Not in my house: how Vegas casinos wage a war on cheating

casino cheaters lead

“I think most people feel that if you can find a way to beat the casino, more power to you,” says Arnold Synder, his eyes, those telltale features, hidden behind a pair of black sunglasses. “This place set up the rules, they provide the equipment, they provide the dealer, and they're basically saying, ‘Come in and try to beat us.’”

It's the welcoming whisper, the allure of easy fortune. Folks come in and wager, hoping they'll be the exception to the rule that the house always wins. Then there are the savvier players, those who don’t simply hope, but actively seek an advantage — sometimes by any means necessary. Probably for as long as there have been wagering games, players have sought an edge. Depending on the orientation of your moral compass, sometimes that search tips over into outright cheating. And for as long as there have been cheats, the house has tried to stop them. Today, when every smartphone is a computer, camera, and communications device, the potential for cheating is probably greater than it's ever been. But the casinos are fighting back with technology of their own.

The rise of blackjack and the counting computer

Arnold Snyder has known plenty of savvy players, even been one himself. A long-time professional gambler, he's the author of The Big Book of Blackjack and publisher of Blackjack Forum Online. Blackjack’s a particularly interesting game, Snyder says, because for a long time it wasn’t very popular. At the end of World War II, when the Nevada casinos (then the only legal gambling joints in the country) were first building their business, they featured row after row of dice tables. G.I.’s fighting in the trenches threw craps, because dice were durable and waterproof. When they returned stateside, they brought their love of the game back with them. Blackjack, in contrast, was a niche game.

That all changed in 1962, when Random House published Edward O. Thorp’s Beat The Dealer: A Winning Strategy for the Game of Twenty-One. While an instructor at M.I.T., Thorp had used the school’s IBM 704 computer and a mathematical formula called the Kelly criterion to develop his method for counting cards, providing a potential edge over the house. It wasn’t much — perhaps 1% — but it made blackjack a potentially lucrative game. Beat the Dealer became an improbable bestseller, as thousands of gambling naifs imagined themselves proud owners of a genuine get-rich-quick scheme. Most overestimated their skill and determination, but flooded the casinos nonetheless. Suddenly blackjack became big business.

One of those thousands was a Raytheon engineer and devout Baptist from Mountain View, California, named Keith Taft. "Keith Taft was about 10 steps ahead of everybody back in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s," says Snyder. "He was astonishing. He's a legend."

Taft’s job at Raytheon involved integrated circuits. On a family vacation in 1969, he happened to play a few hands of blackjack. He won all three, pocketing $3.50 in profit. Though he’d never used it himself, he remembered a little bit about Thorpe’s strategy from Beat the Dealer. One of his first thoughts about card counting was: couldn’t a computer do this?

At the time, the word "computer" still conjured up images of men in white lab coats standing in front of reel-to-reel machines, clipboard in hand. Intel’s first RAM chip appeared in 1970, followed soon after by the 4004 and 8008 microprocessors. The first personal computer, the little-known Kenbak-1, debuted in 1971, retailing for $750. (Forty were sold.) The hardware that would power Taft’s wearable blackjack computer had just begun arriving in the marketplace. He’d also moved into R&D at Fairchild, which gave him the computing power to develop his software algorithms.

Two years later, he had his blackjack computer, a system he called "George" — 15 pounds of circuitry and batteries strapped around his midsection, with wires running down his leg and into his shoe, where he input card values with a pair of switches strapped to his toes. During George’s first test run, a casino employee happened to place a hand on Taft’s back, vindicating the decision to not strap the computer there. Oh, and there was the battery acid that leaked through his shirt and scarred his chest.

So began a decade and a half of tinkering. Taft and George did well enough, despite some initial setbacks, and pretty soon the whole Taft family was recruited for the project. They eventually teamed up with Ken Uston, an ex-stockbroker turned blackjacker who imagined a bright future of computer-enabled play.

Keith Taft

Keith Taft's devices

"Couldn't you make a computer count cards?"

Keith Taft, along with his son Marty, continued to upgrade their creations. The George system begat George II, which begat David — as in "David and Goliath," the casinos being his oversize, seemingly unbeatable opponent — which begat Thor.

When Snyder says that Taft was ahead of everyone, he doesn’t mean just fellow blackjack players. He means high-tech companies like Intel and HP. In those early days, Taft was pioneering wearable computers. He wasn’t the first; that distinction belongs to Edward Thorpe himself, who with Claude Shannon had designed a device to beat the roulette wheel. But his advances include primitive networking, using a thin wire to connect five players on the casino floor. In an early example of digital photography, he built a camera into a belt buckle. Connected to a wearable computer, it broadcast images of the dealer’s cards to a truck out in the parking lot. He even had one computer signal him via an LED embedded in a pair of glasses. (He ditched that technique because dealers could see the light reflecting in his eyes.)

