Casino Surveillance Director Talks
Surveillance TalksBy Arnold Snyder
(From Blackjack Forum Vol. XXI #4, Winter 2001/02)
© 2002 Blackjack Forum Online
[I asked a casino surveillance director if he would do an interview for Blackjack Forum. I told him he could be anonymous. No name. No pictures. Any question I asked about surveillance that he didnít want to answer, all he had to do was say so. Weíd skip to the next one. I just asked that he give me whatever honest information on casino surveillance he could give for card counters and other professional gamblers.
What follows is a transcript, almost verbatim, of the interview. He answered every question I asked. The only portions I removed were sections where he had second thoughts after he had responded. He asked me not to print these few remarks, not because of the sensitivity of the information provided, but because he felt his responses might reveal his identity to some other casino surveillance people who knew him.]
Q. How long have you been working in casino surveillance?
A. Iíve worked in surveillance for about fifteen years. Iíve worked in nine casinos of which three are on the Las Vegas Strip, where I am currently working.
Q. Have you worked in any other casino industry jobs?
A. I broke in as a dealer in the early 70s and dealt for fourÖ five years. Then I was promoted to the floor and stayed there for four years. Around 1981, I became a pit boss, which I quit after three years because of the politics. Later on, in 1986, I took a position in surveillance and never left. I like it.
Q. Have you ever been a serious player, such as a card counter or other type of gambling pro?
A. No. I never was a serious player but I have dear friends who are and when I do play I will only play with an advantage.
Q. Can you explain that?
A. Iíd rather not.
Q. In a major Strip casino, how many surveillance personnel are on staff, that would be on duty on a busy Saturday night, as opposed to a slow weekday morning?
A. At my casino, on an average, there are anywhere up to five people on duty in the surveillance room, and on a slow night there will only be three, maybe four with the supervisor.
How Casino Surveillance Detects Professional Players
Q. How do you decide whom to watch from the eye in the sky?
A. A phone call from the pit. Usually a pit boss will call up and ask us to watch someone. Or if a player is a continuous winner over several trips he will be observed.
Q. How prevalent is computer software in analyzing blackjack playersí skill levels?
A. Itís used different amounts by different casinos. I am not a big fan of blackjack analysis software because camouflage plays could throw it off if you only look at a short session of play. I donít know of any surveillance monitor operators who care for it, and some donít even take it seriously.
Q. Is this type of software ever used by casinos to evaluate play for comp purposes?
A. No. Comps are based strictly on the game played, average wager, and the amount of time played. I think itís outrageous that many casino pit personnel are ignorant of how to evaluate a playerís value, or potential value.
Say a new patron walks into a casino and plays roulette, 5.26% house advantage, for several hundred dollars a spin for five to six spins and then asks for a comp to the buffet. A floor supervisor then informs the player that he does not have enough play time. Whereís the logic?
Q. Is this surveillance software ever used "live," in casinos, on blackjack games in progress, or is it only used later, on videos of play?
A. I donít know anyone who can use it fast enough for live play, so usually it is done later with video playback.
Q. In detecting card counters, is the blackjack software faster and/or more accurate than human surveillance personnel trained to recognize card-counting strategies?
A. I personally feel nothing can take the place of a trained individual.
Q. If a player is winning big, will he automatically be evaluated?
A. No. But if bet spreads raise an eyebrow in the pit, then we will be notified and we might watch him. We will definitely bring the individual up on a monitor but that will not be our first priority if bet spreads and good basic strategy combined are not also factors.
Q. How much of a win, or how many hours of winning, will trigger an investigation of play in a Las Vegas casino?
A. In our casino as soon as someone is winning $5,000 we are notified.
Q. Will all blackjack players be evaluated for both card-counting and shuffle-tracking skills?
A. No. Shuffle-tracking is simply not understood by many casino employees. Everyone uses the term but couldnít identify one. It is such a hard area to do well and even a harder area to detect. The fact is, few, if any, players can beat the shuffles.
Q. In a typical month in a major casino, how many players will be found to be card counters, shuffle trackers, and actual cheaters?
A. Card counters, we average six to seven a month. Shuffle trackers, about two to three, simply because they are in Biometrica as a tracker, not because we catch them.
Cheaters, about one to four in a month, usually slots, and half are usually employees stealing coins when filling the machines.
Casino Surveillance Services
Q. For casinos that subscribe to Griffin or Biometrica, is the service used extensively, say, on a daily basis?
A. Yes. As soon as we get a call from the pit about a patron, the first thing we do is see if the person is in Griffin or Biometrica. If he is, it makes our jobs easier.
Q. What percentage of major casinos would you estimate use Biometrica, Griffin, or both?
A. Eighty to ninety percent use Biometrica and Iíd say forty percent use Griffin. Some casinos use both. This is based on talking to some of the other surveillance directors and is not a scientific estimate by any means. It seems to me Biometrica has really been taking over.
