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COUNTER-ESPIONAGE: CASINO SURVEILLANCE TURNS THE TABLES ON CARD COUNTERS
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COUNTER-ESPIONAGE: CASINO SURVEILLANCE TURNS THE TABLES ON CARD COUNTERS
By Arnold Snyder
(From Blackjack Forum Vol. XVIII #1, Spring 1998)
© 1998 Blackjack Forum Online
This article was initially titled: "The Two Faces of Camouflage." My original outline had Part I dealing with the camouflage techniques card counters and other advantage players can use to disguise their skills from the casinos. Various Blackjack Forum writers and reporters — including G.K. Schroeder and Jim Taylor — contributed their thoughts on this subject. Part II went into the methods the casinos have been known to use to hide their surveillance efforts from players.
A month ago, I realized that this feature had grown too large for a single issue; I had to split the article into two issues. As I have continued to work on both articles, I've also recently decided to publish Part II first, in this issue of Blackjack Forum, with Part I to follow in the next issue. This was not a coin-flip decision on my part, but a decision based upon what I see as exigency.
Most of the books on card counting published in the past 3+ decades have provided varying amounts of advice on camouflage, always from the blackjack players' perspective. Little has been written, however, on the devious tactics used by the casinos to hide their own surveillance spies. Many players are unaware of the fact that the casinos' espionage efforts often go well beyond the eye-in-the-sky.
This article provides no information whatsoever on how to play blackjack. There are no strategies, no system evaluations, no game recommendations, no tips on how to win. Yet, I believe this to be one of the most important articles we have ever published in this magazine. I suspect that many players will become angry reading what is contained herein. Not as angry, however, as the casino spies who find themselves, and their tricks, exposed. Longtime friends I have on both sides of the table — and I do have friends within the casino industry — may write me off their Xmas card lists this year, but I will let the chips fall where they may.
My obligation, as always, is to my readers. The information herein is what you, my faithful flock, need to know. And, I think you will agree, many card counters need to know this now.
In the next issue of Blackjack Forum, we'll look at camouflage from a more comfortable perspective. Knowing that many casino spies read this magazine, we'll focus on the art and science of camouflage, rather than on specific ploys that would educate the spies as well as you.
For now, let's delve into the dark side of casino surveillance, beyond the hidden cameras . . .
Harrah's Sneaks In
Every coin has two sides. Never forget that the casinos are every bit as devious as you are when it comes to camouflage, and they will sometimes go to great lengths to disguise their spies. I learned firsthand about how serious the casinos took this business twelve years ago. (See Blackjack Forum, Dec '86, "A Spy in the House of Zen.")
At the time, I was still a mailman, but once a month I was hosting "Blackjack Roundtables" in my Oakland apartment. I publicized these meetings in Blackjack Forum, which at that time had fewer than 1,000 subscribers. The Roundtables were informal discussion groups where mostly local Bay Area card counters and blackjack aficionados could meet and trade stories. Occasionally, out-of-town Blackjack Forum subscribers would show up if they were vacationing in San Francisco, but these meetings were generally small (12-36 attendees), always held in my livingroom. Admission was $12.
Unbeknownst to me, one fine evening Harrah's Tahoe Casino in Stateline, Nevada, sent a pit floor supervisor down to one of the meetings. I learned about this when a local Berkeley doctor, who had long been a comped guest at Harrah's when he went to Tahoe, was barred on sight when he showed up at the casino to play one weekend.
Harrah's was up front with him about the reason for the barring. "You attended Arnold Snyder's Blackjack Roundtable last month," the pit boss explained. The dumbfounded doctor was shocked when the floorman then announced, "I was there." When the doctor tried to play at Harvey's across the street the next morning, another Tahoe casino where he had long been a comped guest, he immediately found himself surrounded by security guards. He was ordered to leave the casino. Harrah's had apparently alerted the other Tahoe casinos that this high rolling doctor was a dangerous pro. The doctor called me from Nevada from a pay phone, in a very agitated state of mind, as soon as he had left Harvey's Casino.
