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  • Willy Allison

Surveillance Superman: More than just a Casino Crime Fighter

Updated: Oct 8, 2019

What does surveillance do? Usually when I ask that question, nine out of 10 people will pause for a moment and then answer it with another question: “Are those the guys that watch the cameras?”

I guess that response is to be expected outside the casino industry, given the shroud of mystique casinos have placed around surveillance over the years. But surprisingly, that answer is common even within casino organizations.

Surveillance has never been known for its transparency. Most people know what a casino manager does. Most people know what the hotel manager does or can guess what the security director does. Many surveillance managers go to great lengths to make sure people don’t know what they do. The obvious reason for the cloak-and-dagger strategy is so the casino doesn’t show its entire security hand. Upper management generally endorses this approach, as they prefer to keep an ace in the hole when it comes to who and what’s being watched in their organization.

But to take the blackjack analogy one step further, the problem with not checking to see if there is an ace in the hole is that over a long period of time, your casino can waste a lot of time and lose a lot of money.


There is no standard qualification to be a surveillance manager in the casino business. As an industry, it seems this is the area where we should use the most discretion when choosing people for the job. Of course, this is not uncommon, as most management positions relating to gaming do not require formal qualifications.

It seems when it comes to gaming management, our industry has for decades been happy with a combination of the “next in line” or “who you get along with” approach. I guess this approach is OK as long as, all things being equal, the most knowledgeable individual with a record of performance, enthusiasm and leadership skills gets the job.

But not all properties have a pool of talent with all the necessary skills to manage a surveillance operation. Reasons often vary from lack of training and development to poor succession planning, or simply because of the non-competitive salaries being offered. (I recently almost choked on my vegemite sandwich when I saw an ad for a casino surveillance officer position for $12 an hour. I sometimes wonder if peanuts and bananas would be a more appropriate compensation package.)

For a lot of new casino jurisdictions, it is a challenge to find qualified surveillance managers to open and set up a surveillance operation. Normally, people are hired from another state or jurisdiction, and often they are not familiar with regulatory or cultural differences.

Back in the ’80s and ’90s when Indian casinos exploded onto the scene, there was no choice but to hire from established casino jurisdictions like Nevada. Unfortunately, a number of them had no choice but to take “third- and fourth-string quarterbacks” who had no experience in some of the new security and surveillance technologies, or in opening casinos in different jurisdictions. The main criterion for the position was casino experience, and a lot of them had no leadership or management experience. Unfortunately, a lot of the casinos are still paying for their fumbles today.

Surveillance by definition means close observation, esp. of a suspected spy or criminal. I am not a big fan of the name. It’s a bit “Secret Squirrel” for me. I’m not sure who decided to use it as a term for the casino industry, but I suspect it was someone from the Cold War or Richard Nixon era.

Almost like how they say people grow into the names they are given at birth, I sometimes think some surveillance employees grow into the surveillance name. Even though employees are mainly hired to protect the games, after they get the job title I think some actually think they are responsible for national security, protecting our freedom and stamping out communism.

Surveillance employees are still given titles like agent or officer. Why? Do they have shoe phones and rocket-firing joysticks? Enough already. They get paid to watch games.

Before I started in surveillance back in the 1980s, I first had to complete a comprehensive three-month training program. The program covered all aspects of casino operations, including knowledge of how to play and protect all the table games, slots, cage, count, casino systems of accounting and internal controls, department procedures and policies, operating the CCTV system and legal/regulatory compliance. After training I learned pretty quickly that watching the games was only a part of what surveillance does on a day-to-day basis.

Game protection and integrity is the core purpose of our existence, but over the years the role of surveillance has become broader. The reasons are a combination of many things: a litigious world, human resource challenges, the increase of internal theft and fraud and in some cases, incompetent management. Also, I think the capability of CCTV and new digital technologies has allowed us to assist our business in a variety of new ways.

Fast Forward

With high-tech threats, organized teams and increasing internal theft, game protection and integrity remain the highest priority, but new digital technologies are opening opportunities for surveillance to increase its value as an information hub and resource for the business.

I believe the role of surveillance is generally underutilized in today’s casino environment, but this could change dramatically if upper management realizes the potential of training and technology as a business driver and acts to introduce a new paradigm in casino surveillance.

To initiate change and increase the value of surveillance to the organization, the place to start is the name. Table games have evolved into “live games” and slots have evolved into “electronic games.” Surveillance’s expanded role would be more aptly named “enterprise intelligence.”

The Enterprise Intelligence (E.I.) department would be responsible for gathering, analyzing and disseminating data to ensure gaming integrity, legal and regulatory compliance, operational efficiency and profit protection. E.I. would be the hub for casino information through digital analysis of video images and information systems.

In essence, E.I. would expand its traditional role to include being a supplier of business intelligence to revenue-producing departments.

By expanding the role to provide business intelligence, E.I. would become a valuable resource for the casino. To achieve this would take an initial investment in new hardware/software technologies and interfaces with existing technology.

Alongside the capital expenditure in technology, the human resources would have to be reviewed in terms of numbers. With the measurable return on investment that surveillance would now enjoy, an increase in compensation for qualified, well-trained analysts (that’s my new name for agents and officers) would more than be justified.

Pie in the sky? Not really. The technology is out there. The bigger challenge is developing and establishing a new set of core competencies for E.I. personnel, and in particular surveillance managers.

So what are the core competencies needed to create the Surveillance Superman of the future?