Q. Who in the casino decides if a player is to be added to Griffin or Biometrica?
A. We take a picture of the individual and state the reasons why we think this person is a counter, and the agencies decide whether or not to put him or her into the system. We can, however, send the individualís picture directly to other casinos using Biometrica and ask them if anyone has information on the person.
Q. How well does Biometrica work, and what is the usage procedure?
A. Biometrica does work well in my opinion but, letís face it, it is only as good as the people who use it. It is easier to use Biometrica because if we take a picture of a someone who is in the system the computer will find out who the person is because of the facial recognition device.
Q. Are players ever entered solely because of association with known card counters?
A. Absolutely. Guilt by association, I guess.
Q. If a player is in Griffin or Biometrica as a counter, is it assumed that the entry is correct, or will his play be watched?
A. If heís in the book, heís history.
Q. How do SINs (Surveillance Information Networks) work?
A. As soon as a person is a suspected undesirable a picture is taken and sent to all the other joints warning or asking about them.
Q. If a known pro counter is discovered in a Strip casino, will other Strip casinos be immediately notified?
Q. If a player is winning inordinately, yet no explanation other than luck can be found, i.e., no counting, no tracking, no hole-card play, no devices, how long will the player be allowed to keep on winning? Is there some number of hours? Any dollar amount? Do all casinos have a pain-tolerance limit?
A. If the player is given a clean bill then we will keep letting him play, but with deterring methods ó cutting shoes in half, changing dealers, and so on.
Q. If such a player is removed simply for inordinate wins, though nothing but luck presents an explanation, would such a player be a candidate for entry in Griffin or Biometrica?
A. No, because you have to explain to them why. But the individual will be in the house computer.
Q. Are players ever entered in Griffin or Biometrica simply because casino personnel dislike them?
Casino Surveillance Skill Levels
Q. How competent would you say the average surveillance person is at detecting card counters, shuffle trackers, and hole-card players?
A. Card counters: An amateur counter will be caught immediately. A professional, with no outrageous spreads, camouflage at the right times, etcetera, will have some longevity. Shuffle trackers: not much chance of getting caught. Hole-card players: not much chance of getting caught ó providing greed is not a factor. Really bizarre plays can give them away.
Q. Which casinos have the strongest surveillance departments? And the weakest?
A. I really canít say because there are good individual surveillance personnel but people are always moving from joint to joint. However, even when the "good ones" are in the room, they canít watch everything. Remember, we are not just concentrating on blackjack. We have the other games to watch, slots, markers, escorts, log books to fill out...
Q. Which casino games other than blackjack are of the most concern to surveillance?
A. Depends on the hold. If certain games arenít holding what they should, we watch them for employee theft, biased wheels, etc.
Q. How much playing time, or number of hands, would be input in a Blackjack Survey Voice analysis to look for skillful play?
A. Generally, one to two shoes to look for a good plus count to see what that person did when the count was good.
Q. How often are outside consultants called to evaluate play?
A. Outside consultants are rarely called in to evaluate play. Usually all the casinos have a resident expert who does the evaluation. Out of all the consultants I have seen over the years, there have been only two who were worth their weight in gold. One is fully retired and enjoying family life, and the other works solely for the [deleted] organization.
Q. Do either Griffin or Biometrica offer play evaluation services?
Q. Does Gaming Control ever evaluate play in Nevada?
A. I have never seen them do anything like that.
Casino Surveillance Pay Levels
Q. In a major Las Vegas casino, what is the pay scale for a floor person?
A. The pay varies from joint to joint. Obviously Caesars will pay more than Slots-A-Fun.
Q. On average, though, for a Strip casino, not the biggest and not the smallest, what does a floor man expect on his pay check?
A. $160 a day at the bigger joints. About twenty bucks an hour. It ranges from about $15 an hour at the smaller places on the Strip, to about $25 an hour at the top places.
Q. So, floor personnel get about $40 thousand a year. What about a pit boss?
A. Twice that. About $80 thousand per year. Thatís at the top places. Maybe $60 thousand at the average Strip casinos.
Q. What about the shift manager?
A. A bit more than a boss. Maybe $90 thousand.
Q. How about the casino manager?
A. $120 thousand, plus bonuses.
Q. What about surveillance personnel?
A. Iím embarrassed to tell you.
Q. Whatís the low end?
A. The monitor operators, all they do is sit in front of the screens all day and watch for anything suspicious, they hire in at $8 to $12 per hour. These are also the same personnel who input the Survey Voice data when a skill check is done.
Q. That pay sucks.
A. Thatís the truth. And you get what you pay for. Thereís little incentive to stay in this job. Nobody spends much time studying for it. Surveillance is a transition job.
Q. Whatís the high end of surveillance pay?
A. The surveillance supervisor gets maybe $30 to $40 thousand a year. About the same as a floor man at most places. Pretty low on the salary scale for casino personnel. Itís still a transition job; youíre usually trying to get onto the floor so you can move up.
