in for a separate color of roulette chips and got the dealer spinning the ball. Next, Balls arrived and bought stacks of dollar casino chips, which he bet in mountainous fashion surrounding the splits and corners bordering the number 36. I was fourth on the table. I bet red five-dollar chips on the top numbers. My bets had no strategic value to the move. I was only there to keep the dealer's eyes more on me than anything else. I didn't have the gift of gab that Pat had, but for this occasion I'd do my best.
After two spins, Pat moved unnoticed up to the bottom of the table and made his bet, cutting the three grays on top perfectly, jutting them out toward the dealer which concealed the three light-browns underneath as well as possible—but not completely. It was up to me to finish that job with my mouth.
The floorman, who had nothing much to do at that untimely hour, came up to the table amidst the sudden start-up of a wheel that had been dead for awhile. Pat immediately used his body to cut him off and then engage him in affable conversation so he wouldn't have much time to peruse the layout. If the floorman didn't leave the table before the spin, Pat would be obligated to pick up the bet—or Balls or myself would do so in the event that Pat was too busied occupying the floorman. If Pat picked up the bet in front of the floorman, the risk was too great that he would see the ten-thousand-dollar chips. Each of these possible "automatics" was well prepared for. We all had to be on extreme alert every second, ready to scoop up that bet if it risked being seen. If seen, the person picking it up would theatrically laugh off the horror that would have been had he not realized at the last moment he'd almost risked $30,000 when he'd only wanted to bet six. That in itself would take heat but not enough where we couldn't return a week later on a different shift and make the second bet.
The floorman turned his back on the table and we all breathed a sigh of relief. The dealer spun the ball-—and I swear-—it momentarily bounced into the slot for number 36 before bouncing back out and careening around the cylinder to find another losing number. I clapped my hands exuberantly as I let out a "wa-hoo," feigning celebration for one of my five-dollar chips that had won. Pat went out and grabbed up his bet—and got caught by the dealer despite my "take-out." The dealer didn't over react and Pat apologized with the I-didn't-realize-that-the-ball-had-dropped number. The floorman was never made aware of what had transpired. Everything was cool and one by one we left the table.
On May 10, we returned to the Horseshoe on the day shift. Pat bet, lost and picked up the chips. No heat. I marked the occurrence down in my Super Savannah journal. On May 17, on the swing shift, he bet, lost and picked up again. My entries into the journal continued into June, July and August. Each time, I wrote down the roulette table number, the dealer's name, the floorman and (or) pit boss involved, as well as a brief description of events that might prove useful for future attempts. While we worked Savannah at the Horseshoe, we also used her a little in the other casinos in Las Vegas, just to get a payoff here and there. We chose our spots very carefully, though. We didn't want heat from another casino blowing into the Horseshoe, nor did we want to risk too much exposure. It was of the utmost importance to protect Pat from Griffin agents as well as from Gaming Enforcement agents who patrolled the casinos. They were always on the beat.

Early in the evening on Labor Day, we again took our positions at the wheel in Binion's Horseshoe. The casino was jam-packed and I had the funny feeling that something was going to happen that night. When the dealer spun the ball, I felt myself shaking. That sensation had not happened to me since the very first time I cheated a casino, some twenty years before. The ball dropped smack into number 36! My lungs tightened up...But then it bounced out! Then it dribbled around the rotating roulette wheel and slowed by number 36 again! It began falling in the slot for 36 but by the time the ball completely fell in, it was in the neighboring slot for the number 13!

Talk about 13 being bad luck!

I exhaled a sigh of...I don't know what it was, but that night was the last time we ever tried the Super Savannah move. Time just wore us down and we finally decided to give it up in pursuit of the $10,000 payouts we routinely collected on the regular Savannah moves. To this day, not having successfully pulled off the Super Savannah move remains one of my regrets about my 25-year casino cheating career.

I guess it's the equivalent of a great golfer never winning the Masters and wearing the fabled "Green Jacket."