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  • Willy Allison

Using Software to Enhance Surveillance Customer Service

Updated: Oct 8, 2019

Ron Buono has been a Las Vegas surveillance guy for over a quarter of a century and the head of the MGM Grand's surveillance operation for the last 11 years. When you meet Ron don't expect a suit, tie and gel. Chances are you'll see (and hear) a friendly, no holds barred, Jersey guy who likes 80's classic rock and has a fashion sense that could be described as comfortable. He's not the kind of guy that places too much emphasis on keeping up with the corporate Jones. His quick wit and east coast upbringing shield him from pretentiousness and absurdness and serve him well in a city like Vegas. He's very comfortable in his own skin and has the ability to relate to anyone on any level. But what sets Ron apart from any surveillance director I know is customer service. Ron's mantra is simple: Know the business and take care of your internal customers.

Ron would be the first to admit he's not the savviest guy when it comes to computers and the digital age. He's a busy guy and he hasn't had the time over the last decade to really get to know computers. A quick glance into the surveillance room reveals they are still using analog recording. This is not uncommon in Las Vegas. Contrary to popular belief, Las Vegas lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to casino surveillance technology.

But here's the interesting thing. Las Vegas may be lagging behind the rest of the world in surveillance hardware, but software - now that's another story.

Ron sees the role of surveillance as a kind of strategic advisory function to casino management. Surveillance exists because gaming exists. In most jurisdictions around the world surveillance responsibilities have broadened over the years to include new and increasing threats like internal theft, risk management, regulatory compliance, terrorism and bogus legal claims. At the MGM Grand, separate surveillance and security rooms divide the responsibilities allowing surveillance to focus on gaming. Again this is not uncommon to Las Vegas. In an informal survey I conducted amongst surveillance directors in the U.S. last year, the results showed unanimously that Las Vegas surveillance operations prioritize their focus more towards gaming while surveillance in Indian casinos focused more towards compliance.

I recently sat down with Ron to talk about how his operation provides value to the organization and in particular the software they use to assist casino management make business decisions. Ron surprised me. He's a real numbers guy. A walking-talking gaming analyst that likes to read internal gaming reports while he plays the invisible drums. As the numbers get more exciting the drum beat gets quicker. A copy of Bob Hannum's Casino Math book sits prominently on his desk, marked up like a voodoo doll. And then there's his casino analysis software collection. OMG. Ron is a closet geek.

BJ Survey

The first weapon in Ron's software arsenal is BJ Survey. I am somewhat familiar with the product as I purchased it in the late 90's. It's been around a long time and it is a proven performer. The BJ Survey is a blackjack player skill level analyzer. It works like this. While watching or reviewing video of a black jack player, the operator enters card and wager information into the system. The data can be entered manually or by a voice recognition option. The BJ Survey analyzes the data and produces numerous reports, graphs and a synopsis of the players play. This information assists management in a number of ways including determining if a player is using some method of advantage play like card counting, shuffle-tracking or ace location. The software takes what is a very mathematical process and produces a report that has easy-to-understand graphs and a synopsis in layman terms. It's laid out in a way that a mathematician or casino manager can understand.

Probably the "cut to the chase" piece of information that the survey provides is the mathematical edge the house has (or doesn't have) over the individual player. This is the money ball. If the player's skill level reveals they have an edge over the house - the casino has a decision to make. Each assessment is handled on a case-by-case basis. Managements reaction can range from backing the player off, adjusting player comp entitlements or doing nothing. In terms of data required for a fair assessment of someone's play, it is recommended you obtain a minimum of 150 player hands and at least one positive and negative shoe. Often a larger sample of play is required if a player shows signs of counting.

Ron has been using BJ Survey at the MGM Grand for 11 years. In that time the surveillance operation has conducted around 650 surveys. Of those, he estimates 10% of players analyzed have been found to have an edge over the house that required some type of management intervention. Ron is quick to point out that BJ Survey is not only used to pick on winners. They've done analysis on players that were temporarily experiencing a losing progression but his people had observed them playing like an advantage player. Winning or losing, if players exhibit indications of advantage play they will still analyze their play and take the appropriate action to protect the house over the long term.

He also pointed out that his people are trained to detect advantage players and run down players manually if they suspect they may be counting. Sometimes a quick assessment can save time. If a player is observed betting up on a high count (or not) this could determine a need (or not) to go to the next level in analysis.

