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  • Willy Allison

When It Comes To High Rollers, Watch Your Backs

“All card games hinge on the fact that a card has two sides, one of which reveals its identity, while the other conceals it.” - David Parlett

Not every player who wins a lot of money at the casino is a cheat. You don’t have to be. Take for example the latest scam to hit Las Vegas casinos. An Asian high roller and his entourage are beating casinos not by breaking the law but by breaking the law of averages.

The scam works like this. The entourage will contact a casino and ask for some special concessions. They want to play Baccarat (the game of kings) and they want to bet big. But here’s the catch: instead of playing Midi-Baccarat in the high-action salon, they want a standard face-up Mini-Baccarat game with an automatic shuffler. No big deal right? But wait, they want the dealer to deal the first 4 cards face down on the layout before they place a bet.

At this stage of the negotiation the high rollers tell their VIP casino host and the casino management that the casinos in Asia allow them to play the game “that way.” If the casino is not willing to bend a few procedures to accommodate their special needs they will find another casino in town that will. This is every casino manager’s dilemma. In the current casino environment the one thing that is sometimes harder to explain than a player winning a million dollars is a player with a million dollars going next door.

Of course, the high rollers get what they want. But wait – there’s more. The players also request that when the dealer turns the cards to reveal the values they follow a special procedure. The special procedure dictates that the dealer pulls the end of the card closest to the player so they can peek the card’s value. The player then instructs the dealer to reveal the card in one of two different ways, either by flipping from the end or turning by the sides. It should also be noted that the players only play one set of colored cards. When their preferred set needs to be shuffled they sit out until the automatic shuffle is complete. At this time they will ask for their preferred set of cards to be returned to the game.

They then proceed to take the casino to the cleaners.

This story starts back at the card manufacturers plant. It starts with back design. It comes to turn out that a good proportion of the casinos on the Las Vegas strip still use the old diamond-back style cards without borders around the edges. I don’t know exactly what the number is but based on the website, it looks to be around 65%.

The problem with cards that don’t have borders on the back is they are more susceptible to being asymmetrical if not properly cut by the manufacturers. That’s not to say that bordered cards are perfect either but in my opinion they are a better option, especially if they have a faded edge. The reason back designs should be symmetrical is so that players (or dealers) can’t manipulate them during the game by “playing the turn.” By turning an asymmetrical card 180 degrees it is possible to identify what the value of the card is before it is revealed. You simply glance at the edges on the back of the card. Essentially, playing the turn has the same effect as marking the cards and gives players a huge house edge. Who needs invisible ink and red-tinted sunglasses when you’ve got manufacturer-made “marked cards.”

To investigate how big a problem badly cut cards are, I took a trip down to The Gamblers General Store. The GGS sells used decks of cards obtained from Strip properties. The cards have been cancelled out and sealed by the casinos. My mission was to find decks of cards that had been badly cut.

My investigation hit a stump when I first got to the store and read a sign that requested customers not to open the card boxes. Lucky for me, I found 9 decks that were already opened. All 9 of the decks were from different Strip properties. Of the 9, I found 3 had bordered edges. They were OK. Of the remaining 6 decks, 5 of them (83%) were cut badly to the point that I could identify them after the turn. I bought the 5 decks and oh by the way, the cards were definitely used cards. They looked and smelled like they were once used as paper wrap for Carl’s Jr. Burgers.

When I got home with my “marked cards” I decided to try a little experiment with my 14-year old offspring. I took one of the decks and sorted the aces so that they were turned 180 degrees. I put them back with the other cards and gave the deck a shuffle. I then explained to her why the cards were defective by pointing out that one short edge was cut with full diamonds, the opposite edge cut with half diamonds. I told her to thumb through the deck and without looking at the fronts, toss the 4 cards out that she thought might be the aces. Wala-Wala-Bing-Bang. Four Aces, first time. (I got some big time “daddy cool” credits for that little trick.) 

Edge Sorting Cards

So getting back to our high-roller friends, it turns out they have managed to exploit and take advantage of faulty casino equipment and an ultra-competitive high-end market. By convincing management to instruct the dealer to turn the cards “their way” the casino actually sorted all the high cards (6-9) for the players. The players could then identify the cards and gain a considerable edge over the house. By combining the player’s special procedure with the casino’s standard procedure of always discarding the cards so the turned cards would never be disrupted, the players set themselves up for a very profitable outing. Having an opportunity to inspect the backs of the cards before placing their bet also facilitated a betting strategy that allows them to maximize their advantage beyond first card advantage.

In the wash-up the easy solution to preventing this scam (besides NOT turning the cards for the players) is to review the design of your cards and go with one that is less likely to be compromised. No defective cards. No scam. But it doesn’t stop there. Casinos need to conduct regular inspections and audits of their equipment. This goes for cards, dice, roulette wheels, shufflers, shoes, chips etc. If the foundation of game protection is procedure, the integrity of gaming equipment is a close 2nd.

For those who like to play a little cat & mouse, Bill Zender recommends the following. When the shoe is completed and before the shuffle (MD machine or manual), the eight deck stack of cards needs to be broken in half, one half turned 180 degrees and then placed back on top of the other half. When the cards are placed into the machine, the machine will shuffle the cards and the previous “turn” information will be destroyed. It’s the same as putting a turn into the single or double deck during the shuffle to prevent sort play in BJ.

For me this scam highlights where casinos are in 2011. Big players can demand their own rules while at the same time casinos are searching for ways to cut cost. Now more then ever casinos need to define their game protection strategies to include a focus on gaming equipment security as well as the continued scrutiny and analysis of old, new and “foreign” procedures. The definition could determine whether your casino is in the gaming business or the gambling business.

“And that’s what these hustlers look for, they cruise from casino to casino looking for weak dealers the way lions look for weak antelope” – Robert DeNiro in Casino


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