When the dealer at Table #206 at Ontario’s Casino Rama started flipping cards for a mini-baccarat game, there was little doubt among the high rollers who would win. On that hand, dealt at 8:42 p.m. on Oct. 24, 2003, two players raked in CAD 6,500.
That was chump change, however – just one hand in an astonishingly successful swindle.
When the gang hit the tables in earnest, they walked away from the Orillia casino with CAD 2,062,927 in winnings, according to U.S. prosecutors.
Over the next five years, the joint Canada-U.S. gang stripped casinos of tens of millions of dollars with a cheating system built around corrupt card dealers and mini radio transmitters bought at a commercial spy-gadget shop in Toronto.
It eventually sparked the largest casino-cheat investigation ever undertaken in Canada or the United States. The sprawl of the gang continues to be unveiled in courts on both sides of the border. A long list of conspirators has already pleaded guilty and, this week, another 11 people were freshly indicted in California, partly on evidence from a Canadian who is co-operating with authorities.
After so many years of making a killing at casino after casino, the gang could be forgiven for thinking their system was foolproof.
The bosses – most of whom were related, extending to three generations of family members working the scheme in Canada – were living a life of luxury, dripping with flashy diamond-and-gold jewellery, multiple homes and fancy sports cars.
The casino cheat team, however, had humble beginnings.
The system was concocted by a husband and wife who were both dealers at a casino on an Indian reservation in California.
Phuong Quoc Truong and Van Thu Tran mastered a „false shuffle“ that, in 2002, allowed friends to win small amounts at their casino. Truong was later caught and fired.
Undaunted, they joined with Tran’s brother, Khai Hong Tran, 49, who lived in Windsor and over years finessed their system into a high-tech, cross-border effort worthy of a Hollywood movie.
First, they sought out casino dealers who were offered bribes – often thousands of dollars – to join the conspiracy.
„For the system to work, they needed people on both sides of the card table to be involved,“ said Ontario Provincial Police Detective-Constable Dave Balun, who investigated the Canadian portion of the case.
In hotel rooms, dealers were trained to perform a false shuffle in which a block of cards appears to be shuffled properly, but is really left in the same order they were dealt in the previous game.
„This allowed the members and associates of the enterprise to track the cards … and predict the order in which they were dealt in the next game,“ according to a U.S. indictment.
Once a corrupt dealer was in place, members of the group would sit at his casino table and play blackjack or mini-baccarat.
One member of the team was designated as the „tracker.“ It was his job to record the order of cards used during play. For blackjack, he would use a miniature microphone, transmitter and cellular telephone to relay the order of cards to another conspirator, who entered the order of the cards into a computer. (For baccarat games, the cards were often just written down on a paper form casinos provide players in the normal course of play.) After using the cards once, the dealer would perform the false shuffle.
When the cards started coming out in the same order, the computer operator would predict the winner of each hand and radio it to the tracker who had a miniature earpiece to receive the call.
The tracker would then tell the players – sometimes by flipping a cigarette, other times by rubbing an eyebrow – which hand would win. The appropriate players would then dramatically increase their bets.
The system averaged USD 50,000 in winnings each 10 minutes of play, according to U.S. indictments. On one occasion, the group made off with USD 868,000 in just 90 minutes of play at a casino near Chicago.
The players then passed their large piles of casino chips to co-operating movers, who cashed them in amounts under USD 10,000 to avoid the mandatory reporting of large transactions by casinos to the government.
Often gathering back in a hotel room, the bosses then paid out a portion of the winnings to the other participants.
Authorities traced the Tran organization’s swindles to at least 15 U.S. casinos and two in Canada: Casino Rama and a charity casino in Brantford, Ont.
Things started going awry for the gang in 2006. Investigators had begun to probe the losses. Some of the bribed dealers co-operated with police in return for not being charged.
On June 6, 2006, Truong met with a man he thought was a Mississippi casino dealer but was really an undercover U.S. agent. The agent was trained in the art of the false shuffle in a hotel room.
In the United States, 30 people have been indicted, more than half of whom have since pleaded guilty.
In Ontario, police arrested 19 people, including seven casino employees, last year. Of those, 12 have since resolved their charges with pleas, co-operating with police, or with charges being stayed.
Earlier this month, Windsor’s Khai Tran pleaded guilty to participating in a criminal organization. He received a sentence of more than 2½ years, believed to be the longest sentence given in Canada for a gambling offence.
Other defendants in Canada have a preliminary hearing currently underway.