Stories From Casino Surveillance
The Blind Man versus the Eye: Stories from Casino SurveillanceBy D.V. Cellini
(First published in Casino Player, March 2004
© 2005 Blackjack Forum Online
It was a beautiful spring afternoon, a perfect day for heading out of Reno to the nearby Sierras, maybe even a drive to Lake Tahoe. But there I was, sitting in the dark, the only light provided by a glowing bank of some 50 TV screens on the semi-circular wall in front of me in the casino surveillance room. The only way I knew it wasn’t snowing outside was because of the view afforded to me via the cameras mounted outside in the casino parking lot. Surveillance is a life where you watch the seasons change on 14x14-inch TV screens.
I got a call from a pit boss, who advised me that the gentleman who had just sat down to play blackjack on BJ-13 was visually impaired and that the dealer was going to have to slow the game down and read the cards out loud to him. "The dealer might be placing his bets for him too," the pit boss said. "He’s not totally blind but he can’t make out the cheque values very well." This was shortly after the federal government had passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and casinos were somewhat sincere in attempting to adhere to these new federal guidelines.
I brought up the surveillance camera on BJ-13 and watched as this poor gentleman used his glasses the way Sherlock Holmes used his magnifying glass in the old movies with Basil Rathbone. Needless to say, I felt pity for this man as he struggled, holding his glasses by the earpieces, moving them in and out on the cards to try and distinguish the values.
I turned my head (and my surveillance camera) so as not to feel guilty for staring. He obviously had some sight, and he was trying his damnedest, so I just hoped the dealer would be polite and patient and as helpful as possible. It was a slow afternoon, so nobody was concerned about him slowing the game pace down for other players. There were lots of open seats at other tables.
I checked up on BJ-13 every once in a while and noticed that the floor person also showed some compassion and stayed away from the table. The pit boss didn’t hawk the game and he wasn’t giving the dealer a hard time about the fact that she wasn’t dealing to "casino standards." After an hour, the blind man was ahead well over $5000. I remember thinking, "That’s nice."
After 90 minutes had passed, I got a call from the casino shift manager (CSM) advising me that a Mr. X on BJ-13 was up over $7000. I remember saying, "Well, bless his soul, you know he’s legally blind." The CSM was not aware of this player being visually impaired, and he quickly responded, and I quote: "Well, bless his soul."
Another hour passed and I just happened to pull BJ-13 up on the monitor again, just in time to see the player doing the strangest thing. With no one in the pit paying the slightest bit of attention, he palmed three pink ($500) cheques, swung them to the back of his head, and allowed them to fall down the back of his shirt.
My first instinct was to doubt my own eyes. Why would this valiant blind man be "going south" with his cheques? To a surveillance observer, this could mean only one thing: he was a card counter. Normal gamblers don’t hide their winnings. They’re proud of their winnings. Any time we see a blackjack player surreptitiously removing cheques from the table and hiding them in his pockets—or especially in an unusual place like in his socks or down his shirt—it’s considered a sign of a professional player who is trying to either evade the reporting laws or hide from the pit how much he’s won.
I decided I’d better watch this game, but a few minutes later, the player requested a floor person escort him to the cage so that he could cash out his winnings, which now exceeded $9000 (though I had no idea how many cheques he may have taken off the table and dropped down his shirt or elsewhere!). He cashed out his cheques and appeared to insist that the pit boss allow him to find his own way to the front doors and the taxi stand.
I watched as he inched his way out the door, feeling the walls and using his glasses as magnifying lenses to gain his bearings. Had I not been alone in the surveillance room, I would have run down there and helped this poor guy myself. Still, he made it out the door, and I was ready to return to other duties as soon as I made sure that he made it safely into a cab, when he did what I can only describe as "skip" across the parking lot to a brand new Corvette. I then watched in astonishment as a couple of other guys joined up with him to do some sort of "victory dance" before he got into the car. He was driving! That’s when I knew for certain: He was a card counter.
Not only did he take us for a bundle that afternoon, but he also had the dealers reading his cards to him, playing his hands, and placing his bets according to his instructions! After the tape review, I was shocked to see that the dealers had given him unheard of penetration, a relaxed shuffle, and even—on the part of one dealer—three "sympathy hands" (costing the casino $400). I could have easily had that dealer terminated for that, but I never advised the pit boss or the CSM. In all honesty, I was ashamed of the fact that I too had been taken out. I figured I would just keep my mouth shut that afternoon and nobody would ever be the wiser.
