In the last year of the old millennium a large group of Armenians swept across Europe’s casinos with the simplest of tricks which made them hundreds of thousands. In countries from the far East of Europe to the tip of Spain they managed to confuse casino management and surveillance departments or in some cases the lack of surveillance departments. Operating as far North as Scandinavia, the word was spread throughout security circles, that here was a group of card counter, shuffle trackers or in some cases blackjack computer users.
What they had brought with them from behind the “Iron Curtain” was something that to my knowledge we had never seen before in casinos with a long standing history of gaming experience. A simple trick of using the cutting card, to disguise the thumbing of the first five or six cards of the deck, when offered by the dealer for the cut. I didn’t have a chance to witness their activity and so like most others I believed the modus operandi which was spread around throughout security groups.
A year later when I arrived for work, I joined two of the managers who were already in the surveillance room, going over events which had occurred earlier in the day. We were watching a blackjack game where the players had walked away with a healthy win following their afternoons play. A Czech and two Belarusian men and a young beautiful Belarusian girl. This was a typical casino for this part of Central Europe with a reasonable camera system but no surveillance department. As we watched the play mostly in fast forward we all three noticed in unison some strange activity with the cutting card.
The scam works like this the couple will take up seats in the centre of the blackjack table while their two accomplices will sit on trap one and trap seven. Only the male partner will play, after a fairly large buy-in of around ten thousand dollars, the scene is set for a nouveaux rich young couple, sipping champagne and having a good time. Their associates will act like flunkies to this rich young guy and will not play but the roll of the accomplice on seat number one is to observe the last card in the pack when it is offered for the cut, this will be their marker. They will take the table staff into their confidence and reward them with big tips, they play with the staff stroking the dealer’s hand with the cutting card for luck and manoeuvring the offered six decks of cards so they are horizontal with the table and not vertical to the player. When they start to go to work, the tip is given to the dealer precisely at the time when he offers the cards to be cut. The tip is thrown in by the girl sitting to the left hand of the big player who places the chips near to the tip box, because dealers don’t like tips to see too much daylight, the dealer will cross his left hand over his body and attempt to drop the tips into the tip box on his right. The table supervisor was seen to assist him by removing the plunger from the tip box. With everyone’s concentration on the tips going into the box the player will place the cutting card flat on top of the pack this will be part on the pack and part off, shielding his thumb which is fanning the front of the pack. The player lowers his head to memorise the first half a dozen cards (in the event of two cutting cards being in use, the first card of the pack becomes the marker). He now takes the cutting card and will cut the pack at between fifty to sixty cards from the back of the pack. These fifty-odd cards are now transferred to the front of the pack and placed into the shoe.
The deal begins and the player, betting small, will cover all seven boxes, the first two hands are played out using up approximately twenty cards per hand. On the third hand he now fills up every box to the table maximum, which in this case was a thousand per box. After the first fifteen cards have been dealt, it is now about time for the marker card to appear, on seeing this he will attempt to steer a bad card into the dealer’s hand, successfully busting out the dealer on every occasion.
Now comes the unknown bonus, management believing that these are card counters because of their unusual play, now give the order for the deck to be cut in half by the dealer, bringing about more opportunities for the shuffle within the limitations of the time played.
As in a lot of scams the perpetrators being so successful now start to become more and more audacious. In this case we could see the girl having a little argument with the other scammers, it was her turn now and she wanted to try it. Allowing her to perform the trick she showed too, to her friends that she could also do this not so difficult thing. Now it was time to leave, everyone had had a good time including the table staff!
In the next year two other groups from the former Soviet Union attempted this scam in my place of work. On one occasion a well known Ukrainian hand mucker and poker cheat had decided to change his style of deception, although by the time I discovered him he had already compromised one shoe of blackjack.
And on another occasion two well known local members of the Russian mafia had been commandeered by two other Russian scam artists to join in the scam. Although the two local Russians were sometimes troublesome, I personally had never had a problem with them until this occasion. On a busy Saturday night the two local Russians had taken their places at one of the high limit blackjack tables and on the adjacent high limit blackjack the two new comers. It has to be said that we were suspicious of them from the outset; the local Russians had bought in for $20,000 and were playing moderately as were the two new faces. At one point in the evening I was passing by the tables and I noticed that the two locals had switched tables and decided to play together with the newcomers. I noticed that they had just filled all seven boxes to the maximum; on looking into the discard I also noticed that there was a stub of about forty odd cards there. I immediately ordered the dealer to take out the cards from the shoe and give them a reshuffle, a very unusual request, the dealer seemed stunned and hesitated and you can imagine the reaction from the four Russians. Although I have survived to tell the tale.
Of course the introduction of shuffling machines will put an end to this type of scam especially in Europe where ignorance of card counting is more prevalent amongst casino executives and surveillance. However we have in recent years seen the emergence of a South African card counting team who are beating the continual shuffling machines all around the world. Although this team are originally card counters and shuffle trackers by profession, these advantage players have come up with a unique scheme to defeat the CSMs. Here again I suspect a very simple trick is being deployed. What we hear on the grapevine is that when the previous hand is reintroduced into the back of the machine the cards are sometimes accepted by the revolving Ferris wheel in clumps of four to five cards into a vacant cell or card stacking shelf and not inserted one at a time as usual. The player sitting close to the machine is able to hear this and together with his associates will memorise each hand until they hear that a clump has been accepted by the machine. Since they have calculated through statistical analysis the diagnostics of the machine this sequence of cards will be followed on its journey to the redistribution point. Having only played head to head with the dealer, each hand will consist of only a few cards which are needed to be memorised.
It has been suggested that because of this, the players are tracking aces or groups of high cards through the machine but to my reasoning why should they wait for the coincidence of high value cards and a clump of cards being accepted by the machine. Having not witnessed their play or yet been privy to any recordings of their play, I rather believe they may be using the same simple trick of memorising the hands and using this knowledge to bust out the dealer. The real trick and this may still be the mystery is knowing when these cards will form the next or part of the next hand and this is when they now switch from playing moderately to maximum bets.
The senior member of the team who sits next to the machine and flat bets playing basic strategy is the one who listens for when a clump of cards is accepted. A younger member of the team is used for memorizing each hand until the clump is taken in and he only takes part when it is time to lay down the big bet, knowing that this clump will appear in the next distribution batch.
Although at the end of the day whatever method they are using is irrelevant, it remains that they are consistently winning and have most definitely found a way to compromise the continual shuffling machines.
By John Connolly