Mysterium: Stranger in a Strange Land

Posted by Jonathan Bayme on 28 February 2013

Editor’s Note: This article is the sixth in a new, weekly series by Jason England: MYSTERIUM. Each article in this series will be posted on Wednesday at 11:00am EST – every post on a different subject. This week, Jason shares several cheating moves and techniques he saw while hosting the 2013 World Game Protection Conference in Las Vegas.

Hosting the World Game Protection Conference

As most of the readers of this new column know, I’m a magician with a serious, long-term interest in gambling moves. By “gambling moves”, I mean of course the techniques and principles that card, dice and roulette cheaters use to win money in both private games and in casino games.

This interest of mine has resulted in me hosting for the past two years in a row, the World Game Protection Conference here in Las Vegas, Nevada. As host, my duties include introducing the speakers to a large (over 400 attendees) audience and ensuring the day proceeds smoothly. I also facilitate Q&A sessions between the speakers and the audience. From time to time, I’ll chime in and participate in discussions where it’s appropriate, but only if I feel I have some insight into the subject matter at hand.

The 2013 conference ended this afternoon (it’s very late on February 27th as I type this) and I thought I’d give those of you who share my interest in “real” - as opposed to “theatrical” - cheating moves and techniques a glimpse into what I saw and learned over the past 3 days.

The conference officially opened on Monday the 25th with a Surveillance Directors’ Meeting. Although in the past this meeting has been open to all attendees, this year, for reasons I can’t go into, it was closed to anyone that isn’t a surveillance director of a casino. The remainder of Monday is a more of a fun, “welcome to Las Vegas” day that ends with a meet-n-greet party at the M resort at the very south end of the Strip.

Tuesday morning is when the conference really kicks into high gear.

At 9:00, I stepped out onto the stage and greeted the crowd to introduce our keynote speaker. You have to understand that this crowd consists of 400 surveillance directors, assistant directors, managers, and operators. These are the “eye in the sky” folks that are tasked with protecting every square inch of a casino using the camers that are located behind hundreds, if not thousands, of black domes in the ceilings of all legitimate casinos.

In most casinos, cameras can be found in every room on the property, including restaurants, store-rooms, maintenance hallways and closets, and even in the hotel hallways and elevators.

Basically every single inch of the casino and hotel floors are covered except for areas in public restrooms and inside the actual hotel rooms where the guests stay.

This group spends their time looking for cheaters, employee theft, “slip and falls” (where a patron pretends to slip and fall down so that they can sue the casino for injury/damages), dealer mistakes, and a host of other issues. They’re a good group of people doing a tough, unsung job for their casino bosses. Getting them to “wake up” on a Tuesday morning is not an easy task. Luckily for us at the conference, we had a very good opening speaker. His name is Don Johnson and for a few short months last year, he won a whopping 15 million dollars (give or take a few hundred thousand here or there) at blackjack tables in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Interestingly enough, he isn’t a card counter. Curious about how he did it? So were we!

Mr. Johnson was able to negotiate an incentive from the A.C. casinos that effectively gave him a massive edge over them even without counting cards. He was playing a very skillful game of blackjack without counting, but it was the “kickback” incentives that really made the difference. Although I’m oversimplifying this a bit, imagine if we agreed to flip a coin 1000 times. If it comes up heads, you win. If it comes up tails, you lose. We’ll play for a dollar per flip. What’s goin to happen? Well, you and I will basically come out dead even after 1000 flips. Oh sure, one of us might be ahead by a few dozen flips one way or another, but there’s really no “edge” to such a simple game like this. You’ll win approximately 500 bucks off of me, and you’ll lose approximately 500 bucks to me.

But what if I agreed to “relieve” 10% of your losses? In other words, I’ll give you back 10% of whatever you lose to me. Now what happens? Well, you’ll still win roughly 500 flips and I’ll have to pay you $500. And you’ll lose roughly 500 of those 1000 flips and you would owe me $500. Except that I’ve agreed to kick back 10% of your losses to you. That means you get $50 kicked back to you ($50 is of course 10% of $500). You walk away with $50 for every 1000 flips. That’s a lot of trouble for such small money. What if we increased the stakes to $10,000 per flip though? You would wind up making $50,000 dollars for every 1000 flips we play. Now you’re talking about a worthwhile deal!

Although the coin flip scenario I’ve just described isn’t exactly what Johnson was doing, the basic concept is similar. He was playing a dead-even game of blackjack with the house and his edge came from the fact that he was risking a much smaller portion of his bankroll than it appeared on the surface to win. He couldn’t lose! For more information, check out the Atlantic Monthly article on Mr. Johnson here.

Other speakers on Tuesday included magician Paul Wilson. Paul gave a talk on cons and scams that was punctuated with performances of some excellent pieces from his professional working repertoire. The audience reacted very strongly to Paul’s demonstration and many of them spent the remainder of the conference coming up to him telling how much they enjoyed the show. Great job, Paul!