My 10 cents: I'm a fan. I think it is important to make a mathematical assessment of a BJ player's skill level, especially if the player bets big bucks. Blackjack is a game of skill and players who gain an edge represent a threat to the bottom line. It is just as important to make an assessment that a player represents a good customer as they do a bad. The last thing a casino wants to do is throw a good customer out. The cost of this software pays for itself in a year if it can save you one good player or detect one bad one. It is surprising to me to hear that some surveillance directors choose not to use this software because they want their operators manual card counting skills to remain sharp. Why? So they can card count when they go on their Vegas vacation? I like the idea of surveillance operators keeping their skills sharp but not at the risk of making an error in judgment that could cost the casino big bucks. To be honest - I'm not 100% certain that most surveillance guys can keep an accurate card count. It reminds of the old argument of whether kids should be able to use calculators in school. The difference is that the goal of restricting calculator use at school is so the kid will learn. The stakes are considerably higher when trying to determine the fate of a high roller's business. Learning should be done in a low risk environment. Whether manual or by using software, making a player skill assessment involves gathering information. Both methods take the same time. Where the benefits are realized with the software is that the next 2 steps in the process (analyzing the information and presenting the analysis) can be obtained immediately at the touch of a button. The interpretation of the information is consistent, clear, concise and standardized. No "I don't reckon he's counting" or "I reckon he's a counter". The reports are credible and easy to read. In fact, I find the software very educational. They make your department look professional and cutting edge. It sure beats sending down a note to the floor on a napkin with the words "He's OK" written on it.

Professional Blackjack Analyzer

PBA is best described as a computer simulator that analyzes the rules and conditions of any blackjack game and prescribes the best strategy for players to gain an edge. It will also tell you exactly how much a player can gain by using the strategy. Essentially it is a tool for professional blackjack players. However, casinos can use it to analyze their own games. For example, do you know what the exact house edge on your blackjack game is? Do you know what it would be if you added an early surrender option for players? The PBA calculates the edge by running a computer simulation of millions of hands under the rules & conditions you enter into the software. It is pretty cool and relatively inexpensive at $149.

The PBA has a feature that produces basic strategy and indices charts for any particular version of blackjack. As a player, this feature is very helpful when traveling and playing at different casinos around the world. Find out the house rules and conditions before you arrive, enter them into PBA and wala - you have a basic strategy chart you can study on your flight to the casino. From a casino's point of view you can do the same thing for surveillance and the floor supervisors. What's good for the goose...

Probably the best use the PBA offers casino management is experimenting with rule and condition changes. It is important to know what your house edge is for budget estimations, detecting financial abnormalities and player comping. The PBA will allow you to see the effect a change can make to the bottom line over time.

My 10 cents: I'm a big fan of the PBA too. Every serious player and every casino should have a copy of this software. Here's a dare. Go ask your casino manager what the exact house edge is on his 2 and 6-deck games if a player plays perfect basic strategy (without counting). I wonder whether you would get an answer? The PBA can tell you to the 1/100th%. I'm not trying to be a smart ass but I can't emphasize how much it means to know this information especially if you are aggressively marketing to players using a "reinvestment program" based on theoretical loss. Oh by the way, I must come clean on this one. I personally used this software during a 4-month part-time playing stint in South America. A team of 3 of us utilized it to come up with the best strategy to beat a nearby casino. Playing 4 nights a week 4/hours a night, we grinded out a steady profit. There were restrictive limits so we had no grand illusions of turning pro or buying a condo in Monte Carlo. We did it more for the education and extra beer money. Eventually we started getting heat but instead of backing us off they started changing the rules on us. It seemed like the inexperienced owners of the casino viewed our winning as a challenge and they decided to engage us in a game of chess. It certainly was interesting being on the other side of the fence. It got to the stage that every week they would introduce a new rule change ranging from reducing decks to restricting double down and split options. The shuffles got really bizarre. Each time they changed a condition we would regroup enter the changes into the PBA software, spit out a new strategy chart, memorize it and go kick their ass again. In the end it got ridiculous. Finally they found a way to beat us. They started sacking the dealers that "lost" to us on the tables. That was not cool. We retired (undefeated).

