Sunday, April 06, 2008

UK Guardian Rates MY Poker Cheat and Casino Cheat Blog

While reviewing the film "21," The popular UK newspaper, The Guardian, reviewed my poker and casino cheating blog, and I'd say it's rather favorable. Here's the article that appeared in the April 5th edition:


Believe the movies and you'd think robbing casinos was all hidden cameras and acrobats. But, as a pro cheat tells us, you'll have to get past the facial recognition software first. Or better still, says James Donaghy, forget it. If some ball-busting genie made Hollywood choose a vice then gambling would win every time. The movies are infatuated with risk-takers: the maverick, the hopeless optimist, the plucky underdog who beats the odds. Then there's the charming conman who breaks the bank at Caesars who never has to buy another drink as long as he lives. So it's not surprising that Kevin Spacey chose the Ben Mezrich bestseller Bringing Down The House: The Inside Story Of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas For Millions for his latest film project, 21. It's the true story of how the geeks inherit the earth (well, a few million dollars) by moonlighting at casinos under the tutelage of maverick professor Mickey Rosa (played by Spacey). With a combination of card counting, coded signals and aggressive staking, the mathematically gifted students soon begin to rake in the cash, attracting the suspicion of casino enforcer Cole Williams (Laurence Fishburne). Your average British students are content with a summer job picking grapes or performing inept bar work at any number of licensed premises; but not these MIT bods. Is it just me who sees a solution to the so-called crisis in higher education funding here?

Any casino, of course, is a fool's paradise. A mechanical moneymaking machine designed with the precision and artistry of the watchmaker to separate mugs from their money. As you watch the croupiers, dealers and pit bosses you're watching an optical illusion of fairness. Statistically, the house has an edge. Cheat a casino and you're not really cheating - just levelling the playing field. What 21 highlights is the ever-escalating technological arms race between the scam artists and the casinos.

Richard Marcus, the self-declared number one expert on casino cheating, details the best hustles on his blog. He is the pioneer of the Savannah scam, where he would hide $5,000 casino chips under $5 casino chips on the roulette table, so he won $10,010 each time these bets won, while losing just $10 when they lost. Working in a team including a "mechanic" (the guy who switched the chips) and "chip bettors" who make carefully orchestrated bets that control the dealer's movements giving the mechanic the split-second window of opportunity to switch the chips, Marcus made the con his hallmark.

The casinos don't let go of the money they lose to the likes of Richard Marcus without a fight, of course. There is an entire industry dedicated to catching the cheats and the city of Las Vegas is a breeding ground for the bleeding edge of high-tech surveillance technology. Data-mining, sharing info with other casinos and blanket camera coverage come as standard, but there are also LED coin comparators for slot machine fraud, and even optical scanning and radio-frequency identification (RFID) in the chips to alert the house to counterfeits. Then there's the world's largest casino, the Venetian Macao, using state-of-the-art 3D biometric face recognition software to authenticate its 12,000 staff as they start their shifts. Marcus remains unimpressed. "Facial recognition is an absolute zero. There's not one person alive who's ever been caught by facial recognition," he claims, insisting that the technology is only as good as the casino workers; workers he fooled for years, clocking up a reported $5 million over two decades.

Marcus is also lukewarm on the release of 21. Having met two of the real MIT blackjack team members he told his online readers "neither one would ever have had the slightest chance of joining one of my casino cheating teams". He cites Les Tricheurs ("The Cheaters") as the definitive casino cheating movie. The true story of the beautiful French swindler Monique Laurent, it deals with an altogether more elegant scam. Working the casinos on the French Atlantic coast, Laurent had a sculptor friend design a roulette ball with a tiny receiver inside which would be sneaked into play. As the ball rolled Laurent would press a button on her cigarette packet, containing a transmitter, causing the ball to dive, landing in a group of six numbers with 90% accuracy. Marcus calls it "one of the greatest scams of all time". The use of transmitters was a bold escalation in the casino arms race and, as they often are, the casino operators were caught on the hop.

That's the startling thing that a look at the history of casino fraud reveals. There are plenty of smart people clever enough to think up schemes that will fool the casino. The scams work and if you have the skills and the cojones, you can gradually milk a casino without them ever knowing your name. So why don't you see too many casino operators pleading poverty? Everyone in the business gives you the same answer: in the end the scammers are always undone by greed. Ernest Keller, gaming regulator with the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, says, "They get caught because they get greedy. You're allowed to win in a casino, but not too much." So, while the anti-cheating technology has its limits, con-artists always find a way to trip themselves up. Just like Hamlet, Othello and Ashley Cole, our gambling heroes are always undone by a flaw: human frailty.

Needless to say, the movies will continue backing the little guy against The House. In a rare display of honesty, Hollywood persistently portrays the entire gaming industry as little more than an organised shakedown and anyone smart or crazy enough to try and take it down as some kind of hero. But for the average mope trying his luck, it's a depressingly familiar story. Frankly, it's best to keep out of it. Your 2:2 in Media and Herbal Medicine isn't going to cut it at the casino. Unless you aced every semester at MIT, don't bet your bank on a happy ending.