"You'd better tell everyone who attended that Roundtable last month they can't play at Harrah's anymore," he said. "Their floorman recognized me, and I recognized him. He was there."
The thought that a casino would send an employee 200 miles into a different state, posing as a player for the purpose of spying on card counters, opened my eyes to the lengths the casinos would go to in order to find card counters.
Not long after this, I learned of another counter-espionage ploy being used in Las Vegas and Laughlin to identify professional blackjack teams. According to the late Paul Keen, my Las Vegas reporter at that time, ex-Uston teammate turned freelance counter catcher, Howard Grossman, had been training attractive women, who had become colloquially known as "Howie's Angels," to flirt with big players who were suspected of having team affiliations. According to Paul, the women would allow themselves to be "picked up" by the players in order to meet their friends and associates, get room numbers, license plate numbers and anything else they could gather to expose team operations. Paul said that when the big teams learned about this — some of them the hard way — they finally got very serious about enforcing team policies against associating with non-team members during playing trips.
As Paul put it (paraphrased to the best of my recollection): "Howie knew what these guys were like. He had been there. He was one of them. Card counters have the same mentality as the casinos — they think women are dumb. If I had wanted to get myself into a private team meeting, I couldn't do it to save my life. But some of these guys thought nothing of dragging along the bimbos they'd picked up that day by flashing wads of money around the tables — hookers, cocktail waitresses, any babe would do — women were like trophies to some of these guys. Remember all those photos Uston put in his books, where he's got an unidentified babe hanging on each arm? The 'Angels' put an end to that kind of thinking!"
Other Las Vegas counters told me stories about Howie's Angels for a period of time in the mid-to-late '80s. Unfortunately, Paul Keen — my original source — isn't around anymore to provide any more information on this, and I lost contact with Howard Grossman years ago. (In the early '80s, he contributed items to this publication occasionally. I'm not so sure he'd be interested in divulging much about this sordid episode in his life in any case!) I called Anthony Curtis, who knew both Paul and Grossman back then. I asked him if he'd ever heard of Howie's Angels.
He laughed. "Heard of them?" he said. "I dated one of them!"
He couldn't provide much in the way of juicy details, other than that he'd gone out with a woman back in the mid-'80's who had been trained to count cards by Grossman, and that the term "Howie's Angels" was well-known to the local Vegas counters.
One of the easiest ways these days for the casinos to infiltrate the ranks of card counters is over the Internet. Every day in cyberspace, you can find card counters electronically congregated, sharing vast quantities of information. You may enter these discussions anonymously, and represent yourself as being anyone you want to be.
In the Spring '97 issue of Blackjack Forum, I stated:
" . . . casino personnel are lurking on every gambling website, and are specifically targeting the 'players only' forums and chat rooms . . . There are no 'players only' areas on the web! 'Safe' areas are a myth! Surveillance guys are just like writers; they go wherever the hell they want, and they believe they have a right to do this, by hook or by crook. It's their job! They're paid to do this . . . I know five players who have been added to the Griffin book . . . because of information initially published 'anonymously' on a popular blackjack web page. Casino personnel read the posts, put two and two together, and identified the players. Protect yourself. Always assume that anything you post on the Internet will be read by casino pit and security personnel, possibly at the very casinos where you play."
There were, in fact, five players I knew who found themselves with names (some with photos) in the dreaded Griffin Book as a direct result of posts on a public blackjack Web site.
With respect for these players' privacy, I will only say that a discussion about a unique playing opportunity in a specific location, with a veiled reference to a large blackjack team, led a casino lurker to investigate the possibility that this play might be going down in his casino. He struck pay-dirt. Five big money players who had been welcome comped customers found themselves booted from the blackjack tables in one fell swoop. Within days, they found themselves unable to play in any of the casinos where they had previously been welcome.
They were not yet in Griffin, but — as with that Berkeley doctor in Tahoe — the casinos in this area were now faxing their names and photos around to each other. American casinos refer to these local agreements they have with each other to immediately fax information on suspicious or undesirable players as a S.I.N. (Surveillance Information Network), an appropriate acronym.