Real Life in Casino Surveillance vs. the Discovery Channel
If you’re a fan of the Discovery Channel, you’ve probably seen numerous specials on Las Vegas in which you are taken behind the scenes into the surveillance room, where the surveillance observers watch over the casino gaming areas searching for cheaters and scams. Actually, because of the intensive surveillance, there really isn’t much cheating taking place in casinos. Casinos are among the safest public places to be with large amounts of cash in your pockets. Banks get robbed more often than casinos do.
Very few criminals like to work on camera, surrounded by security guards with guns. We catch more casino employees trying to pocket house money than we do players trying to cheat at the tables. There is an old saying that more money goes out the employee exit than the front doors. And on that point, the average department store probably has much more employee theft than the average casino. Casinos are truly among the safest and most honest environments on the planet, no doubt because of surveillance.
What we really spend most of our time doing behind those mirrors and cameras is looking for honest players who simply have the ability to beat the house fair and square. To spell it out: we’re looking for card counters. The counter may be honest, and following all the house rules and regulations, but—like it or not—he is simply not tolerated by the casinos because of his intelligence. The casinos do not want professional players as customers. It is a primary function of surveillance to identify card counters.
In the case of the "blind" counter, that player made only one mistake. He tried to hide his winnings by "rat-holing" cheques. Only card counters do this, and it is one of the "tells" that surveillance observers watch for when scanning the pits for suspicious activity. (My mistake was bigger than his: I bought his act from the start and failed to monitor his play.)
Most surveillance observers know how to count cards (it’s a job requirement!), so many do count cards at other properties when they are not on duty. Because of this, most surveillance observers are also pretty good at palming cheques and going south with them. I’m not saying most surveillance observers are "professional" players by any means; they’re not. Most play for small stakes when they play. I’m just saying it’s not easy to trick someone who does the same trick.
Most casino employees dislike surveillance department employees because they’re considered the tattletales of the industry. Casino workers are the most spied-upon employees in the private sector, constantly watched, scrutinized, and tape-recorded by a "spy" they can’t see or hear. My dad, who worked in the industry, called surveillance people "snipers."
Most surveillance departments today could actually be considered an extension of the casino/hotel accounting department, doing audits and tape reviews on gift shops, bars, buffets—anywhere there’s a cash register or cheques. This accounts for a good portion of a surveillance employee’s eight-hour shift, and contributes to the universal dislike of surveillance by thousands of other employees.
This dislike of surveillance even extends to the casino executives and upper management. In fact, the only reason surveillance departments exist in many small casinos is the mandatory gaming regulations in all states where gaming is legal. When you work in surveillance, the very company you work for dislikes you, partly because, as a non-revenue-generating department, you are considered a "drain" on the company’s profits, and partly because one of the duties of your job is to spy on and audit the company itself, in order to report to the state and federal government agencies any internal violations.
Because of the amount of cash that flows across the casino gaming tables, and the immense potential for "funny business," surveillance is mandated by every gaming jurisdiction in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Puerto Rico, and Europe. (I would not recommend you take a chance on being dubbed a "card counter" in any country or region that lacks surveillance safeguards, since they tend to consider intelligent players serious threats, or even cheaters. You may have no rights in these countries except for the courtesies extended to you by the United States consulate’s office or the American embassy, and that’s if you’re even allowed to make a phone call.)
A Day in the Life of a Casino Surveillance Observer
Let’s take a look into the casino surveillance observer’s world.
For most of his day, he sits in a dark room and tries to watch and comprehend about 50 TV sets at the same time, with no sound (talk about a one-dimensional world), tuned to 50 different channels, all crammed into an area of about 40’x 40’. He also has a slew of reports, tape changes, phone calls, computer inputs, etc., to do throughout the day, all while he is supposed to be watching those 50 monitors.
Typically, he’s expected to show up about 15 minutes prior to shift change. This allows time for the prior shift to pass on any pertinent information. When the oncoming shift asks, "What’s going on?" it’s a serious question. They want to know who, what, where, why, when, and how much. There is very little room for humor in this environment. A mistake on an observer’s behalf can cost him his job. Among the various assignments that surveillance observers are expected to complete, depending on the shift, include:
• Check recorders. Verify that all are on and recording.
• Check monitor status. Verify that all are on and working correctly.
• Check all quad units (these are VCRs that record data from four separate cameras simultaneously). Verify that all are recording in the quad mode and not recording single shots.
• Check sequencers. Verify that they are sequencing and not locked on one particular shot.
• Check the pass-on sheet, reports, logs, and get the low down on any players who are presently in action. Read the findings of any playing-skill investigations.
• Check for new "alerts" on professional players known to be in the area, and read the daily "hit sheet" (a list of active players on property and their credit limits).
