Microcameras versus casinos

Microcameras really change the security landscape. Case in point: a casino-cheating gang used a microcamera to capture footage of a baccarat deck as it was being riffled during the player-cut, and then got cues from an off-site analyst who ran the video in slow motion to get the deck-order.
After a few hands, the cutter left the floor and entered a bathroom stall, where he most likely passed the camera to a confederate in an adjoining stall. The runner carried the camera to a gaming analyst in a nearby hotel room, where the analyst transferred the video to a computer, watching it in slow motion to determine the order of the cards. Not quite half an hour had passed since the cut. Baccarat play averages less than six cards a minute, so there were still at least 160 cards left to play through. Back at the table, other members of the gang were delaying the action, glancing at their cellphones and waiting for the analyst to send them the card order.

The gang had just walked away from Macau, the largest gambling city on Earth, with millions. They took $100,000 from the Bicycle casino in Los Angeles only weeks after the Las Vegas run. The Cutters’ scam did not require marking or switching cards, so casinos’ card scans and tracking software was irrelevant. Security consultants say that the gang numbers about 70. (With so many players, facial analytic software is easy to beat.)

Spy vs. Spy: Casinos Can't See The Cameras Hidden Up Gamblers' Sleeves (via Scheneir)

(Image: Baccara Palette, Wikimedia/Roland Scheicher -- public domain)


  1. This is the kind of inspired scam that I would barely believe if it were in an Ocean’s Whatever movie. Strangely awesome.

  2. Doesn’t sound like cheating to me. I’d guess it’s about as ‘illegal’ as counting cards isn’t.

    1. How is it not illegal and cheating? They have prior knowledge of the cards thanks to the vid cap of ruffling the corner of the cut deck.

    2. My guess is that it is, but in a larger sense, it doesn’t really matter.  You don’t necessarily have to do anything illegal to find yourself being strong-armed in a casino basement or banned from future play.

  3. “After a few hands, the cutter left the floor and entered a bathroom stall, where he most likely passed the camera to a confederate in an adjoining stall. The runner carried the camera to a gaming analyst in a nearby hotel room, where the analyst transferred the video to a computer,”

    This was done by sneakernet???

    1. If I have a casino, you better bet I’m doing 2.4 and 5GHz spectrum monitoring and location triangulation (there are plenty of enterprise class tools that do this, I’m extremely familiar with them). There’s a lot of tuning involved, but ultimately, I can make pretty educated guesses or at least know where to heighten scrutiny based on traffic behaviors.

      With these tools, I may not be able to see the payload, but I’ll be able to see that an ad-hoc network is formed between stations A (wireless camera), B (handheld), and C and know where they are located fairly quickly. Since this traffic is outside of any white-listed policies I have set up, it’s flagged for immediate investigation. As long as the devices are transmitting, I can continue to pinpoint them as they move.

      If I’m going to implement a scheme that requires an exchange of information, I’d most likely implement a solution that involves very bursty compressed traffic with a low gain antenna, in an unusual sprectrum (maybe FM), maybe on the very threshold of having a useful SNR.

      Or just, not cheat in the first place. The amount of work, ingenuity and sheer invention involved in some of these schemes makes me wonder how much money a person can make via legit applications.

      1. That’s interesting.  What about not just A, B and C, but multiple A’s, B’s and C’s, all transmitting simultaneously? They are keyed, so most of the transmissions are junk and only the three individuals in question are actually linked.  The rest is chaff.  Do this in a burst, with a randomly re-assigned frequencies, and it would be extremely difficult to tell if it’s the Baccarat-Men’s restroom-Room 318 combo, or the Blackjack-Women’s room-parking lot combo.

  4. Using any device besides your eyes and brain is most certainly illegal.  Counting using only your eyes and brain is not welcome and if you are caught you will be asked to leave (think trespassing). This scam was featured many years ago on a short-lived reality show about casino scams where a team paid by the casino would try and cheat the system to identify flaws.   At the Baccarat table a woman would discreetly hang her purse with high-res camera to broadcast the shuffle to a guy outside in the parking lot with a laptop, who would analyze and then call one of two cell phones.  The high roller at the table would have one phone in each pocket.  If left pocket buzzed, HIT!  If right pocket buzzed, stay… or whatever.  I don’t play Baccarat, only blackjack. In any case, the broadcast was eventually picked up by casino emf monitors, so kudos to these guys for finding a workaround… until they got caught!