I learned about this Web site fiasco from one of the players who called me and asked me to look on the Web site in question to see if I could find the posts that got the team busted. The player told me he'd asked one of the casino hosts whom he'd known for a long time why they had all been barred so suddenly. The host told him there were some Internet posts that made the casino suspicious.
"We never posted anything ourselves," he said, "but one of our guys called a friend about the potential value of the promotion we were playing. He made no mention of the specific casino. Unknown to us, the guy he'd called posted a message about it on that site, and someone else who we don't even know followed up with a message that contained a blackjack team reference. The promotion was unusual, so it wasn't hard for the casino to figure out they were being discussed on the Internet. So, they went looking for a blackjack team and just like that, we were busted." The following month, all five players learned they were in the Griffin Book, perfect examples of the old World War II adage: "Loose lips sink ships."
Many card counters are naive about casino surveillance. In the old days, surveillance was almost solely dependent on the intelligence and experience of the pit boss. If you could fool the boss, you had it made.
Counters who still think this way are setting themselves up for a fall. Surveillance in the major casinos these days takes place behind the scenes. Pit bosses are no longer expected to be detectives and bouncers; they are glorified clerks and bookkeepers who specialize in employee and customer relations. It's their job to continually record player betting levels, making sure the dealers' check racks are replenished as necessary, the cocktail waitresses are keeping the glasses full, the VIPs are getting the comps they want, the dealers are rotating and taking their breaks properly, the number of open tables is appropriate for the crowd conditions, and any disputes that arise in the games are settled quickly and fairly. Keep everything running smoothly; that's the prime job for a pit boss.
Surveillance is a different department. These are real detectives, not former dealers who rose up through the ranks. Surveillance departments today have lots of full-time employees and multi-million dollar budgets. Back in the mid-'80s, Harrah's Tahoe physically sent a floorman 200 miles into California to infiltrate my blackjack roundtable. Today, the surveillance cops don't have to travel so far; they surf the net.
When I go into many of the blackjack web sites today, I am astonished at the amount of sensitive information posted on public message boards by players. There seems to be no consciousness whatsoever that the casino surveillance folks are right there, and in many cases may be the ones who are asking the questions, joining the discussions, and attempting to milk players for whatever they can get out of them.
How Spies Sneak In
I know for a fact that there are casino personnel with passwords even to restricted areas of blackjack Web sites. One casino executive was present when the subscription price of a restricted board was budgeted for the surveillance department.
"Let's just say I was present during a very amusing conversation," this casino person said, "when a couple of casino execs were explaining to the president of the hotel why he had to give them the money to join."
This, in fact, describes the entire process of infiltration. Instead of just cutting a check on an official casino account, surveillance personnel must use personal checks or credit cards, then get reimbursed by the casino. No false ID, fake mustaches, or computer hacking are required.
Last Spring, when Blackjack Forum did its first exposé on casino surveillance systems, we published the name of the president of Casino Software & Services — Oliver Schubert. Casino Software & Services is the Las Vegas company that markets the Blackjack Survey Voice counter-catching software. Stanford Wong must have been chagrined to learn that Schubert was affiliated with this company, because Schubert was also a subscriber to his Black Chip page. Schubert, we might assume, did not send in his subscription payment on the Casino Software & Services checking account. But (luckily?), he had used his real name. So, Wong immediately canceled his Black Chip subscription.
But, is this an effective protection technique? Wong knows it is not, and he has told his subscribers that it is not. Yet, for some reason, this makes them all feel safer, like their privacy has been protected.
Half of the big money card counters I know have credit cards in names other than their own. It is perfectly legal and easy to obtain such cards. Does it not occur to players that if Oliver Schubert wants to read and participate in the Black/Green Chip discussions, all he has to do is call in his credit card order under a different name?
