Casinos beat the cheats

Biloxi –It’s been years since a camera was allowed into a surveillance room at a Mississippi casino.

But last week the Mississippi Gaming Commission and Beau Rivage Casino showed the Sun Herald what it takes to crack an international cheating ring and why the government is partnering with casinos for homeland security.

The Sun Herald also interviewed „John Doe,“ an undercover special agent for the MGC, who identified how the Tran Organization cheated at least 16 casinos in the United States and Canada, including three in Mississippi, out of USD 7 million. He interviewed several of the ringleaders for the FBI and used Beau Rivage surveillance tapes to discover how the ring operated.

Only one other unofficial person has entered the Beau Rivage surveillance room since the resort reopened after Hurricane Katrina in 2006. Anne Mockler, director of surveillance for Beau Rivage, unlocked an unmarked door down a series of back hallways that led into a bright room with gold-striped wallpaper.

This wasn’t the dark chamber made popular in Hollywood. It looked more like a typical computer workstation with four men seated at a long desk continually scanning the video monitors in front of them. Occasionally they peered up at the flat screens mounted on the wall and responded to a phone call by taking a closer look. At one point they zoomed in on a man they determined was counting cards, but not with the sophistication of the blackjack players in the movie „21.“

Mockler and Mississippi Gaming Commission Director of Enforcement Rich Randall weren’t impressed with the movie, which used „a lot of artistic license.“

Many regular blackjack players count cards, Mockler acknowledged. But unlike the movie, „there’s a lot of losses mixed with the wins.“ The movie also showed digital equipment that wasn’t in use in the 1980s, the era the movie is set in.

Katrina gave the Beau Rivage and some other Coast casinos the opportunity to go digital and become more advanced than casino surveillance in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. „It’s an extremely expensive conversion,“ said Randall, and casinos have to decide, „Do you want to invest USD 2 million on a restaurant or USD 2 million on a surveillance room?“

A door of the security suite at the Beau Rivage opens to a chilly equipment room where rolling racks of 14,000 VCR tapes have been replaced with stacks of digital RAID arrays and other equipment with 750,000 gigabytes of storage space. Surveillance technician Richard Gibbs said the hardware and software all have to pass Gaming Commission approval. „Everything in this room does, including myself and all the other employees,“ said Gibbs.

Now, instead of searching through tapes, with the click of a mouse the staff can flick back a couple of days and with a joystick zoom in on the recorded images. „The image quality is great,“ said Mockler.
In another room are the security cameras for the Beau Rivage. With about 1,600 cameras around the property, security and surveillance personnel are watching everything from these two rooms. „As a patron, you have people watching out for you,“ said Randall. In the casinos monitors are looking for anything suspicious and watching card changes, dealer actions and large cash transactions to see that standard procedure is followed.

„It’s a cat-and-mouse game,“ said Randall.

John Doe is one of the cats, who said between private companies that provide computer-based technology to help catch cheaters and cooperation between casinos and agencies, „we take crooks off the street.“ Every dollar the cheaters steal is tax money Mississippi doesn’t get.

He was instrumental in breaking the Tran casino-cheating ring, which got USD 1 million from three Mississippi casinos – Beau Rivage in Biloxi and Gold Strike and Horseshoe in Tunica – plus $ 6 million more from other casinos. They also had targeted the IP Casino in Biloxi.

„Nobody could figure out what they were doing,“ the agent said, but after reviewing hours of the Beau Rivage tapes, he noticed how the dealers were manipulating the deck with identical reverse sequencing. Tran members using cell phones near the blackjack and mini-baccarat tables were signaling the deals.

„We had a significant amount of the key people working here in the state,“ the MGC agent said, and he went under cover to interview some of the members of the ring for the FBI.

„I can’t believe he just did that,“ the investigators said when the MGC agent showed them the tapes he’d put together with the Beau Rivage surveillance team showing dealers helping the cheaters.

Nineteen people were arrested and „we did get quite a few pats on the back,“ he said, along with Beau Rivage, local prosecutors and the Biloxi Police Department, who helped with the investigation.

Randall and MGC Executive Director Larry Gregory said the commission has for years worked to develop partnerships with federal agencies, which have the resources, money and technology to go after criminals. Gregory said this investigation elevated Mississippi and told the world „what we do every day.“

Technology used to identify cheaters in the casinos has been shared with the Pentagon to stop corruption at federal agencies, the Washington Post reported, and Homeland Security officials are also looking at casino-security techniques to determine how it can help them.

The Tran members were charged with organized crime and face up to 20 years in jail plus millions of dollars in fines and forfeited property. The penalty for felony cheating by a casino employee or gambler is two years and a USD 5,000 fine for a first offense and the sentence doubles for a second offense.

Though the breakup of the Tran ring added to the mystique of the casino surveillance room, Mockler said her staff is on watch 24/7 because „cheating schemes come up every couple of years but opportunity is always there.“