Catching Casino Cheats: Technology's Winning Hand

Whether it's a card-counting group from MIT or a lone slot-thief, casinos rely heavily on technology to fend off crime. Particularly now that the criminal population is taking advantage of faster, cheaper and smaller communications and surveillance

Whether it's a card-counting group from MIT or a lone slot-thief, casinos rely heavily on technology to fend off crime—particularly now that the criminal population is taking advantage of faster, cheaper and smaller communications and surveillance technologies on the market. Mohegan Sun is one of the few casinos that has gone digital: With the exception of 400 cameras that cover back-of-house areas and the garages, all the rest of the casino's cameras use digital recording and are backed up on hard drive. For most houses, a digital system is too cost-prohibitive. But Mohegan found a vendor, Loronix, that was eager to get its system set up inside a major casino. In 1999, when it cost about $6,000 to put a camera on the digital system, Mohegan negotiated Loronix down to $3,000 per camera by agreeing to be a showplace for the system. Although that still required an initial outlay of $3 million to get the system going, Friel and Todd thought it was worth it. They rolled out the system in May 2000.

On the old VCR system, surveillance would have to change tapes frequently, and over time, the VCR heads would get dirty and distort the picture. Digital search and retrieval functions are quicker, and the pictures are clearer, making it easier to review the images. Mohegan also has a real-time video system that it shares with nearby Foxwoods Casino. If Mohegan staffers suspect someone of running a scam on the casino floor, they can send the video over a phone line to Foxwoods' surveillance team. If a similar scam has been run there or if Foxwoods security recognizes the individual in question, it can help Mohegan resolve the case faster.

Facial-recognition systems have also become a popular tool across the industry. Viisage Technology offers a package of software programs that includes the aptly-named SIN (surveillance information network). SIN currently ties about 140 casino surveillance rooms together allowing them to share information about scams and to help identify cheaters. The package also includes a casino enrollment program that allows the casino to set up databases for facial recognition. It can search those databases based on name, race, sex, game being played or other factors to help identify known cheats or ex-employees on the floor.

Viisage also has a new technology called Face in the Crowd that uses a fixed camera posted at the top of an escalator or in an entryway to scan every face and compare it to its databases. While that will be a useful tool for keeping crooks out of the casino, it can also be used to identify high-rollers that the floor hosts want to give special treatment. "If someone with a high credit line walks in and hasn't been there for a year and a half, that information can be sent out to the host," says Jim Pepin, director of sales and marketing for Viisage's gaming group. The host can then greet the player with the appropriate personal details: "How's your wife Sharon?" "What about your tennis game?" "We have your favorite drink ready for you." Mohegan has tested facial recognition in the past and was not happy with the results but is looking at some of the new and improved versions of the technology that have come out.

At Mohegan, casino video is reviewed in a state-of-the-art monitoring room where screens along the walls show thousands of different perspectives of casino tables and gaming areas as well as back-of-house areas. Screeners are always there watching the monitors and reviewing play on the floor. A casual glance from a dealer will alert the floor person that there's something suspicious going on with a particular player. The floor person will alert the pit manager who will instruct surveillance to put the camera right on the table for monitoring. Other screens in the monitoring room cover the counting rooms where the hard count (coins) and the soft count (bills) are underway. Huge machines process hundreds of thousands of bills and coins, counting up the take and looking for counterfeits. The surveillance staff also has a number of software programs that they use as tools behind the scenes to monitor play.

One such program, the BJ Voice Survey program, is used on blackjack players that are suspected of being card-counters like the fellows from MIT who use different mathematical methodologies to track the cards in a deck and identify areas where the cards fall overwhelmingly in favor of the player. Card-counting isn't illegal, and most gamblers who try to do it fail miserably, but there are some skilled playersperhaps the top 1 percentwho can make a killing at it. Casinos try to identify them and, depending on the jurisdiction, either throw them out (as in Las Vegas) or limit their bets to the minimum per hand (Atlantic City and Connecticut). Using the BJ Voice Survey, a surveillance person will vocally recite every card value seen, along with the bet amount made by the player. The program looks for any correlation between the bet amount and the advantage that the player may have at any given point in the game to determine if he is counting cards. The Survey can run in real-time while the player is still at the table gambling.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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