Shuffle Trak 2000

Shuffle Trak 2000 analyzes shuffles. It' set up real nice with a colorful visual look that allows you to take a shuffle and analyze the effectiveness of card dilution after the shuffle has been completed. After you enter the procedures of your shuffle the software will run through it and show you visually how good it is (or not). You have the option to select numbers of decks and different kinds of shuffles ie. strip, riffle.

It should be noted that like the PBA, players designed the Shuffle Trak 2000 software to learn how to gain an edge over the house. On the other side of the coin, it is also a useful tool for casinos to analyze the vulnerabilities of their own shuffle. What's good for the goose...

Ron demonstrated the effectiveness of the current MGM Grand 6-deck shuffle that was devised using the Shuffle Trak 2000 software. The dilution was great. He showed me a couple of other good ones they had experimented with using the software. One of them was the Bill Zender 6- deck shuffle. The dilution was exceptional. I asked him why they didn't go with that one and he said it was because although Bill's shuffle was more diluted, the other one they came up with was fractionally quicker to execute on the table. All things being nearly equal, time wins out. Even Bill wouldn't argue with that.

My 10 cents: You guessed it. I'm a fan of this one too. Before computers no one really questioned shuffle effectiveness. New casinos opened, shuffle procedures were photocopied from previous casinos and no one gave two hoots. As long as it was reasonably quick it was OK. Comes to turn out, when you run some casinos current shuffle procedures through this software it really is quite scary. $75 is not a lot for a casino to pay to ensure effective dilution of their shuffle. Granted your shuffle dilution has to be balanced with time & motion considerations, this is something you can only experiment with on the floor. But even if you don't utilize the software to improve your shuffle at least you find out where your current vulnerabilities are and you can make your people aware of them so they can identify players taking advantage of it.

Other Software

Ron showed me various other off-the-shelf analysis software packages like CVCX, CV Data and John Austins BJ Riskmanager 2002. All are variations designed by players to analyze different scenarios in blackjack including standard deviation calculations, risk of ruin and error tolerance. These packages are all less than $200 to buy and take analyzing blackjack to the next level. They are not for the mathematically challenged.

Ironically, probably the most utilized software in Ron's operation is a program developed within their organization to analyze baccarat play. For a high-end casino with high action baccarat ($100,000+ wagers) baccarat analysis software is a must. As a Surveillance Director in a high- end casino the most asked question by senior management is:

Surveillance software

Big time baccarat players can win or lose millions of dollars in a shoe. The volatility is tremendous. There are not many casino managers (or GM's for that matter) that like to hear the words we're down millions. When this happens the temperature in the casino rises and heat always rises to the top. In this case the surveillance room above the floor.

When a player wins big in baccarat at the MGM Grand their play is often analyzed using the in- house software (with no name). Developed using casino math and standard deviation formulas, the software is designed to give management a summary of play during the shoe (a live shoe can sometimes take up to 2 hours). The software also detects possible cheating methods like marked cards and first card knowledge. This type of software is commonly used in the Asia Pacific region where high limit baccarat and junket play is common. Very rarely are players found to be cheating. However, the professional way in which the analysis is mathematically presented to senior management is useful and shows that surveillance has thoroughly investigated the big loss and presented some insight into the high roller's method of play. From my knowledge I don't know of any off-the-shelf programs that offers analysis on baccarat.

The Bottom Line

Ron is the MGM Grand go-to-guy when senior executives need to know "WHAT'S HE DOING?" They go to him because they trust his knowledge and character and they know every rock is going to be unturned before they get an unbiased, based-on-science answer. And they always get an answer.

Software has enhanced the value of surveillance at the MGM Grand but there's more to the story then 0's and 1's. The main reason for the success of the MGM Grand surveillance operation is the focus Ron and his team has on internal customer service and the common goals of the casino.

Ron is an old school guy who believes it is important in management to build strong relationships with internal customers. He's a face-to-face guy who isn't short of a few things to say. His executive management team like him and have the upmost respect for his gaming knowledge and the role that his team plays in the organization. But Ron also acknowledges that some new technologies can assist his department provide better internal customer service. Although he doesn't always see the benefit of technology for technologies sake, he embraces technology that enhances his operations value to the organization. If new technology doesn't help his customers, Fagedaboutit!


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