1) Game Protection

The knowledge of game protection should not be lost in the transition from surveillance officer to E.I. analyst. Knowing the games and how to protect them is a dying art and a skill that is unique to our industry. Organized cheating teams continue to develop new technologies and collusion methods to beat casinos, so staying on top of new scams should remain a priority. In fact, in times of economic downturn, it becomes even more important as desperate people rationalize their financial situation and misfortune and turn to theft and cheating.

E.I. would continue to place a high emphasis on game protection. Stakeholders should not be concerned that expanding the role of surveillance would take them away from focusing on cheating and theft. I believe that the people charged with the responsibility for monitoring activity within the casino should be able to brush their teeth and chew gum at the same time. I also think that expanding the scope of monitoring to include more detailed investigation and analysis would result in more chances of detecting cheating and theft, because of the “no stone left unturned” approach?as opposed to the Baywatch approach.


Closed circuit television, and more specifically, the power of video, has evolved leaps and bounds in the 21st century. Digital video is allowing for quicker access to more information through search engine technology.

Unfortunately, fundamental knowledge of CCTV principles and emerging technologies seems to be neglected by a lot of surveillance managers. The only explanation I can think of for this is that they trust and rely on their head technician, consultant or integrator to make the right decisions for them.

This approach may be OK in a casino with an existing system that was installed before their time, but when it comes to expanding and upgrading a system or opening a new property, Surveillance Superman should be well versed in current CCTV technology. It is the largest capital expenditure a surveillance director will sign off on in his or her career.

What makes surveillance directors unique as casino managers is their knowledge of CCTV. The organization counts on them to be the experts in this field and depends on them to spend the money wisely. Surveillance Superman should know the ins and outs of the jet he’s flying.

3) Business Drivers

There’s a scene in the movie White Men Can’t Jump where the two stars have a discussion/disagreement in the car on the way home from a basketball game. One accuses the other of not really being able to “hear” Jimi Hendrix playing on the radio. He claims most white people hear Jimi but can’t “hear” Jimi.

Casinos train staff to know the rules and procedures of the games, but very rarely do they teach them the math behind the games and what drives profit. This information is usually on a need-to-know basis or gained by buying a book.

Surveillance Superman should have a basic understanding of all the products being offered to casino customers and how time and motion, dealing efficiency, rule changes, table conditions and customer service can affect profit margins. Armed with this knowledge and a more business-minded approach to monitoring games that would include game performance along with protection and compliance, Surveillance Superman would be in a better position to not only monitor and report risk and threats but to also advise management on opportunities for increasing profits.

4) Data Analysis and Reporting

When Superman finishes flying around, fighting crime and protecting against evil, he returns to his day job as a reporter for the Daily Planet. His role is to get the stories and report the facts.

In the last decade, the casino industry has invested large sums of money in data-collecting tools. Customer loyalty programs and player tracking systems are common in most casinos today. However, it is widely acknowledged that generally we do a good job collecting data, but not such a good job working out what to do with it.

Surveillance collects a ton of data. Often dictated by regulatory mandates, the collection of video images created on a daily basis alone is enormous. There is a large cost and space requirement to store video information. The irony is that less than 1 percent of this information is ever accessed or used. It just exists for as long as the hard-drive storage capacity will allow it to, before it is rewritten with new information.

People are often surprised to hear that the industry standard for retaining video in casinos is seven days, but stakeholders should rest assured that with 95 percent of incidents or inquiries that require reviewing video, surveillance is advised within five minutes of the event. Surveillance also logs numerous calls and observations on a daily basis. A log is kept as a record for future reference and sometimes used to account for time.

New software systems currently being developed on the market run real-time analysis of video images. Video analytics is not new, but new applications have recently been developed to monitor blackjack and baccarat games. In essence, we are talking intelligent cameras that have the capability to analyze video data real-time, 24/7.

The potential for surveillance technology to play a major part in casino business intelligence strategies is exciting. This technology would ensure that all video data is being analyzed, and not just 1 percent.

Surveillance Superman would be an information and intelligence gatherer, data-miner, analyst and reporter for the organization. The role of surveillance should be more balanced in terms of collection of data and dissemination of data. Think of surveillance as the Daily Planet?reporters searching for the “scoop” through investigation and intelligence and breaking the story with in-depth report and analysis.

To create the surveillance Daily Planet, an emphasis would have to be placed on investigation, analysis, speed and reporting information that customers across the organization are interested in, and can use to assist them and their department to perform better.

To achieve this, it is obvious that a casino organization would have to establish an enterprise solution for data collection that would allow interfacing between all data entry points and mining capabilities to facilitate the process of providing business intelligence. The Daily Planet could effectively become the casino’s central intelligence agency and hub for information. Like any news organization, it is also important to establish external intelligence sources so your internal customers can stay abreast of what’s happening in the industry.

5) Leadership

The kryptonite for Surveillance Superman is bad leadership. A major shift in the surveillance paradigm will take strong leadership and support not only from the head of the surveillance department, but from the casino organization’s CEO or general manager, and the senior management team. We are, of course, talking about change, and that is always challenging in the traditional casino organization environment.

But maybe it’s time for change. Maybe it’s time for the mild-mannered surveillance director to come out of the closet and unleash his superpowers.

The economic challenges that face our industry over the next few years are numerous. Now, more than ever, would be a good time to change into the tights and leap tall buildings in a single bound.


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