During the golden age of blackjack computers, Taft dreamed up all kinds of new devices. He sold some of them to fellow players; though it was a small market, that and his winnings let him keep experimenting. "He never got rich," Snyder says, "But he made his living for a number of years."

Taft’s devices would be illegal today, under Nevada’s strict anti-cheating laws. And though they can’t outlaw mental card counting, casinos have taken to using multiple decks to make advantage play more difficult. "Card counting does not have the popularity it had. And one of the reasons is because of all the casino countermeasures," says Snyder. The days when a young man might fall asleep over his copy of Beat the Dealer and dream of easy riches are now far in the past.

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At work in the house of surveillance

As casinos grew in size, thanks in part to the rise of blackjack, it became increasingly difficult to keep a vigilant eye on players. It might surprise you to hear that the most important countermeasure casinos employed against cheaters and thieves was nothing high-tech and novel like biometrics or facial recognition or RFID chips. It was simply installing cameras, being able to see. And then being able to see more. And record and playback what was seen. For all of the potential sci-fi advances they could deploy, most casinos still rely on cameras and the people watching them. "You cannot walk into any casino property in the world without being picked up on camera," says Derk Boss, President of the International Association of Certified Surveillance Professionals. "We can track your movements throughout the casino if we want to."

The Las Vegas exemplar of security camera use is probably the Aria Resort and Casino. It’s a luxe establishment, part of MGM’s 67-acre CityCenter complex that opened in late 2009; it’s the largest privately funded construction project in U.S. history, costing over $8.5 billion to build. Part of that expense went to running fiber optic cable to each of Aria’s 4004 rooms, enabling high-tech features such as personalized climate control and energy-saving options that earned the building a gold LEED rating.

Underneath all of that is the monitoring room, custom-designed with the help of Ted Whiting, Aria’s director of surveillance. More than 1,100 cameras dot the casino, a mixture of high-definition digital cameras and older, analog pan/tilt/zoom (P/T/Z) cameras. According to Derk Boss, most casinos still use P/T/Z cameras: they’re less expensive and don’t have the lag of some digital cameras. Setting up his room, Whiting requested a mix of analog and digital, looking for the best of both worlds.

The casino also has 50 cameras that take 360-degree images. They make it easier to track a specific person, especially as he or she passes through "choke points," designed to provide surveillance with a nice long look at anyone of interest. Cameras monitor 98 percent of the casino floor; Whiting says even he’s not sure where to find that other 2 percent.

In the near future cameras will have the intelligence to distinguish savvy players from hopeless newbs

Despite that, Whiting says facial recognition software hasn’t been of much use to him. It’s simply too unreliable when it comes to spotting people on the move, in crowds, and under variable lighting. Instead, he and his team rely on pictures shared from other casinos, as well as through the Biometrica and Griffin databases. (The Griffin database, which contains pictures and descriptions of various undesirables, used to go to subscribers as massive paper volumes.) But quite often, they’re not looking for specific people, but rather patterns of behavior. "Believe it or not, when you've done this long enough," he says, "you can tell when somebody's up to no good. It just doesn't feel right."

They keep a close eye on the tables, since that’s where cheating’s most likely to occur. With 1080p high-definition cameras, surveillance operators can read cards and count chips — a significant improvement over earlier cameras. And though facial recognition doesn’t yet work reliably enough to replace human operators, Whiting’s excited at the prospects of OCR. It’s already proven useful for identifying license plates. The next step, he says, is reading cards and automatically assessing a player’s strategy and skill level. In the future, maybe, the cameras will spot card counters and other advantage players without any operator intervention. (Whiting, a former advantage player himself, can often spot such players. Rather than kick them out, as some casinos did in the past, Aria simply limits their bets, making it economically disadvantageous to keep playing.)

With over a thousand cameras operating 24/7, the monitoring room creates tremendous amounts of data every day, most of which goes unseen. Six technicians watch about 40 monitors, but all the feeds are saved for later analysis. One day, as with OCR scanning, it might be possible to search all that data for suspicious activity. Say, a baccarat player who leaves his seat, disappears for a few minutes, and is replaced with another player who hits an impressive winning streak. An alert human might spot the collusion, but even better, video analytics might flag the scene for further review. The valuable trend in surveillance, Whiting says, is toward this data-driven analysis (even when much of the job still involves old-fashioned gumshoe work). "It's the data," he says, "And cameras now are data. So it's all data. It's just learning to understand that data is important."

