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WHO'S WATCHING YOU?
By MICK FARREN, JOHN GIBB
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2007 Conspiracy Books
All rights reserved.
All Bets Are Covered
If we would require a miniature model of the full surveillance police state in which everyone and everything is constantly watched, we would need to look no further than the modern casinos in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or one of the many in Europe and the Far East. It has become the norm for surveillance companies to test their products in casinos, because the individual trying to cheat a casino is one of toughest adversaries they can find, and there is never any shortage of crooks and scam artists who believe they can devise a system to rob the house. Some of the greatest brains in the world have been applied to winning at cards, dice, and roulette, because the only way you can guarantee a win and make some money in a casino is to break the rules; you can never beat the odds honestly. Casinos may occasionally lose a million or so to a lucky high roller, but they always get it back in the long run because they benefit from an advantage called the "House Edge," which means all games of chance run by the house have built-in odds loaded on the side of the casino and against the player. A casino averages a profit of seventeen to eighteen percent, and those profits are maintained and protected by a system of constant surveillance.
The most concise description of how a high-time gambling operation works like a microcosm of a police state is provided by Robert De Niro in the film Casino, in which he plays a character based heavily on the real Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal, the legendary Las Vegas casino boss who ruled through the 1960s and 1970s, when organized crime still ran the city. At the start of the film, De Niro is asked, "How does it work?" He explains how, on every level, everyone is watched: "First up, you got the dealer; then you got the inspector watching the dealer; then there's the pit boss watching the inspector; then there's a floor manager watching the pit boss. I'm sitting upstairs watching the floor manager ... Then you've got the eye in the sky watching everyone."
During the airport chaos following the September 11, 2001 attacks on Washington, DC and New York's World Trade Center, as hastily trained airline security personnel worked with new equipment and less-than-perfect systems to protect travelers from terrorism, an oft-repeated joke was that airport security should be turned over to a team of Las Vegas casino pit bosses. In many respects, the joke made a good deal of sense. The major casino represents both business and human nature reduced to its simplest form. The entire focus is on raw money and nothing else. The players' basic motivation is to take money away from the casino, while the casino is set up to take money from them. Most players hope to do it by beating the basic house-friendly odds and coming out legitimate winners; but as long as there has been casino gambling, cardsharps, cheats, swindlers, and adventurers have been determined to take down a roulette or blackjack game, and casinos have learned from more than a century of experience how to spot and thwart them. Casinos have seen it all before, and have thorough knowledge of just about every trick in the book. Everything that can be done to get around the system has been done at least once, and will be tried again.
The casino's first advantage is that, as a business, it is so profitable that it has the cash to spend on security and maintaining the House Edge. Top houses are able to afford state-of-the-art hardware, and have the resources to pay for the best security staff. A casino's security budget is greater than those of private companies hired to protect airports, public buildings, and even the federal government. The first thing you realize when you enter a casino is that you're not only being watched, but that they really want you to know you're being watched. Cameras are everywhere, large, obvious, and intrusive, with sinister Darth Vader lenses and flashing red LEDs, on which your every move is recorded, and the resulting images, so sharp on the modern equipment, are of near-broadcast quality. Las Vegas came in on the ground floor of technical surveillance in 1950s, when casinos were among the first American businesses to install closed-circuit television (CCTV) as a security and crowd-management tool, and they have remained on the cutting edge ever since.
Pit bosses and floor managers are the human line of defense: cold-eyed men stand around in neat suits, watching the gaming and the players. The dealers work the tables, doing their best to see the bets and make sure that no one is past posting, pinching, or dragging (altering a bet after the play has been called). Meticulous attention is also paid to the basic gaming equipment: the roulette wheels are regularly checked and properly balanced so that, when they spin, there is no possibility of any bias to upset the odds. Dice are of standard manufacture, so they can be neither loaded nor otherwise modified, and shooters at the craps tables are under intense surveillance by the human stick-men and even more CCTV cameras, to ensure substitutions are not made. Card decks are designed to a fixed standard, and the chips—the basic casino currency—are impossible to duplicate.