Q. Why would you leave a pit boss job for a surveillance job?
A. Like I said, politics. Iíve got some other things going also, nothing I want to get into.
Q. What about hosts?
A. Hosts are generally paid pretty well. At the top places, they get paid like a pit boss or shift manager. Maybe $80-100 thousand a year. The really top hosts can get a percentage of the losses of the big players they bring in. These hosts, if theyíre bringing in whales, can make more than the casino manager.
Q. Do these top hosts have any actual salary, other than compensation for bringing in big players who lose?
A. They get compensated very well. Theyíre expected to bring in the top players, and thatís what they get paid for. The good ones really hustle, and they get paid very well. They also get fringe benefits, meaning gifts from their players. Some big players are very generous.
Q. If a host brings in a whale who lucks out and wins a million bucks on a trip, does that mean the host makes no money that month?
A. Like I say, they always get paid, and one lucky player wonít kill their pay check. If theyíre any good, they have lots of players theyíre bringing in. Good hosts make pretty good money. The best ones are at the high end of the pay scale.
Q. Is it ethical for hosts to bring their player lists to another casino if they move?
A. Ethical, no... but thatís how itís done, and everyone accepts that. Thatís how a host gets hired into a bigger joint. They go to player marketing and say, "Iíve got this list of big players from such-and-such casino, and I think I can get them over here. My players love me, and theyíll follow me. Iíve got all their names and numbers, et cetera." Bang, theyíre hired. If they produce the players, they get paid very well. Thatís the way the business works.
Advice to Players
Q. What advice can you give BJF readers who want to avoid detection as card counters?
A. Try not to bring too much attention to yourself, especially with bet spreads. If you are getting heat try some camouflage plays. Also watch the floor supervisor, because if he goes to the phone he is not calling Miss Cleo.
Also, if you are getting heat, leave before the next shift starts. That way no information will be transferred about you.
If you are winning, try to pocket some of the chips without anyone seeing you. If you are wearing a baseball cap and never look up, thatís a big tell. Surveillance will wait until you go to the cage to get a nice Polaroid. If this worries you, then do not cash out ó just leave with the chips. To write more of these could take an article in itself.
Q. I think my readers would be very interested in this article. Give us some more tips.
A. I think itís your job to write that article. The main thing is this: donít go crazy with your spreads. Thatís the biggest give away. If your bets are moving with the count, you canít hide it if youíre watched for any length of time.
Q. What do you look for when evaluating a person?
A. When I evaluate a person the first thing I look at is basic strategy. If a person does play good basic strategy the next area is bet spreads. I will count the deck down and see if the playerís bets are spreading according to the count. I also look for basic strategy deviations along with the spreads.
The same would go for shuffle tracking. For this, I look for the larger amounts of money and see how the hands are played. For example, if a player cuts and bets big off the top and receives a 12 vs. 2 and stands, but later on hits the same hand when the bets are smaller, then I know I might have a tracker. The examples could go on and on because each situation is always different. The best advice I can give is to be careful and know your surroundings.
Q. Do casinos ever do background checks on new players? Say an unknown player calls the casino and he wants to put fifty thousand in the cage to play blackjack. Will they do any investigation to find out who he is?
A. No. They will, of course, check Griffin and Biometrica if they have one of these services, and they will check with other casinos they are connected with. For instance, MGM will check with Mirage, et cetera. Probably, player marketing will ask the player what other casinos he has played at, and they may check with one or two of those joints.
Occasionally, somebody just shows up out of nowhere with fifty thousand to play blackjack, but usually heíll have some kind of playing history. But if heís not in Griffin or Biometrica, we donít look any further than that. Why should we? If heís betting like that, weíll be monitoring his play from the get-go.
Q. Would the casino run any asset checks on such a player? If he has little or no history, are they interested in where this fifty thousand front money came from?
A. Why should we care? If heís putting this up as front money, why ask questions? His moneyís green, thatís all that matters. Now if he wants a fifty thousand credit line, without bringing in the money, thatís different. There will definitely be a credit check done on him. Heíll have to provide his bank information, et cetera, just as if he were applying for a fifty thousand dollar loan ó which, technically, he is.
Q. Any final comments for Blackjack Forum readers?
A. Just be thankful that casino surveillance is on the low end of the pay scale. The surveillance guy watching you on the monitor probably knows a whole lot less than you do about what youíre doing, so you can fool him if youíre careful. Move around the casino a lot to make his job more difficult. Heís not paid well enough to really give a damn. And good luck! ♠
Recommended Books on Casino Surveillance
For a detailed look at the views of the people working the eye-in-the-sky, see D.V. Cellini's The Card Counter's Guide to Casino Surveillance. For information on how professional players avoid detection by surveillance, see Arnold Snyder's Blackbelt in Blackjack.
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