Also on Tuesday I moderated and participated in a panel discussion on the subject of poorly cut playing cards and the things that can be done with them in a casino environment. Several major brands of casino playing cards, including selections from the USPCC, Gemaco, Paulson, and Piatnik were shown and the poorly cut borders discussed.

Players often times use completely legal strategic loopholes to gain information during gameplay.

Several recent advantage playing techniques were discussed that involve using these poorly cut borders to gain information to help the players make proper decisions. Keep in mind, these techniques are not cheating techniques  rather, they are legal strategies that simply exploit loopholes in procedures, but do not otherwise interfere in any way with the game’s normal operation.

Later, we heard from an Australian slot machine expert who’s won millions of dollars playing progressive slot machines over the past 15+ years. In that same time, he’s won more than a dozen high-end luxury cars. He kept only one, selling the rest to pump money back into his playing capital. It’s an interesting system and a perfectly legal one. It isn’t easy to implement, but the math is sound and he’s not the only one doing this. Don’t quit your day job just yet – the system requires long hours of scouting to find the right machine and you have to be sufficiently financed to afford to weather some significant losses before the big wins come.

Our final speaker was Jeff Murphy, the Director of Surveillance at the Cosmopolitan here in Las Vegas. Jeff gave an excellent talk on the role of modern surveillance in today’s gaming environment. He also showed a video compilation of many cheating and employee theft attempts that he and his team have foiled in the past year. For those of you that wonder how often people are arrested in a given year, Jeff provided a number: his team has made over 400 arrests in the past two years for cheating and related offences.

Wednesday morning we began with a series of “breakout” sessions that allowed the attendees to choose which session they wanted to watch.

Gambling and sleight-of-hand expert George Joseph did a session on switching cards and showed some really interesting videos of cheaters in Asia using electronic versions of a “Kepplinger-style” holdout device.

Assistant Surveillance Director Bill Joseph (no relation to George), then taught a large room full of people how to false shuffle a deck of cards. Actually, Bill taught three different false shuffles including a variant of the Shank shuffle and a push-through shuffle.

It was a great session, designed not to actually “teach” people how to really perform the shuffles expertly – we all know that takes many, many months or even years of dedicated practice at a minimum. Instead, Bill wanted the surveillance operators to understand a false shuffle using a hands on approach versus a purely academic approach. It was very effective.

After Bill’s talk, Paul Wilson and I watched the conference organizer Willie Allison give a presentation on some recent cheating devices that have surfaced in the past few years. It isn’t known if any of these devices have surfaced in legitimate casinos, but there is some evidence that they have. The evidence just isn’t conclusive. You can be that even if they haven’t, someone somewhere has tried.

The devices included a device that appears to be a cell phone. Instead of making calls however, this device can read secret infrared marks on the edges of a deck of playing cards. A hidden computer that also looks like a cell phone, tucked away in your pocket then interprets these marks and the cheaters are told via a tiny earpiece which player will have the best hand in Texas Hold ‘Em. They’re also told which player will have the second best hand. The exact cards in the hands may or may not be revealed depending on the software, but just knowing you can’t lose is obviously a massive edge.

Another cheating device was a dealing shoe that could deal seconds for the dealer automatically. A video of this shoe can be seen here.

Incidentally, while this shoe would make a great “toy” for a gambling collector like me and in the right situation could possibly make some money, there is a visible flaw in the shoe. The faceplate (the large white plate that protects the front of the shoe) is much larger than it needs to be. This is a problem that many second dealing shoes have, and the fact that this shoe is doing all the work for you only causes more of a problem. I won’t go into any more detail than that, but a sharp eye could spot this shoe from across the room.

After Willie’s presentation, I gave a 45-minute demonstration of cheating moves that a dealer can execute with only a modicum of practice.

I demonstrated a second deal (admittedly a move that takes more than just a few days or weeks to learn) some peek moves, a few flashes of the top card to secret confederates, and I also taught a slug control that added onto the material Bill Joseph had discussed a few hours prior to me. My talk was apparently a success based on the thank you’s and questions that I got afterwards.

The conference ended with a talk from a marked cards expert and friend of mine from New York. I’m not sure if he wants his name mentioned here, so I’ll refrain, but interested parties will probably be able to figure out the person I’m talking about.

During both Tuesday and Wednesday there was a “dealers’ room” of a sort. The exhibitors’ hall was full of booth from surveillance camera and surveillance software vendors, new game inventors, and people selling the latest and greatest items designed to increase all manner of productivity. It’s a fascinating place to just stroll around and look at all the new toys.

All told, the conference was two solid days of information on the current state of cheating and advantage playing techniques that are currently “making the rounds” in casino throughout the world. Those of you with more than a passing interest in the subject matter are welcome to email me and ask me questions. I’ll answer to the degree I’m allowed to.