Of all the weapons in a casino's security arsenal, the greatest reliance is placed on the camera. In his book American Roulette, self-confessed master cardsharp Richard Marcus, who toured the world and won huge amounts with elaborate sleight of hand, makes this abundantly clear: "You can't corrupt the camera. It's the only thing you can trust because it doesn't have a heart, or a brain, and anyway, it doesn't gamble." A casino certainly does not trust its staff. Dealers and security men have been successfully corrupted time after time, but the casino owners have learned from their mistakes, and now have complex multi-level systems to discourage staff corruption. All dealers and croupiers are subjected to the most stringent background checks, and many casinos make the dealers wear aprons, not to protect their clothes, but to make it harder for them to pocket any chips. Staff are searched after their shifts, and in some states, chips are embedded with trackers so the boss knows where the money has gone.
On the other side of the coin, the cheats have marked cards. Computers, cameras, and cell phones have been smuggled onto the gaming floor, and magnets have been fixed to roulette tables, all to challenge the house advantage. But countermeasures are in place against all these attempts at cheating in the big casinos. The gaming floor is filmed and watched twenty-four hours a day, the tables are tested with the most sensitive levels, the roulette wheels are constantly checked, and the cards are delivered in armored trucks and then stored and guarded as carefully as the cash and chips.
The house, however, does not always come out ahead. Richard Marcus claims to have made the surveillance system his ally when he discovered that certain combinations of colored chips confused the cameras in artificial light, and he used this anomaly to make a great deal of money by past posting, the sleight-of-hand art of removing chips from the roulette table while a croupier is distracted. Casino surveillance is set up to resist late bets, but Marcus would place a bet and only move his chip if it hadn't won. He worked with a team of three, which enabled him to discover instantly the winning number, and sneak away a losing bet in the few seconds of motion and confusion that ensues at roulette tables when the bets are about to be paid.
As in so many other areas where humans try to circumvent entrenched security systems, the cheat's greatest asset is the human mind and its innate ingenuity. One of the greatest threats to a casino's profits is what's known as a "counter" at the blackjack table. Fortunately for the casino operators, not everyone can become a counter. To "count" requires a powerful memory and an exceptional talent for mental arithmetic. In basic terms, the counter attempts to keep track of the proportion of high and low cards that have been dealt, in order to estimate what cards remain in the deck, and thus "predict" the value of the next card to be dealt. The counter does not expect to know exactly what card the dealer will spin out of the shoe, but to have just a general idea of the likelihood of a high or low card will tilt the odds away from the house and in his or her direction. Counters must also maintain a casual expression and body language so as not to reveal what they are doing to the dealer or the watching pit bosses. Although casinos have attempted to make counting far more difficult by using dealer shoes that hold six decks of cards instead of only one, the best and the brightest counters continue to do their damnedest to cut into the casinos' profit margins.
Among the greatest counters in the history of casino gambling were those in the group known as the MIT Blackjack Team, exceptionally bright math students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who, in the 1990s, devised a method of card counting that took the gaming world completely by surprise. Although the MIT Blackjack Team started as a theoretical joke, the members discovered that when they put their theories into practice, they were even more successful than they had initially expected. Bankrolled in part by shadowy investors, and after extensive training and rehearsals in mock casinos set up in actual MIT classrooms and other locations in the Boston area, the kids ran their scam for almost two years before the casinos—primarily in Las Vegas and Atlantic City—began to realize what was happening, and initiated an elaborate cat-and-mouse game with the well-drilled and highly ingenious MIT conspirators. The only tried-and-tested way for a casino to catch a blackjack counter is with a combination of cameras and computerized checking of gaming patterns. Betting patterns of wins and losses are relentlessly charted in casinos. If the numbers persistently go against the house, something is wrong, and the watchers start searching. Overly consistent winning raises a warning flag, and the winner comes under observation. If he or she continues to win, the suspected counter's face is recorded and matched with computer files of known counters that are circulated globally to subscribing casinos. The global gambling industry now has its own blacklist database of suspected cheats, complete with the most extensive dossiers that they are able to compile. With this, the casino business makes itself an exact microcosm of national intelligence agencies like the FBI and CIA (and may in fact share information with them, although such cooperation has never been made public.)
Counting cards at blackjack is not in fact a crime; it's merely a case of discovering a weakness in the structure of the game and exploiting it. The casinos, however, treat it as if it were very much a felony. Once the counter has been identified to the casino's satisfaction, he will probably be removed from the table, threatened in a private office, and then informed that he has been blacklisted from all US casinos and many overseas. Although the MIT Blackjack Team made extensive use of disguises and teams of counters to confuse the win/lose numbers, enough of them were eventually detected that the operation was shut down voluntarily. (Unless, of course, they have become considerably more sophisticated and are still continuing today.)