    1. Even if it is illegal, I don’t think it’s immoral (not according to my moral compass anyway, but maybe it’s a bit off). They’re still playing the cards they’re being dealt, just making more informed decisions about how to bet. Seems sensible to me :-)

      For the life of me, I don’t understand why anyone who ISN’T running a scheme like this is even in a casino playing a game against the house. The casino sure as hell isn’t gambling; as you say, they’ll ask good players to leave – and that’s all counting cards is – good play.

      Meh. I guess I just don’t get gambling. Bird in the hand and all that.

      1. I have a pretty twisted moral compass on this, too. If the casinos played by any reasonable set of “rules” (ie., the rules that a game actually has), I would think they would have some reasonable place from which to make a moral argument. But they don’t, and they don’t.

        A casino can ask you to leave for any reason they want, even if that reason is just that you’re winning too much. Counting cards? That’s a situation where a player is paying attention to what is happening (all knowledge that they gain through means permissible by the game’s rules) and using that knowledge to make better betting decisions. And if they even think you might be counting cards they’ll escort you out quickly, or worse. Hell, the casino in the town I work in got caught adjusting the payout levels of their slot machines to illegally low levels. Sure, they got hit with hefty fines, but a fat lot of good that does for the folks they took the money from by these illegal machines.

        So yea, these guys were cheating, but I find my sympathy lies with them anyway. At least their cheating was a lot more skillful and creative than the casinos.

        1. Agreed.  The casino has a built in advantage, it isn’t a ‘fair’ game since it’s always rigged to favor the casino.  all these guys did was equalize the odds then use their skill to take some of the casino’s money much like casinos use their advantage, skill and distractions to take their customers money.

          1. I would have to say that if you don’t like the Casino’s rules (everybody knows the odds are in their favour) then just don’t play.  Bending the rules so that you have a better chance of winning than the next guy is cheating, no matter how you spin it.  Although I do think you should be able to win so long as you aren’t using artificial counting devices, and they shouldn’t be able to kick you out just for winning. If the casino can’t play by a fair set of rules for all, they should get out of the business.

      2. > The casino sure as hell isn’t gambling; as you say, they’ll ask good
        players to leave –
        > and that’s all counting cards is – good play.

        True up to a point. They will ask card counters to play, counting isn’t illegal, and plenty of people agree that counting cards isn’t even against the rules of the game. But casinos will ask counters to leave.

        On the other hand, don’t conflate counting cards–a specific technique–with any kind of good play. Casinos don’t ask good players to leave. They especially don’t ask people who are winning to leave. It’s pretty simple.. all casino games have a house edge. If you don’t have an observable cheat or edge that the casino has spotted, then they assume that they, the casino, still has the edge. If they still have the edge, then the longer you play, the more of your money they’ll get. If you’re winning, the longer you play, the more of your winnings you’ll give back. If you’re losing, the longer you play, the more of your money you’ll give over.

        But, as I said, they do get rid of card counters. That’s because card counting is detectable by monitoring behavior and statistically analyzing play. The easiest way to detect is for the casino to count the cards themselves and match your behavior up with the predicted behavior of particular counting systems. If they match too closely, you’re using a counting system, and it’s time to go. This doesn’t happen by accident, or as a result of “good play”.

        What does “good play” look like? Blackjack, for example, has specific rules that you follow to get the best possible play. It’s not hard at all (really, it’s not–the work of a few hours with an online blackjack simulator) to memorize these rules and play “perfectly” according to the system, which has nothing to do with card counting. Start with rules like Dealer 4,5,6=bust card, never hit a risky hand. Dealer 7-A, you must hit a risky hand until you get a 17+. (2 and 3 get more complicated.) Never buy insurance. To know when to double and split, there are tables you must memorize. If the house has fancy rules like surrender, then you must learn how those affect the tables as well.

        This simple set of rules gets you something like 49.5% win percentage if you stick to it. (I’ve read that a surrender rule will actually put you over the 50% margin, but I’ve never been in a casino that had one.) So even perfect play doesn’t get rid of the house edge. And *casinos know this*. Why would they ask this perfect player to leave, when they have a better than even chance of getting money back the next hand?