You cannot keep casino people out of restricted areas by simply stating: "No Casino People Allowed." Most casinos have policies that professional card counters are not allowed at their blackjack tables, but do counters still try to sneak in? Counters, even when specifically ordered to leave, often sneak back in, using fake ID, disguises, even risking arrest for trespassing. If Stanford Wong discovers that some girlfriend of an employee of Casino Software & Services has subscribed to the Black Chip, and he suspects that Schubert may have given her the money to do this, and that she may have given Schubert the password, could Wong have Schubert arrested for trespassing? Is there any legal deterrent to keep casino spies out of the so-called restricted areas of players-only web sites? And even if such a deterrent existed, how on earth would Wong discover that someone had a credit card in another name, or a friend who subscribed, or whatever?
I asked Steve Forte — who has been a casino consultant for the past ten years or so — if he knew any casino personnel with access to restricted blackjack Web pages. He said he'd heard casino personnel discussing items they'd read on one of these sites many times, but that he did not know of any specific casino execs who were on it. "But people in surveillance have that spy mentality," he said, "They get into that kind of stuff." A few days later, Steve said, "You asked if I knew any casino people who had passwords to that Web site. Well, I asked one guy I know yesterday, and he says he's been on it from the beginning."
The Futility of Spy Hunting
Other players, who understandably yearn to meet fellow blackjack enthusiasts, attend gatherings of card counters sponsored by various Web sites. With regards to the possibility of casino spies at these types of parties, all I can say is: 12 years ago Harrah's sent a floorman, posing as a player, 200 miles into a private home in Oakland, California; so what are the chances a casino today would send a spy into a public restaurant just down the block from their casino? To me, it's not a question of if there are casino spies at these events, but which of these events have been infiltrated, and which attendees are the spies?
When I quit the roundtables in 1986, many of those who were regular attendees complained. They were nickel bettors with little fear of being barred. They simply loved talking blackjack with other card counters, probably much like many of the party-goers today.
"We'll take our chances," they pleaded with me.
Some suggested that attendees be required to sign statements that they were not affiliated with any casino. I talked with my attorney about what I might do to legally restrict admission to players only. I felt such an immense responsibility for the misery and embarrassment I had caused to this doctor who had just wanted to meet with other blackjack players for camaraderie. But there was no satisfactory solution that I could see. Although I enjoyed the company of nickel bettors, it was the players at the higher end of the spectrum that made the Roundtables such a joy for me, and a real learning experience. It was at a Roundtable where I first met Al Francesco — he just showed up one night. Gustav Shoe, the Mad Russian, Sam Case — all were regular attendees. None of them would ever return.
Two years after they'd started, and at the height of their popularity, the Roundtables were dead. For 12 years I have grieved over the loss of those living room blackjack discussions. They were so much fun, so informative and edu- cational in so many ways. For years I had hungered for this face-to-face contact with other players who shared my passion. The main lesson I learned from the Roundtables, however, was the hardest one of all.
How to Counter Counter-Camouflage
In the Casinos:
I do not know if any casinos still use "angels" to identify counting teams, but it would not surprise me. Also, do not assume that an angel will necessarily pick you up at the tables. If you are suspected, you could just as easily be followed and picked up later in a bar or lounge.
At Public Events:
On the Internet:
Are Public Blackjack Web Sites Too Dangerous?
Public blackjack Web sites can be a worthwhile meeting ground for serious blackjack enthusiasts.
But players who visit these sites must use the sites for what they are, and they are not "players only." Accept this fact, and be careful what you say. Whenever you see others posting dangerous messages, tell them. I often suspect that some of the "loose lips" posts that appear on many blackjack web sites may be placed by casino personnel. If you play at the comp level, it is reckless to publicly announce the dates you will be in Reno or Las Vegas for the purpose of setting up meetings with strangers.
When someone on the web appears to be trying to get personal information out of another subscriber, be suspicious. It is not necessary to fling accusations at others. Give all the benefit of the doubt; assume that some players are naive rather than evil.
The casino surveillance departments already buy every book and software program that comes on the market. I know this because they contact me with questions about these products.
The casino spies are no longer all sitting in the surveillance video rooms looking at monitors. They are actively seeking out the players who threaten their tables. And they are seeking them out in their homes. Don't find yourself barred because of "anonymous" words you posted on the Internet from the comfort of your living room. Get your head out of the sand. Take this business as seriously as the casinos do. Protect yourself. ♠
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