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The Game Is On

I tried not to act surprised, but there it was happening smack dab in front of me: two cheaters at a blackjack table. Every few hands, when a pit supervisor was out of range, one would distract the dealer so that his accomplice could “cap” or “pinch” a bet.

Capping is when the cheater adds to the original bet while the dealer is distracted by his accomplice, who might ask a question, make a comment, or request a drink, for example. Pinching is the opposite: the cheater’s original bet is surreptitiously lessened, because the hand is likely to lose. One way to pinch, for instance, is to place a partly full drink glass over the original bet while the dealer looks away.

For nearly 30 minutes, I watched this capping and pinching take place. When the cheaters finally departed, I estimated that their take was about $250—low enough to stay off the radar screen but high enough to make a nice amount of pocket cash.

In this case, the cheaters didn’t get away. I left the table briefly at one point to make a call to my client—the casino. Surveillance officers were alerted to observe the table, making sure to zoom in to record the cheating incidents and to record the physical appearance of the cheaters so that they could be apprehended and prosecuted.

That was the exception, however. In most cases, when I am hired as a covert operative, the purpose is not to catch individual guests in the act of committing crimes but to get an overall covert view of how employees interact with customers and to ascertain whether staff members are consistently following security protocols. It is especially important that workers, even the casino managers, be kept in the dark when such an operative (we’ll call it a mystery player) hits the floor.

It’s No Mystery

Among the range of casino employees who interact with customers are slot attendants, dealers, wait staff, casino customer service personnel, security officers, and cashiers. Mystery players can provide a gaming establishment with unbiased information on how each person interacted with a customer as well as how well they adhered to casino policies.

When searching for a service provider, a client casino should first assess its own expectations and be ready to express them with the prospective candidates. This includes clearly articulating what the company wants to learn. For example, do they want details such as how many times during the mystery player’s stay the casino manager was seen making rounds on the gaming floor, how customer complaints were handled, whether the dealers shuffle per specifications, or whether dealers seem easily distracted.

Selection process. In selecting a provider, in addition to calling references, clients need to inquire about the vetting of employees and the code of conduct they are expected to follow. For example, in one case, a service provider sent a covert operative to a large hotel casino. On the night of his arrival, the agent went to one of the hotel lounges, became drunk, and bragged to an attractive waitress about his “spying” role in the casino. His purpose was known throughout the hotel long before his hangover faded, making his services worthless.

Clients should also ask about the training of potential mystery players in areas such as blending in, inconspicuously taking notes, and secreting and protecting the information they gather. For example, notes and laptop files in an agent’s hotel room or ship cabin need to be inaccessible to housekeepers or cabin stewards.

In one case that was particularly amusing (only because the crisis was averted), an operative decided to go to the hotel’s business office late one night to print out his report. The business center’s printer malfunctioned. To ensure that no one intercepted the printout when the printer was fixed, the agent had to remain in the business office for the rest of that night until an employee showed up the next morning.

Mystery players must be knowledgeable about casino operations and must understand the fundamentals of each game well enough so that they can focus on watching the action without worrying they’ll blow their cover. An awareness of the rules of the games and the strategies employed legitimately, as well as illegitimately, by players will help the mystery player detect dishonest gaming.

The most effective service providers hire experienced casino game players or former employees of gaming establishments who can use their previous experience to advantage. Those not experienced in the gaming industry should at least enjoy gambling and receive training from the service in playing blackjack, three-card poker, roulette, craps, or whatever games will be offered at the site. The mystery player should be given training in the types of inappropriate behaviors they should be on the lookout for, including dealer and player cheating maneuvers.

During training, agents should also be taught ways to stay in character at the gaming table. An example is to learn not to react to any transgressions. In one case, an operative working on a cruise ship was shorted a $5 check on a bet payoff at craps. He complained to a supervisor and asked to see the tape of the transaction in the casino office. The tape revealed that the agent was right, but after the disruption he had caused, his value as a mystery player evaporated.

Contract provisions. Once a provider has been chosen, the casino signs a contract—sometimes for only a single visit, sometimes for repeated visits during the course of a year. Some companies will offer clients a sample visit and report. It may be prudent to ask about that option. The contract should include the agreed-upon payment rate, when the visit or visits will occur, and the date when the resulting report containing a faithful chronology and objective observations will be given to the client.

A typical visit entails a stay of about five days and four nights for two mystery players, including travel time for these individuals. This results in about three full days of observation. Expenses that the establishment is expected to reimburse the service provider for include airfare, local transportation, accommodations, meals, and tips. Personal purchases by the agents are not included.

The agents usually play two sessions per day of about three hours, with two to three hours of report writing time required daily. To do this, the agents must receive front money from the casino with which to play. At the end of the job, all funds should be returned.