        The difference in card counting is that it gives the player a winning edge, but also that it’s *detectable*. Now that the casino *knows* it no longer has an edge, it makes sense to ask you to leave.

        1. What does “good play” look like? Blackjack, for example, has specific rules that you follow to get the best possible play.

          I would say there is nothing in your post that is wrong, but I would characterize counting as “good play.” After all, it’s just a slightly more complicated set of rules to follow that takes more things into account (the cards already played). But fundamentally, you’re doing the same thing as you describe: following a set of rules to maximize your chance of winning.

          For some strange reason, the casinos look at it differently. Go figure!

        2. If the simple set of rules is the best you can do, and you’ll still only get a 49.5% win rate then sticking to it isn’t good play. You’ll lose. That’s why the casinos are quite happy for you to print out those blackjack rules and bring them with you to the table. Following them maintains the house’s edge. It’s a waste of time (and money) – all you do is maximize the time until you run out of money. If that’s the game, why not just give them your money, ask them for 99% of it back in an hours time, and go wait at the bar?

          Counting cards absolutely is good play (assuming you don’t get thrown out). Good play is making the best bets you can to give yourself an edge. Incidentally, if you do get asked to leave, do the casinos let you keep your winnings up to that point?

          1. I don’t think they can legally do otherwise. The money you’ve already won is already yours. This is much like how a retail store can refuse to complete a transaction, but cannot force you to return anything once you’ve paid and gotten your receipt.

          2. “If the simple set of rules is the best you can do, and you’ll still only
            get a 49.5% win rate then sticking to it isn’t good play. You’ll lose.”

            No, you’ll lose on slightly more than half of your hands. Only a complete naif doesn’t understand that the house always has an edge. But that edge is over the thousands of people who gamble there every day or every year. It’s entirely possible to for a particular gambler to come out ahead on a casino trip; I’ve done so many times. I’ve also come out behind many times. My overall balance is negative, but as they say, you win some, you lose some.

            If you’re making trips to Las Vegas as your retirement plan and you’re playing against the house, then you’re an idiot. If instead you’re gambling for the fun of playing card games for the chance to win money, then what’s wrong with that?

          3. If the simple set of rules is the best you can do, and you’ll still only
            get a 49.5% win rate then sticking to it isn’t good play. You’ll lose.

            That’s assuming a flat utility of money. If the money you win can be worth more to you than the money you bet, you win overall. If there’s a particular threshold beyond which you can bribe the officials and get out of Casablanca, it’s entirely rational to gamble.

            Insurance works similarly, but in reverse: your last dollar is worth a lot more to you than any other, so you’ll pay a premium to avoid losing that last dollar.

  5. Um, wouldn’t banning cell phone use in the casinos take care of the problem as it is described in this piece?  And if I’m not mistaken, don’t some/many casinos already ban cell phone use?

  6. So, to sum up… the professional conmen, scammers, and cheaters got conned, scammed, and cheated by a team of amateurs.

    A single tear runs down my cheek.

  7. I have to bring up what happened to South Carolina’s video gambling business in the late 1990’s. South Carolina had a huge bingo parlor industry, all run by churches. When video gambling came in they started losing revenue, so they bought a state wide ban on video gambling from the state legislature, which had a decimating impact on tourism statewide.

  8. As long as the devices are transmitting, I can continue to pinpoint them as they move.
    The article indicates passive recording devices were used. Try reading it before commenting. The casinos are going to attempt to ID frequencies put out by the camera while it operates. That is all they have to work with in this type of scam, and it’s likely they will end up subjecting innocent patrons to abusive search if they do.
    All of you getting huffy about this scam — claiming it is illegal, etcetera — need to realize a few things. 1) It is only illegal where it is an activity that actually breaks a law on the books. It is not “illegal” simply because it offends your desire for Ordnung. 2) Re: “trespass”, casinos allow and encourage public access. They are open to the public. Because they effectively own the government in most areas where they operate, they can claim “trespass” or some other crime in situations that would get your average public facility owner sued into bankruptcy. And they get away with this due to deep pockets and the low class of person they commonly target. Their status is not that of an ethical individual operator however. Your insistence that they are something of the sort is faintly ridiculous — given the way they actually work. Unless you are reliant on them for your income, stop making fools of yourselves in this public forum.
    Casinos rely — utterly — on a public that is ignorant of their edge. You will find apologists in this and other forums claiming otherwise, or claiming that it doesn’t matter. To some extent they have a point — people who walk into these glittering joints have done so largely of their own free will. But casinos making bank on ignorance, emotion and disinhibition created with cheap alcohol. To speak of how they operate as though they have rights founded in any concept of public ethics is insane in light of the fundamentals of their business model.

