Casino panopticon: a look at the CCTV room in the Vegas Aria

A fascinating article in The Verge looks at the history of casino cheating and talks to Ted Whiting, director of surveillance at the Aria casino in Vegas, who specced out a huge, showy CCTV room with feeds from more than 1,100 cameras. They use a lot of machine intelligence to raise potential cheating to the attention of the operators.

Despite that, Whiting says facial recognition software hasn’t been of much use to him. It’s simply too unreliable when it comes to spotting people on the move, in crowds, and under variable lighting. Instead, he and his team rely on pictures shared from other casinos, as well as through the Biometrica and Griffin databases. (The Griffin database, which contains pictures and descriptions of various undesirables, used to go to subscribers as massive paper volumes.) But quite often, they’re not looking for specific people, but rather patterns of behavior. "Believe it or not, when you've done this long enough," he says, "you can tell when somebody's up to no good. It just doesn't feel right."

They keep a close eye on the tables, since that’s where cheating’s most likely to occur. With 1080p high-definition cameras, surveillance operators can read cards and count chips — a significant improvement over earlier cameras. And though facial recognition doesn’t yet work reliably enough to replace human operators, Whiting’s excited at the prospects of OCR. It’s already proven useful for identifying license plates. The next step, he says, is reading cards and automatically assessing a player’s strategy and skill level. In the future, maybe, the cameras will spot card counters and other advantage players without any operator intervention. (Whiting, a former advantage player himself, can often spot such players. Rather than kick them out, as some casinos did in the past, Aria simply limits their bets, making it economically disadvantageous to keep playing.)

With over a thousand cameras operating 24/7, the monitoring room creates tremendous amounts of data every day, most of which goes unseen. Six technicians watch about 40 monitors, but all the feeds are saved for later analysis. One day, as with OCR scanning, it might be possible to search all that data for suspicious activity. Say, a baccarat player who leaves his seat, disappears for a few minutes, and is replaced with another player who hits an impressive winning streak. An alert human might spot the collusion, but even better, video analytics might flag the scene for further review. The valuable trend in surveillance, Whiting says, is toward this data-driven analysis (even when much of the job still involves old-fashioned gumshoe work). "It's the data," he says, "And cameras now are data. So it's all data. It's just learning to understand that data is important."

One thing I wanted to see in this piece was some reflection on how casino level of surveillance, and the casino theory of justice (we spy on everyone to catch the guilty people) has become the new normal across the world.

Not in my house: how Vegas casinos wage a war on cheating [Jesse Hicks/The Verge]

(via Kottke)


  1. I’d like to see the casinos be prosecuted for fraud. They pretend to offer fair play, with some even bragging that their blackjack uses a limited number of decks, but when people have the rare skill of actually being able to successfully count cards they throw them out rather than just fix the game so really good players can’t beat the house.

    1. I don’t think casinos ever pretend to be fair.  It isn’t like any Joe from the street can twist the probability in their favor.  It takes dedication and a real understanding of what you are doing, not to mention an excellent memory.  Anyone who has gone through that knows the score.  No one ever develops the skill to count cards, walks into a casino to count cards, and is shocked when they get tossed. It isn’t like they toss out any random Joe because they won a few big hands.

      Personally, I find casinos boring as hell.  I don’t have a single gambling gene in my body.  That said, I don’t begrudge them tossing people that can beat the rigged games.   It is life.  Don’t like it?  Don’t go to a casino.  That is what I do…

    2. You don’t even need to have the skills to get bounced.  They just need to think that you do. Trust me.

  2. “Whiting, a former advantage player himself, can often spot such players. Rather than kick them out, as some casinos did in the past, Aria simply limits their bets, making it economically disadvantageous to keep playing.”

    This is my big beef with casinos.  They have the advantage, the house always wins, but they have made it so that if you are actually good at a game, and consistently win, you are treated as a criminal, or in this case a second class citizen.  They are making it so that the only people welcome in casinos are true suckers, people who consistently lose money.  What’s the point in playing if perfectly legitimate techniques to increase your odds of winning are forbidden?  

  3. Hmmm, if a cheater’s confederates could tap into the CCTV feed for a particular table, then the confederates could relay what the other hands are to their player. If OCR can work for the watchers it can work for cheaters too.

    1. I suspect that the cheater would still stand out on statistical grounds(even if the goon squad couldn’t figure out how they were managing it); but I’d also imagine that being the inside man for such an operation would be an excellent way to learn firsthand if any of the stories about the seedier and more…uninhibited…entities of Vegas are true.

    2. Off the top of my head, I’d say you’re looking at a Boeski, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros and a Leon Spinks, not to mention the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever.

  4. I think that we can allow the casinos their operating model, but we don’t have to subscribe to their language.  It’s not “cheating”, it’s “positive expectancy play”. 

    1. I agree. Just because they say it’s “cheating” doesn’t mean we have to. To say someone is cheating just because they play better than you (or better than you would prefer) is simply childish.

    2.  Well in this story they DON’T call card counting cheating, they use the term “advantage players.”  And there certainly ARE people who try to cheat, say moving their bets on the roulette table, etc.

