• Willy Allison

The Sound of Silence

Why do casinos record video but not audio on their table games? Excuse me, what did you say? I can’t hear you.



Twelve Million Reasons to Record Sound


Have you ever watched a silent movie? OK, but have you ever watched a silent movie for eight hours? 


That’s what it’s like to work in most casino surveillance rooms day after day. Granted the video quality is better and there is no piano music running in the background but apart from the sound of the phone, work stuff and the occasional funny story from a goofy colleague, it is a quiet and isolated place compared to the hustle and bustle of the casino floor.


In contrast, across the pond the UK casino surveillance departments turn the volume up. Surveillance has the capabilty to hear what’s going on at the gaming tables. Microphones are installed on tables to pick up and record conversations between staff and customers during the game. A surveillance operator can listen to a live game or playback the video (with audio) to investigate a dispute or discrepancy. I recently asked a UK casino executive what he thought of audio, to which he immediately replied “how can you effectively protect the games without it?”


Case in point: in 2012 Phil Ivey and Kelly Sun won $12 million playing baccarat at Crockfords casino in London. Casino management suspected foul play and withheld the winnings pending investigation. It was revealed that the pair had scammed the casino by purposely taking advantage of badly manufactured cards on the game. The cards had not been cut correctly so they were not symetrical. This printing imperfection facilitated a scam known as edge sorting. If high cards were rotated 180 degrees then essentially they could be identified face down before they were dealt. It was the equivalent of having marked cards in the game.


To facilitate the scam Kelly Sun requested a dealer that could speak and understand Mandarin. While she was dealing the game Kelly instructed her (in Mandarin), after the cards were revealed, to “turn the cards” in a certain manner depending on whether it was a high or low card. Eventually the cards were organized so that when they were dealt in subsequent rounds of play the exposed edge of the card could be identified as a high or low card before it was dealt from the shoe. This scheme gave the players a considerable edge over the house.


Phil Ivey and Kelly Sun took Crockfords to court arguing their scheme was not cheating but advantage play and therefore they deserved their $12 million in winnings. The case was unprecendented in the UK legal system; after a long drawn out battle, Crockfords won the case. A crucial piece of evidence in the case was the audio recording from the game.


Rolling the Dice Without Sound


Audio recording has not caught on in most casinos in the U.S. or around the world. I suspect that’s because not many casinos have not considered the option because it is not required by regulation. In my opinion casinos are missing out on an obvious way to enhance their current surveillance systems.


Nevada’s “black book” contains a list of excluded people from casinos in the state. It is made up of mobsters, scam artists, robbers and fraudsters. There are only two table games employees on the list: Mark Branco and James Cooper. The two are former dealers from the Bellagio casino. They were arrested and sentenced to prison for committing a craps collusion scam with two players from 2012-2014. Over a period of two and a half years the employees and players cheated the Bellagio for an estimated $1.2 million. 


The scam wasn’t rocket science. The dealers simply placed phantom hop bets for their accomplices playing on the game. The players would mutter confusing bets just as the dice were rolling. The “call bets” would never lose. The scam was not picked up by surveillance but by a dealer on the floor that was listening and became suspicious. Undercover gaming agents followed up by conducting surveillance of the game on the floor. They heard everything that was going on.Their goose was cooked. 


Microphones installed on the craps game may have helped detect the scam earlier. Arguably, it may have even deterred it from happening in the first place. In court Cooper also admitted to pulling off the same scam 20 years ago when he worked at the Golden Nugget downtown. 


Craps has always been an easy game to scam from the inside. Casinos accept verbal bets on craps like they do on European roulette games. The speed and size of a craps game along with multiple dealers and payouts make it a difficult game for a surveillance operator to watch. Throw in verbal bets and you literally can’t see what’s going on. These factors make craps a candy store for collusion.


Years ago my surveillance team got a call from the casino manager advising he had received a tip-off from a player that a dealer-player collusion scam was going on at craps. We conducted an investigation and confirmed the shenanigans. A player would place bets across the numbers. If they won they won. If they lost his dealer friend would place the “off button” on for the player. The player never lost. We pulled the dealer and questioned him. He said the player (associate) called it but he was just a bit slow turning the button. As often is the case, it is their word against ours. We sacked the dealer but charges were not laid. Audio recording at the table would have been helpful.


Over the years I’ve heard and seen countless craps collusion scams involving verbal bets. More often then not the staff involved are not prosecuted as there is no audio evidence to corroborate the story. It’s frustrating but often casinos have no choice but to let the crooked employees fly away, only to end up working at another casino.