    1. I believe flosofl was responding to my suggestion of using wireless instead, not on the original article.

    2. @google-ce31728c3ff2cb5059b56f4c13cf50a5:disqus Try reading the comment I was to replying to next time before you jump all over someone, OK?

       @awjt:disqus  asked why they were relying on hand transferring the information as opposed to an 802.11 compliant WLAN solution. I was trying to explain why a more technologically expedient method of information delivery was not necessarily the best technique in this situation.

      I did read the article, thank you.  And if I had to make the same choices, I would choose “sneaker net” as well. It’s far more resilient to side channel eavesdropping than any wireless technology readily available. The last part of my comment was to speculate on what I would do to increase my chances of slipping detection if I, for some reason, *had* to use some method or wireless transmission.

  9. Greedy people that screw gullible greedy people for a living got screwed by people who screw greedy people that screw gullible greedy people for a living, exsqueeze me my lower lip doth tremble.

  10. This was done in the very early 70’s TV show “Search Probe”

    The ‘spys’ had tie clasps and jewelery with a micro camera that transmitted video off site to ‘control’.
    A large computer center run by Burgess Meredith.  They used the computers to slow down the shuffling of cards and transmit the info back to the spy via a audio implant..like a mini-blue tooth.
    They also had other tricks such as GPS, ‘google searches’ (Via  staff of libraries and networked computers), and language translation.


    1. And here I thought I was hip because I had seen what I believed to be the earliest incarnation of this scheme about 10 years ago (outlined in my comment above).  But you beat me by decades!

      WELL, THEN ACTUALLY this scheme was first done back in 1908 during the silent film era.  One chap filmed the shuffle with one of those turn crank cameras.  The spool of film was brought to a filmhouse and developed.  The film was then watched by a local theatre complete with a ragtime piano soundtrack and INTERTITLES. 

      Signals were then communicated back to the table via morse code.  Dot meant hit, dash meant stay.

      Percival Dunwoody made thousands of dollars that way (which was alot of money back then).  This allowed him to finance the development of his time machine a year later.

  11. Card games have low payout anyways, because of these issues. Other games have higher payout because they mathematically end up with the house coming out on top over time.

  12. From the captions to the article’s image gallery:

    > In 2009, a hacker was caught after he installed a program that took over the credit meter on a slot machine. after deliberately jamming the machine by sticking his finger in the payment slot, he called a casino tech to fix it. With the machine open, the hacker peered inside to locate the input-output slot on its computer. Once the tech left, the hacker deftly inserted a wire into the slot through a gap between the lower and upper doors of the machine. He then plugged in a chip with a program that gave him 50 credits every time he punched a button connected to the chip.

    The hacker, having located “the input-output slot”, then inserted a second wire that made all the little silhouette men in the local street-crossing lights have fistfights with each other, and he reprogrammed a weather satellite to destroy the world’s coffee crop with the weather it made.  I know this is all completely possible because Ilya Salkind told me so on the “Superman III” commentary track where he patiently explained to us that nobody knows what a computer can do when hacked, therefore this means computers can do ANYTHING.

    Fortunately Superman escaped from the plastic bag the computer put him in, and Richard Pryor lived happily ever after.

  13. My apologies. You did refer only to awjt. Most of my post wasn’t targeting yours, but a few others. You were not “getting huffy” about the ethics of the scammers. In the article they are alleged to have pulled down some fairly large amounts, but if you split it between ~70 people, $500,000 to ~$1 million isn’t much per man. A few thousand per person, which is in line with what a competent card counter might have taken, in the time frames they discussed.

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