Reports. Preliminary meetings between the client and provider should include a review of various report formats offered by the provider to make sure that the resulting intelligence is delivered in a way that is truly useful.

Preparatory training. Operatives who are up to snuff on casino games will still need additional training to become familiar with the particular casino’s operating policies and behavior expectations for personnel. Operating manuals, personnel policies, and performance guidelines should be given to the mystery players for review. If those cannot be distributed outside the company due to proprietary policy, then the person handling the contract for the provider should at least be permitted to read them on site and take approved notes of the most important aspects so that these can be relayed to the mystery players. For example, the operatives need to know when shifts change, whether single- and multi-deck shuffle machines are in use, or whether slots pay in tokens or paper receipts.

Mystery players also need to have access to pictures of all casino staff. Head and shoulders shots are best. This information will ensure that the players do not accidentally report the wrong employee as having breached policies and procedures. Agents are trained to keep the pictures secure in their hotel rooms.

If pictures cannot be provided, then at a minimum, a list of staff names must be available. This approach is less effective, however, because it leaves the agents to rely on nametags that can be obscured by long hair or can be unreadable because of distance. If neither pictures nor a list is provided, the operatives must rely on names they overhear or must report descriptions of employees. Both of these lead to identification errors.

Anonymity. Once a mystery player service has been selected, the casino must make sure that no one other than senior management, such as the CEO or security director, is aware that a covert operation is occurring. Casino managers, as noted earlier, should be kept in the dark.

The mystery players should remain anonymous, unless they overhear discussion of an impending egregious act, such as a planned robbery, or witness an act. Senior management should provide operatives with a client contact phone number for such emergencies. Barring that type of incident, however, agents are trained to first contact their service provider to decide the best course of action if they see or hear something.

Integrity tests. It is said that opportunity makes a thief. While mystery playing is mostly a passive act of observation, a number of integrity tests can be made to spot shady-hearted, as well as inattentive, dealers and cashiers.

At the roulette table, for instance, past posting can occur when the dealer’s eyes aren’t on the layout when he waves his hands and announces “no more bets” just before the ball drops into a number strip. This lack of attention may be due to boredom, fatigue, or laxity in following procedures. Another possibility is that the dealer is colluding with a cheater or is purposely being distracted by the cheater, a trick known as “turning the dealer.”

In one integrity test, the agent goes to a cashier cage with a bucket of silver dollar tokens. He turns to gaze mindlessly toward the casino floor while holding a drink. The idea is to give the impression to the cashier that the agent doesn’t know the sum of the tokens when in fact he or she does. Sometimes a dishonest cashier will pretend to pour all the tokens into the counter when in fact they hold back some or simply reach in and take a few when they think no one’s looking.

Another integrity test probes the possibility of dealer favoritism or dislike. The agent can look for and note any purposeful overpayments of bets, failure to collect all or portions of losing bets, offering playing advice beyond the casino’s policy, or inappropriate remarks, flirting, insults to players, or any other indications of dealer bias.

A third type of integrity test is of a casino slot machine technician. During this test, the agent plays a machine for a while, then stops a roving technician. The operative privately tells the technician that someone left a cup of coins and never returned. The client can later check to see whether the coins were turned in by the employee.

Off the floor. Agents also spend time in the gaming establishment’s other common areas, such as restaurants and lounges. This is not necessarily only to monitor customer service. Often conversations overheard can reveal other scams.

As an example, a mystery player in a casino bar late one night overheard two men bragging about their day’s take made by cheating. They also mentioned a dealer who was working with them. The operative contacted the service provider, which in turn passed information to the client. The casino surveillance department was able to pinpoint the table where the cheating had occurred and retrieve enough video evidence to warrant the arrest of all three men on the following day.

In another case, operatives detected a collusive scheme on the part of five bartenders to make extra money from customers by selling them drinks with less alcohol than they had paid for (called “underpouring”), then using that skimmed alcohol to make and sell extra drinks off register, pocketing the money from those drinks. One of the bartenders later admitted that the four were stealing approximately $4,000 per week and had been doing this for several years.

In gaming establishments, constant vigilance is necessary to ferret out dishonest players and employees who collude with cheaters or who facilitate cheating by failing to follow procedures. One casino director reported that mystery players resulted in tightening measures that boosted the casino’s bottom line by $480,000. That illustrates how casinos can win big from mystery players, but only if the contractor offers well-trained “spies” with qualified sets of eyes.

Doug Kelly is president of Kelly Security International, based in Clearwater, Florida. He specializes in casino mystery player services and technical surveillance countermeasures. A member of ASIS International, Kelly has authored other articles for Security Management and his mystery shopping services have been featured in newspapers and on TV.