If they really did disband, the MIT Blackjack Team did not go without leaving a legacy. A network of underground commercial schools that teach blackjack "counting," thrives, primarily in Nevada. These counting "seminars" move around from hotel to hotel, masquerading as courses in accounting or bookkeeping. The fees are high at thirty thousand dollars for a two-week course, and most of the work has to be done by the students, as the instructor puts them through ten days of concentrated mathematical mind games and practical work. One well-known school, operating in and around Las Vegas, also teaches the art of past posting at roulette, and holds courses in sleight of hand.
Just as in every other area of society, computers have made it possible for casinos to store and instantly access virtually limitless data. As swindlers devise more devious schemes to separate the house from its cash, casino files become more extensive, and the stories contained in them become increasingly bizarre. In 2004, four men were banned from casinos in the United Kingdom after successfully executing what became know as the "Fat Man" scam. The procedure was eventually picked up by the surveillance system; although the evidence was there, it took a long time to detect. The scheme required a team of three people to play. A heavily-built man with a large number of low-denomination chips would settle down at the end of the roulette table, as far away from the wheel as possible. Two associates, whom the fat man would never acknowledge, would start to play while keeping a close eye on the pattern of numbers as the wheel was spun. They had previously noticed that the green baize roulette layout and wheel were attached to a comparatively flimsy wooden base, and that someone of substantial weight would be able to alter the plane of the table, slightly shifting the roulette wheel to an angle that would alter its balance. Over a period of hours, with the fat man resting his bulk on the end of the table, he and his associates would be able to detect a pattern that would shift the odds in their favor. The team of three found several casinos where the tables were equally vulnerable to a heavy man, and as they perfected their technique, they soon started to win big. They were only caught when a sharp-eyed watcher in the Northern English city of Leeds realized from the surveillance cameras what they were up to, and had a camera with a fiber-optic lens installed in a pillar close to the roulette table. After that, they were filmed, filed, banned, and a description of the scam went into the database along with the names and photographs of everyone involved.
As technology advances, both the scams and the casinos advance with it. The potential of electronic devices to transmit information discreetly over short distances was quickly recognized by criminals. Early in 2005, eight Thai nationals were arrested in Poipet, a resort town in Cambodia. They had won ninety million Baht (over $2.6 million), using electronic devices to win at blackjack. The security staff at the casino said that the eight had been embedding microchips in the game chips, which enabled them to scan cards and transfer the data to a laptop computer in a room in the hotel. Associates would contact them using mobile phones and coded messages, giving them details of the cards. At the Ritz Casino in London, England, a group of four Albanians allegedly used an adapted cell phone and laser technology to corrupt the smooth running of the roulette wheel. The Albanians were detained by casino security after they had won between four and five million dollars at roulette, but the police were unable to prove what, if anything, had happened. Experts at Nokia examined the mobile phone in detail, but nothing was revealed. Still certain that they had been conned, the Ritz refused to pay, but the investigation ran out of steam when the police could produce no forensic evidence. After six months of inactivity and frustration, the gamblers were paid off, and headed swiftly for London's Heathrow airport.
These, however, are isolated incidents, and casino technology—especially in the US, where casino security budgets are virtually unlimited—is the most advanced on Earth. CCTV cameras now come equipped with biometric facial recognition technology, and neural systems programmed to pick up and highlight behavior anomalies detect late bets or the theft of chips. The chips themselves, as well as cards and dice, now contain radio frequency identification (RFID) tags that can track their use and movements. As we move into the twenty-first century, the major corporate gambling casinos have made themselves into electronic fortresses where almost nothing is left to chance.
Although the days when the mob ruled Las Vegas are long gone, major casinos are still something of a law unto themselves. Gamblers at casino resorts are well aware that, along with their abandoning their money, they are also—at least temporarily—abandoning a considerable degree of their privacy. The excuse cannot even be made that all the surveillance, the security, the grim-faced pit bosses, and the electronic hardware are there for the safety of the public. They are only there for the benefit of the casino and to protect its money. The deal is non-negotiable. If you want to gamble, or even work in a casino, you have to be prepared to be constantly watched and recorded. The only consolation is that everything is out front and accepted. The picture changes radically when other commercial or government security operations use the same highly-sophisticated surveillance and data-gathering technology and decide we, the people, don't need to know anything about it.
Excerpted from WHO'S WATCHING YOU? by MICK FARREN, JOHN GIBB. Copyright © 2007 Conspiracy Books. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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