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This article was seen in today's Hong Kong Standard, a newspaper I still subscribe to via internet.


Stacking the decks

Friday, June 18, 2010

Gamblers who cheat at cards appear to be playing a new line in chips that's leaving casino operators in Macau down by tens of millions of dollars.

Not for the latest generation of cheats the ace up the sleeve, marked cards, dealing from the bottom of a deck, reading signals from an accomplice scanning other gamblers' hands or paying off a dealer to help bamboozle the house.

Some of those old-style chicaneries required sleight-of-hand skills honed by hour upon hour of practice combined with boundless patience, but there's no need for such disciplines today.

For cheats have almost certainly turned to their advantage some new technology favored by Macau casinos - cards with embedded chips to confirm face values and supposedly ensure security - at the baccarat tables.

They have put their money on miniature scanners that can read the electronic cards before they are dealt.

The high-tech twist has left casino cheat-seekers at a loss. All they have is the belief that scanners are concealed in rings and pendants.

So casino personnel have been put on high alert for flashy people on winning streaks, because operators have not found a way to counter the scanner.

They have not even grabbed someone using such a gadget, and no casino appears to have made a report to police.

But more than 10 Macau casinos admit privately to being hit, with losses in excess of HK$30 million.

The only effective way to trump these cheats, experts reckon, is for casinos to throw up their hands and overhaul the electronic card system on which they have laid out huge sums in recent years.

But leaning heavily on a bejeweled patron on the suspicion that behind their glitter is hidden a scanner could rebound on the casinos, operators fear.

After all, some gamblers who provide casinos with bonus paydays are people who flaunt their wealth with costly adornments. They would not take kindly to being manhandled and checked over in VIP areas where high- tech cheating appears to be concentrated.

So, for now, jewelry-flashing people are simply being watched for body language and behavior that might give the game away.

"The casino where I work requires all service assistants in the VIP hall and big-bet areas to pay special attention to customers wearing big rings and report to security if anything suspicious is seen," says manager Ms Chen. She knows of two other casinos that have issued the same order after being hit.

The cheating streak comes despite substantial outlays by gaming resorts and casinos on blending security systems with their luxury trimmings.

Among them are metal detectors at entrances, closed-circuit television systems that can scan the floor or zoom in on someone to check every movement, and cards embedded with what are supposed to be security-smart chips.

There is also the human element. Besides floor-walking cheat-seekers, dealers go through rigorous training so they can pick up on rogue gamblers.

Casino operators believe they have foiled most would-be cheats - until now. Technologies and human sensors cannot blind what they say are "magic eyes" that see through electronic cards.

After checking CCTV footage, experts think codes in the cards have been cracked. They are now trying to pin down exactly how crooks use this knowledge to rack up winnings.

A senior executive of a group of casinos, John, recalls: "About three weeks ago there appeared to be some extremely lucky customers in the VIP hall and big-bet areas.

"All of them played baccarat. They lost when the bet was small but won every time a game was heavily backed. Someone even won more than 100 games non-stop and collected a few million dollars."

In baccarat, deuces to nines are worth their face value in points, 10s, jacks, queens and kings are zero, and aces one point.

There are two hands on which anyone can bet - "Banker" or "Player." Each hand initially gets two cards, but there are rules that allow either hand to hit for a third. A hand's score is either the sum of its cards, or the second digit of the sum if it is more than nine. For example, a hand consisting of a deuce and a three card is worth five, a hand of six, a seven and a king come to three, and a four and a six is zero. The highest score that can be achieved is nine.

The electronic cards used in Macau have codes for different face values and - with a link to a dealer's electronic shoe - every card given out is recorded. A computer calculates results instantly at the end of a game, and a dealer inputs the result at the same time. There's a warning sound if results differ.

Casinos spend considerable sums to make this happen. Every deck of electronic cards is worth HK$120. The high cost is due to the anti-cheating features, which include picking up on a dealer in cahoots with a gambler.

Gambling corporations have an exclusive producer of these cards, and each operator has unique codes. But as John points out, the cheats appear to have hit on a common system to get around the differences, which is where jewelry comes into the picture.

"We have not found evidence of cheating," says John, "but in all games when the casino dropped big money the cards had been cut by customers with big rings or bracelets. One was holding a black cigarette case-size box when cutting the cards.

"We cannot exclude the possibility there are scanners in the customers' accessories. The scanner can read the code when cards are being cut, so gamblers know the cards' order and can bet heavily on a game they are sure to win."

Flaunting of jewelry

Generally, customers are not allowed to cut the cards. But that rule can go by the board in VIP and big-bet areas, where gamblers have lately enjoyed suspicious success. Security personnel who have zeroed in on those areas spotted the flaunting of jewelry.

Is a scanner within a bauble capable of taking a casino for millions of dollars?

Certainly, says Tsang Kim-fung, a professor of electronic engineering at City University of Hong Kong.

"The principle of the electronic card is the same as the Octopus card. A scanner can read the data of the chip within the card very easily."

He adds: "Some advanced countries are able to produce mini scanners that can be put in a ring, but it must be expensive."

A scanner's reading of the cards' codes is the start of the rip-off. Next, the cheat must turn to a computer to analyze the code to learn the order of the cards.

But a pair of electronic shoes takes eight decks of cards, so the cheat has enough time to leave the table to analyze the data before going for the money.

As John points out, a cheat can cut the cards and learn the code of the first few, but they will not be dealt until after several sets of games.

Reputations and social standing

"A cheat can bet small on the first few games and then go out to use a computer to analyze the order. After the order is memorized, they go back and bet heavily."

Mike, the owner of another casino that appears to have been hit, says the reputations and social standing of some high-wagering patrons must be considered, so action like a body check is rare.

"Our customers are rich," Mike says. "They wear multi-carat diamond jewelry, luxury watches."

They also have whims. As Mike points out, "most are superstitious and want to cut the cards before placing a bet. We've allowed them to do so in the past, and it would be hard for us to suddenly stop them from doing so now."

The answer, say industry experts, is for casinos to replace the electronic cards as soon as possible. That could mean them suspending business for a couple of days to update computer database.

It remains to be seen, however, whether another generation of electronic cards can stop tech-savvy cheats.

As Mike notes, his casino has not made reports to police because there is a lack of evidence about how existing systems are being exploited. So how do you bet on something new?

For now, it seems, casino operators must simply rely on the human eye to spot the gaps into which cheats are moving while awaiting a return on efforts by card producers to come up with a system that prevents codes being cracked.

Edited by MVSeahog
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I think some of these casinos are getting overly paranoid. They think anyone who wins must be cheating. I've been accused of cheating many times but NEVER have. We see articles and TV shows about player cheating all the time. These shows are promoted by casinos. But ha, we never see a show about CASINO cheating. I think casino cheating is far more rampant than player cheating. I've caught casinos cheating hundreds of times. I've only seen players cheating a very few times. I think casinos promote these stories to smoke screen their OWN cheating.

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