      1. “Not in my house: how Vegas casinos wage a war on cheating”

        “Taft’s devices would be illegal today, under Nevada’s strict anti-cheating laws”

  5. It’s curious about the upset when the axiom: “The House Always Wins”, proves to be not only true but institutionalized.   Casinos (and betting tracks and lotteries) are profitable businesses whose client-base are the ignorant.  Their business model doesn’t cover the non-ignorant; and the boys with no-necks will show the non-ignorant to the door. (<insert comic with a carnival clown sign at a casino door-way which reads: “you must be this stupid to enter”>)

    1. You would think the target market is the ignorant, but I don’t think so.  It’s the addicted.  Some people just don’t seem to have the gene or the kink or whatever it is.  I don’t, and Rindan above doesn’t.  I can walk in, lose a few dollars, shrug and leave.  And the casinos are happy to see me leave, because I’m not profitable.

      What’s profitable is the people who just can’t stop, even though they’re losing the paycheck for the week and the month and the mortgage payment and the grocery money.  They will keep coming back when they’re $100,000 in the hole, and the casinos work hard to keep bringing them back.

      So no, I don’t buy the argument about gambling being voluntary.

      1. They certainly aren’t common enough to be casino bread-and-butter; but there is a rather curious population of problem gamblers who bolster the ‘where is your free will now, huh, huh?’ position:

        Some patients taking dopamine agonists(Pramipexole, Ropinirole) for Parkinson’s disease develop serious compulsive behaviors, including compulsive gambling and/or hypersexuality, which tend to stop if they cease using the drug.

        As with most matters neurological, the details are murky and poorly understood; but the fact that such behavior can be induced(and without the use of a broad-spectrum disinhibiting agent, like booze, or some upper that disposes the user to euphoric stupidity) is disconcerting.

    1. This throwaway phrase really struck me, and I found it amazing that it went without comment in the article. Your opponent knows at all times what cards you hold, and no one seems to think this is cheating in any way. But using your brain to determine the best method of play? No way! That’s cheating!
      The reality is that a casino is not gambling at all – it is not about odds, because with a revelation like this it is clear that odds don’t come into it. It’s basically a money vaccuum where the house calculates exactly much to let you appear to win in order to keep you there, being cleaned out.

      1. It doesn’t matter if the dealer knows your cards. In blackjack, the dealer’s actions are programmed according to the house rules, which everyone is privy to; the dealer has no agency. In poker, the dealer is not a player. I don’t know from Pai Gow but I’m sure it’s similar. Craps and roulette do not involve privileged information. Keno and slots (the biggest profit center by far) don’t even involve a dealer.

        Casinos aren’t going to risk their cash on the skill/honesty/goodwill of their dealers so they remove that factor from the equation.  You and the other commenters who have called out casinos’ overly broad definition of “cheating” as bullshit are correct though.

  6. If you are fast enough you can cheat the best of them! Nothing is impossible because no one is perfect.

  7. I just find it bizzarre that counting cards is considered “cheating” to casinos. It’s nothing more than actually using the known information in the game. To consider it cheating is akin to calling out the chess player who “unfairly” looks at the whole chess board, thus knowing where all his opponent’s pieces are.

    If casinos want to limit the usefulness of counting, simply use more and more decks. Counting’s no good when the dealer is shuffling 25 decks together, and then you don’t need to kick out players simply for trying to win the game.

    1. Yeah, even “advantage” sounds like kind of slimy coded language. You’re a “mark” to them unless you have the (completely legitimate) skills to play on a more equal level with the house, in which case they consider you to be a con artist, unless of course you’re on their side running the con.

  8. I refuse to be a pawn in the casino game. On one hand I understand the logic of big bucks managing risk and liability with incessant precision. However, on the other hand I understand the logic that underpins my pride and its unwillingness to have my every movement and gesture analyzed by a lifeless bevy of electronics. I’m tired of dehumanization through tech. So, casinos, fuck yourselves- you’ll never see a single Agile dollar ever.

  9. “Whiting’s excited at the prospects of OCR”

    I read this as an entirely different, more advanced (and terrifying) form of character recognition!

  10. That’s a lot of cameras. But if you drive down the road to Henderson and make a stop in their Wal-Mart, you’ll see the real panopticon. Their ceiling looks like it’s broken out in virulent black blisters. I wish that I were joking.

    I hate Vegas, but I have family that loves it. Here’s my hard won advice to Vegas visitors that don’t enjoy gambling:

    Vegas is the Amsterdam of nicotine. If you have trouble with cigarette smoke, stay away from the older casinos downtown and their painfully dated HVAC systems.

    There used to be two cool things to do in Vegas, but they closed the Liberace Museum. What’s left is the Atomic Testing Museum, a museum so spectacular that you might consider going to Vegas just to walk through its doors. Unbelievable!

    If you want to get Vegas-style drunk, I hope you like beer. Everything else is overpriced or weak tea. If you’re like me, you’ll hear the music of drunken laughter everywhere while remaining painfully sober.

    Finally, if you think you’ll find something fun to do while your friends and family gamble, I’d recommend catching a flight to Manhattan: It’s cheaper in the long run.

        1. Driving from Palm Springs through Amboy and Kelso to Las Vegas was about a hundred times more entertaining than being there.

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