See No Evil, Hear No Evil


Video doesn’t lie, but it doesn’t tell you the whole story either. Casinos are notorious for shot takers and two-bit cheaters who try to cheat the casino by lying, hustling, making false claims and intimidating dealers. These classless individuals take advantage of the dealer’s low position in the casino ecosystem to steamroll over them to make a dollar. They call themselves clever social engineers. I call them scumbags.


Often the scam is facilitated by making a false claim that the dealer has made a mistake. If the claim amount is relatively low the dealer, not wanting to upset their boss or jeopardize their job security and career prospects, succumbs to the player’s pressure and pays the fraudster. Sometimes the dealer doesn’t want to mess with the karma on the game and, anticipating a delay of game waiting for a floor supervisor, they take care of the player so the game can move on. Other times, they’re just plain scared.


In Colin Jones’s new book “The 21st Century Card Counter”, he interviews a card counter who used to be a dealer. On recounting her experience working behind the tables she says “On nights when the casino was empty, you never knew what was going to happen. Starting at 1am often meant that patrons were belligently intoxicated when I started my shift. They could be verbally abusive and physically dangerous at times, and I observed that people behave really strangely when they know you can’t walk away from them.” 

The dealer went on to say “If someone spoke in a dangerous or abusive way, you were kind of on your own. By the time I left, table games felt like the Wild West. I was threatened, grabbed, called names.”


The reduction of floor supervisor levels over the years has essentially meant two things from a security point of view: more opportunities for crooked dealers to collude with players and less presence to have the backs of our dealers. When floor supervisors are off doing other things the dealer is all alone with the players. If a dealer is propositioned, harassed or abused, who hears it? 


It is also documented that some advantage players will social engineer or con the dealer into cutting the cards closer to the back so they can obtain favorable conditions for card counting. Some will even ask for the dealer to deal faster so they can increase their profits from counting.   


Over the years we have learned that with a lot of casino scams there is a verbal factor involved. The con. The hustle. We should take notice and adapt accordingly. It seems logical to me that given what we have learned it would make sense to audio record table games. Admittedly, if you asked me to decide video or audio I would pick video but why choose one over the other when it is possible to combine both video and audio seamlessly at a relatively low extra cost.


It should be noted that actually most casinos already use audio recording in their count rooms and detention rooms. The detention room I totally get. The count room, not so much. It’s a government regulation (photocopied from the 80s) that requires staff to verbalize how much money they just counted. Using that rational, why aren’t we audio recording the cage windows and tables as well?


Stop and Listen


Audio recording will enhance your game protection. I have discussed this with industry leaders who are already recording table games and they agree - sound is good. I recently learned that some innovative casinos in the US have mic’d up their craps games. Some others I spoke to acknowledge the benefits and are currently seriously considering it. Before we move forward we should should take a look at common concerns and excuses surrounding audio recording table games.


The first and most valid concern is the law. In your state or country is it OK to record conversations on the table games without breaking the law? If you are unclear on what the consent laws on recording conversations in your state are, consult with legal counsel. 


If you’re good to go legally it’s now up to senior management to weigh up the pros and cons. The case for audio is strong. Most excuses for not having audio can easily be overcome. Excuses I’ve heard generally come from old school casino guys who don’t like change. Technical concerns like cabling issues - a little work but not a problem. Bad quality audio because of peripheral sounds - high quality microphones are available. 


How will dealers feel about having their conversations recorded at the tables? I recently spoke to a floor supervisor employed in a major casino organization in Las Vegas. I wanted to get his opinion on audio recording table games. Having not seen or heard of the concept he was intrigued by the idea. He thought about it for a moment and then told me it would be great to record customer complaints but on the other hand a lot of dealers might get fired after management heard their complaints about the company. Funny as it was, it did raise a point. The recordings could be used to monitor employee customer interaction for training purposes. 


And of course there’s the old favorite “the players might not like it.” Here’s my suggestion. Like staff, players need to be trained. Notify them that’s it’s happening and tell them why. Place signage on the tables and let them know we’re increasing security for our staff and customers by recording activity at the tables. They’ll get over it.


People have the right to their privacy, but in a casino? 


I tend to agree with Jerry Seinfeld. In an episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” Jerry and Zach Galifianakis went into a bike shop and one of the starstruck employees started recording them on his cell phone (video and audio). Zach wasn’t happy. He told Jerry he felt it was an invasion of privacy and asked him if he thought it was rude to record someone without permission. Jerry turned to Zach and said, as only Jerry Seinfeld could, “What privacy? I’m out in the public, there’s no privacy. That’s why it’s called public."


willy

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