When a cheating scandal recently unraveled at a Bellagio craps table in Las Vegas, three of the four accused participants were arrested, and one turned state's evidence, in a scam that is said to have netted more than $1 million over two years. The high-stakes hustle involved two craps dealers posting bets to winning numbers after the dice landed, which authorities say defied 452-billion-to-one odds.
The craps conspirators reportedly got rich by making phantom "hop bets." A hop bet is a one-time, high-risk verbal proposition in which a player wagers that a specific number will be rolled next. One of the dealers, James R. Cooper Jr., pleaded guilty last week to felony theft after ratting out his alleged accomplices.
“Because craps is such a verbal game, numbers get called out as bets are placed down—it’s almost impossible for surveillance to catch a move like this one; there has to be somebody turning the dealers in,” says Sal Piacente, president of Universal Game Protection, which consults with casinos around the world. “All you see is dice being rolled and chips getting tossed onto the felt. That’s why it worked for so long.”
While there’s high likelihood that at least three of the Bellagio cheaters will serve jail time, at least the accused perpetrators are still alive and retain usage of all 10 fingers—which may not have been the case if they got caught doing it in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Remember that scene from Casino, where a blackjack cheater gets his hand smashed with a sledgehammer? The sight of his mangled and bloodied digits, sounds of bones being crushed, and his blood-curdling wail of pain were hardly an exaggeration of what went on if you were caught doing the wrong thing in the wrong joint back then. After all, many Vegas casinos were owned by the mob. So anyone cheating was essentially stealing from the mafia. Never a good idea.
Max Rubin , a gaming protection expert who works exclusively with the Barona Resort & Casino near San Diego, toiled in Las Vegas during the bad old days when “cheaters’ justice"—as the hand smashing punishment was so memorably described in Casino—was a way of life.
“Back then,” Rubin says, “if you stole a million-and-a-half dollars, you would disappear. If you stole a few hundred thousand, you might get chained to a wall and beaten.
"I heard about a guy who stole chips—using a device that allowed him to slip them inside his dealer’s apron—being kept in a basement for three days, supposedly without water. He got beaten everyday, and then they threw him out into the street.”
That was before specific laws related to cheating were in the books. So casino security was charged with taking things into their own hands.
In the now-defunct Binion’s Horseshoe, a blackjack player named Alan Brown was caught spying the hole cards of dealers. He got beaten badly enough to suffer a ruptured kidney. A quick trip to the hospital narrowly saved his life.
“Legally, what Alan Brown did wasn’t even cheating. But Ted Binion disagreed. Shit happened in those days. Here was one good piece of advice: Don’t get caught, whether or not you’re breaking the law.”
In another instance, while looking down into the casino from an upstairs perch, Binion spotted a cheater and wanted to shoot him right then and there. Security guards convinced Binion otherwise, and dragged the guy into the street where he was mercilessly beaten unconscious.
Ironically, the worst casino beat-down Rubin ever saw had nothing to do with cheating—it was about disrespect. At Kings Castle Casino in Lake Tahoe, Nate Jacobson, owner of the casino and the man who co-developed Caesars Palace in Vegas, had a habit of doing lines of coke while watching over his gaming floor. When the urge struck him, he’d put the blow aside and get up to deal hands of blackjack.
He took over a table one night, dealt a few losers to a young player who was clearly a bit wasted himself. After losing a string of hands, the player reached across the felt and smacked Jacobson in the face. “Casino security rushed over, pulled the kid away, and held him against a wall,” remembers Rubin. "Then one of the guards handed his billy club to Nate."
“Nate reared back and teed off on the guy like he was tenderizing a piece of meat. The kid got beaten senseless right out there on the casino floor as the public watched in horror.”
While treatment these days might seem considerably more genteel—you get prosecuted and sent to jail rather than beaten or killed—Rubin has another way of looking at it.
“It took more balls to be a cheater in the old days, but, as long as you didn’t get assassinated in your driveway or have your jaw broken on the street, the old way was arguably better. Guys would rather get beaten than have the cops called in and wind up in jail. Bones heal. Police records are forever.”
A more recent scam, related to craps, witnessed by Piacente, involved players sliding dice. By controlling one die, and pushing it so that it doesn’t tumble and the number can be perfectly predicted, you achieve a massive edge and will always win.
“It takes just two weeks to learn how to do it,” Piacente says, characterizing himself as an expert dice slide. “Then you can make a lot of money—until you get caught.”
While the old methods clearly work just fine, Rubin sees cheating taking a high-tech turn. “Guys get stuff from China,” he says. “There are miniature cameras, game analyzers, chemicals for invisibly marking cards.
"At the moment, cheating technology is outstripping casino technology; so you need humans, like me, who know what to look for. The most outrageous thing I’ve seen recently involved players who had cameras in bottles of water. The cameras recorded the shuffles and the players knew the order of cards that were being dealt.”
Assuming that all things ebb and flow, does Rubin think that casino scams are up or down?
He considers this for a moment and dryly replies, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen casino cheating on the decline.”