Ultimately, catching cheaters is a small part of what casino surveillance teams do. There simply aren’t that many cheats out there, compared to the number of purse-snatchers and pickpockets, the ordinary criminals that people like Ted Whiting deal with almost every day. When it comes to cheating, Whiting says, "We're never going to be ahead. Remember that people who get paid to catch the bad guys get paid whether they catch them or not. The cheats don't get paid unless they figure it out. So they're motivated, and they've succeeded. But once they do, we go full in."

Cheating: then, now, and in the future

"These days, the private game world is where most of the money is, as far as cheaters are concerned," says Jason England, magician and cardshark demonstrator. "Most cheaters just aren’t willing to go up against the modern surveillance systems and the modern security devices that they have in the casinos." England has one of Las Vegas’s largest collection of vintage cheating devices, from loaded dice to two-shoes (allowing a cheat to see the top card on the deck) to hold-outs (which keep a card hidden up a player’s sleeve). He also used to have a slot-cheating device, not much more than a bent coat hanger. But that was confiscated by the Nevada Gaming Commission, so now he displays the receipt provided by the confiscating officer.

For England, the allure of cheating devices lies in their ingenuity. Each one represents a way someone thought up to take advantage of our assumptions; they often overturn preconceptions — like magic, they temporarily shake us from our normal perception of the world, revealing a much more enigmatic place. And of course there’s the James Bond aspect: cool gadgets have an allure of power, and cheating gadgets have the allure of secret power. "I don’t necessarily approve of the morality of these devices," he says, "but I approve of the ingenuity of these devices."

He has special praise for Keith Taft, whose blackjack computers showed an ingenuity and vision far beyond almost anything of their time. Imagine building a blackjack computer today, he says, using current technology. You could farm out building the hardware, writing the software, but even then it would take time and effort. Taft, without the sci-fi technology we take for granted today, did it by himself, in almost a knowledge vacuum, because no one had ever done it before. "The five of us probably couldn’t pull it off in six months, with all the challenges we would face. They managed to do it four decades ago," he says, "and were very successful at it. I think that’s astounding."

But at the same time, Taft built on concepts that came before him, implementing them in a new and bold way. That’s the path of virtually all progress. Demonstrating a holdout that’s nearly a century old, England says that while cheating technology may change, basic concepts remain the same. You can always come up with a new and clever way to mark cards, for example, but doing so is simply another way of secretly conveying information that — by the rules of the game — you’re not supposed to have. Knowing that a pair of dice is loaded puts you at an information advantage over someone who assumes they’re normal.

"All you’re talking about, at the end of the day now, is information," he says, standing on the floor of the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show. He’s checking out the possibilities for high-tech cheating, whether with miniature cameras, surreptitious communication, or simple misdirection. When you’re playing a game where decisions matter (rather than pure games of chance), cheating is simply a matter of having better information than your opponent. "If I know your hole card, I’m gonna beat you. If I know the flop, I’m going to beat you. It’s all information transfer. And that’s all everything in this room does," he says, sweeping his arm to take in the acres of electronics surrounding him, "is move information from one place to another. Information management is all it is."

There’s also a certain mindset involved, a way of looking at the world. England, for example, spots the FLIR booth at the end of a long aisle. He’s thought about the technology before, the usefulness of infrared lighting for cheating, and soon he’s running an impromptu test on one of FLIR’s demo cameras. It recalls one of his other devices, a proof-of-concept piece using infrared LEDs. Certain smartphone cameras, it turns out, can see light from infrared LEDs, which remains invisible to the naked eye. Arrange a bank of extremely bright infrared LEDs under a playing card, switch them on, and then hold your camera over it. If all goes according to plan, he explains, you’ll be able to see right through the back of the card.

"There's just too many smart people in the world working to make money at the games. Protecting them is an impossibility."

It’s that mindset that determines that cheating (like, say, magic, or hacking) will never completely go away, or be overcome by increasingly high-tech surveillance. It’s the mindset that doesn’t accept seemingly ironclad rules about the world ("The house always wins") and always seeks a loophole, and edge, or an out. "As some casino puts a new game on the floor," Arnold Snyder says, "there are players in there looking at it; they're getting the data on it. That's the whole way a professional thinks: How can I beat this game?"

"I don't know whether they're ever going to come up with a foolproof method where the house is always going to win," he continues. "And basically that's what a casino is supposed to be: every game in the house is rigged. Every game is rigged against the player. They're not fair — they're rigged. In every game there's a house edge they assume they have based on their analysis. And the whole thing a professional player is trying to do is figure where they made their mistake, what were they not expecting me to do, what did they think I wouldn't be able to see that I can see. There's just too many smart people in the world working to make money at the games, that protecting them is an impossibility."

Put another way: wherever there’s a system, an established order, someone will have an incentive to uphold it. And someone else will have equal incentive to break it.

Video producer: Stephen Greenwood | Video editor: Phil Knowlton
Joshua Cherkes contributed to this report

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