• Set tapes out in preparation for a tape change (and also check each individual tape to verify that it is rewound and in good working condition as you set it next to its respective VCR).
• Sign on to your computer station. Verify the daily list of players. Search for any discrepancies.
• Do a complete camera check. Verify that all cameras are in good working order and each one is pointing at its correct position. Report any problems to the tech on duty. Place your priority camera shots (the single- & double-deck games) on your front-working monitors.
• Do a complete camera sweep of the entire casino grounds and casino gaming floor, and note any suspicious people, players, dealers, etc. (This is done every few minutes throughout every shift.)
• Monitor and record the table count and table drop (the act of removing the money intake boxes mounted on the table games).
• Monitor and record the slot drop (the act of emptying the coins from the slot machines).
• Monitor and record the validator drop (the act of removing the bill acceptors from slot machines).
• Go to lunch for 30 minutes if you are lucky and time permits; if not, grab something and eat at your station.
• Change tapes.
• Track employees’ whereabouts (via their swipe badges).
• Answer phone calls from the pit pertaining to high rollers, suspicious activity, possible dealer errors (sweeping winning wagers, marking incorrect numbers, etc.), and customer complaints due to financial disputes or other errors.
• Audit and balance receipts from the different casino-owned stores and shops.
• Audit all markers over $5000.
• Do game-pace audits. (Are the dealers meeting house standards on hands dealt per hour, shuffle time, etc.?
• Run table games down to match the table card totals. All totals must match.
• Do player skills checks when requested.
Part of carrying out these duties is an endless stream of paperwork. The paperwork that a typical agent must turn in during his shift dwarfs the typical long-form tax return. Anything and everything that might appear suspicious must be input into the computer, or logged on the observer’s "daily occurrence sheet," and passed on to the next shift with his findings or suspicions.
Anything over and above these daily duties is based on the observer’s intuition, training, curiosity, and motivation. Some observers go out of their way to scrutinize anything that just doesn’t look right. Observers are also often assigned special tasks, otherwise known as "specials" or "special observations" ("special obs").
Casino Surveillance Special Observations
Specials consist of watching and scrutinizing every single move that a "target" makes, and can last from as little as one minute to as long as one month, depending on what surveillance is looking for. A target can be an employee of the casino or a patron. If theft is suspected, a special will be ordered and maintained until either the general manager or the director of surveillance is satisfied with the result.
I’ve seen some specials go for more than a month. Can you imagine being under the microscope for over a month? It’s no picnic for the observer either. The average person can’t begin to imagine what people do when they think they’re not being watched. This includes displays of nudity, theft (wife stole husband’s cheques when he went to the restroom!), and violence. I’ve even seen two floor people go after each other in the middle of a pit with all tables open. Nobody blinked an eye except for the floor person who got the black eye.
Most casino surveillance departments also have "red flagged" blackjack players, who have proven themselves to be what we call "better than basic" players. They border on good-to-perfect strategy. The red flag goes up because of a player’s so-called "bold moves," which indicate the player may be a card counter.
It is a primary duty of the surveillance observer to concentrate on any and every red-flagged player whenever that player is in the casino. To make a long story short, the surveillance observer is there to detect and report, without getting personally involved. All casinos specifically prohibit surveillance people from getting involved with any altercations on the floor.
Casinos are environments unlike any place else in the world. This unique form of "entertainment," driven by vast amounts of money, can only be kept honest and fair by constant vigilance. The casino depends on surveillance, as do the customers. Casinos as they operate today could not exist without surveillance departments. The world of the surveillance observer is very cold and isolated, but still, they try to keep a sense of humor about this crazy environment they monitor, where paupers sometimes become millionaires, millionaires become paupers, and blind men sometimes see better than you do.
One of my favorite stories took place at the now-defunct Dunes casino in Las Vegas in the early 80s. In those days the Dunes used to have a humidor-type box in every pit, filled with single smokes that the floor supervisors would give away to players.
Well, it seems that a pit’s cigarette supply was diminishing at too rapid a rate. The shift manager advised the pit boss of his suspicion that some employee might be stealing them. He told the pit boss, "Do me a favor. Keep an eye on the cigarettes." Later that week, a blackjack card counting team came in and whacked a table in that pit for well over 50 grand. The next day, the shift manager asked the pit boss, "What the hell happened down there last night on BJ-X?" The pit boss responded, "I don’t know. I was watching the cigarettes.
[Portions of this article were excerpted from The Card Counter's Guide to Casino Surveillance by D.V. Cellini, an Arnold Snyder Professional Gambling Report.] ♠
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