Cheating in online casinos
As long as there has been gambling, there have been players seeking to cheat in order to win. These days, those efforts continue in the realm of online gambling, as players look for ways to break through the state-of-the-art digital security methods employed by online casinos. While the online cheating methods may be new, and the risks and rewards might be different, these players are part of a tradition of underhanded attempts to gain a gambling advantage that actually dates back hundreds of years.
The Wild West
Western movies tell us about a world where fights over card games happened with stunning regularity. There was no arbitration back then and shootouts were the common way of settling any disputes that might have arisen. Well, perhaps that isn't a truly accurate depiction of how things worked. Even in the early days the American West wasn't that wild, but stories did not simply come out of nowhere. There were real incidents where disputes over a hand of poker led to gunfights and death for some of the participants.
One famous example took place on Christmas Day in 1869. On that day, John Wesley Hardin, one of the most prolific gunslingers in the Old West, decided to play in a card game in the small town of Towash, Texas. Though the game began in high spirits (it was Christmas after all), things quickly turned ugly. Hardin would eventually end up in a heated argument over one hand with a man known as James Bradley. The two decided to settle it in a showdown on the streets of Towash. Despite Wesley's skill with a pistol, Bradley shot first, but missed; Hardin was far more accurate though and Bradley was shot and killed.
Stories like these happened time and time again throughout the 19th century. Famous names like Wild Bill Hickok and Doc Holliday repeatedly found themselves in situations where a gun proved a more valuable recourse for settling a gambling dispute, than a dealer.
The evolution of safe playing spaces
Over the years, it became obvious that poker and other gambling games couldn't survive without a safer environment in which to play these games. When casinos began to be developed in Las Vegas in the 1930s, they immediately became a haven for average gamblers to try their luck, rather than risking their lives in the illegal underground games that thrived in many cities. Slowly, the classic western saloons that had been so popular in the previous century began to fall out of favor with the gambling community.
That didn't mean that these casinos were entirely safe for everyone, of course. By the 1950s, organized crime had taken control of most of the major casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. Despite what this might suggest, the games themselves were most likely on the level for most players, most of the time. In fact, many of the groups behind the hotel-casinos constructed in this period saw them as a way of making legitimate income, even if the money used to develop these properties might have been from a far more dubious source. Las Vegas quickly put most major centers of illegal gambling out of business, thanks in large part to the legitimacy of Vegas compared to places like Galveston and Hot Springs.
Of course, not everyone was treated well in the days when organized crime ruled Las Vegas, and cheaters had an especially hard time of it when they were caught. According to many insiders from the era, there were a variety of methods used to "dissuade" cheaters from ever trying it again. Some casinos were content to just threaten or scare cheaters into returning their ill gotten winnings and making sure they'd never come back again. Even in casinos that took a hard line on cheaters, this was the preferred way of dealing with the "nickel-and-dime" cheats who hadn't cost casino a particularly large amount of money.
On the other hand, some big cheaters really did get the treatment that's now been made famous in movies and television shows. Broken bones and bloodied faces were often used as a way to let cheaters know they weren't welcome to return, with the distinct implication that even worse might be waiting for them if they tried again. Usually, this was enough to get the message through to the scammers.
Meanwhile, other players continued to find games wherever they could, particularly in the world of poker. Since the widespread popularity of casino poker games is a relatively new phenomenon, players often looked for games wherever they could be found. Doyle Brunson, Amarillo Slim and other famous early poker legends toured the United States looking for juicy games wherever they could make a quick score.
But while these games were lucrative, they were also dangerous; Brunson himself recalls instances where he was robbed, beaten, or had guns pulled on him during games. While such games still exist, the modern professional poker player can play a variety of safe poker games at casinos just about anywhere in the world, or simply play online poker from the comfort of their own home.
Modern casino security
While the modern casino isn't immune to cheaters and their methods, a variety of techniques are used to minimize their impact and virtually guarantee that a cheater will be caught after the fact, even if they get away with the scheme initially.
The first line of defense for the casino is the dealer themselves. Dealers today are incredibly well-trained to perform their jobs in the same manner, day in and day out. This lowers the risk of lazy or sloppy dealers missing a scam that's taking place. If you've ever played in a live casino, you've probably seen dealers stop the action and call over a supervisor when even the most minor issue crops up, or if anything out of the ordinary happens; this is to ensure that there is no possibility of an unfair game taking place, either in terms of a cheating player or some error that would change the odds of the game.
But the biggest weapon in the casino's arsenal is undoubtedly the extensive network of security cameras that can be found in just about every live casino around the world. Every action taken by every person in the casino is recorded, allowing a record to exist for later examination. Casino employees are constantly watching the camera feeds as well, keeping an eye out for suspicious activity that they might be able to catch on the fly.
In recent years, more advanced technological aids have also been employed to help casinos figure out who might be cheating them, as well as to catch advantage players - those players who aren't doing things that are strictly against the rules and who have found a way to gain an edge over the casino. Perhaps the best example is the use of facial recognition software. This software can allow cameras to notice when a known cheat has entered a casino, even before any human casino personnel have recognized them, making it easier than ever to keep unwanted guests off the casino floor before they even get into a game. Other programs can track betting histories of individuals and groups of players in the hopes of catching suspicious patterns that could indicate advantage plays or cheating.
A scam that worked - For a while
No matter how hard the casinos try to keep cheaters out, though, some groups will continue to penetrate their defenses and succeed at scamming casinos for large amounts of money, at least until they get caught. One recent example is that of the Tran Organization, which developed a system by which they managed to rip casinos off for nearly $7 million.
The scam was complex in the number of players who were involved: over 40 members of the Tran Organization would eventually plead guilty to various charges for taking part in the scam. However, the actual techniques used were rather simple. Essentially, Van Thu Tran and her husband (the leaders of the group) found ways to bribe dealers into helping them at baccarat, Pai Gow poker and blackjack tables at nearly 30 different casinos across the United States and Canada. Tran would work to seduce and bribe male dealers into doing exactly what the group needed in order to make their scheme successful.
The scam was based around a very simple concept: a false shuffle. After watching the initial distribution of cards in a given game, the players would wait for the dealers to keep some of those cards together in a fixed group. These cards, known as a "slug", would then show up again during the next shoe, allowing the conspirators to place large winning bets with full knowledge of the cards to come.
Over time, increasing the number of people in their group allowed the Tran Organization to add card trackers who used concealed devices to record the order of the cards in each slug. This information was then relayed to computer operators, who in turn gave instructions of when to bet and when to stay away to the designated bettors. The organization also utilized scouts to figure out which casinos would give them the best chances to successfully cheat.
While the scam was about as well-conceived as any could be, the Tran Organization was eventually caught. Casinos and law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, began watching for evidence of the scam, and caught the cheaters in the act. In May 2007, 19 members of the group were arrested, and eventually, the rest of the group would be brought in as well.
Card counting or a legitimate tactic?
Among the general public, card counting is perhaps the most widely-known form of casino "cheating," though it is widely misunderstood. Movies such as Rainman have left most people believing that card counting relies on the ability to keep track of every card in the deck, allowing card counters to know exactly what cards will come and when and win easily. Even the film's depiction of casino personnel supports this view, with one man saying that it's impossible to count through an eight-deck shoe.
In reality, card counting is not nearly this difficult - but it also doesn't turn players into instant millionaires. There are many card counting techniques out there, but they all rely on keeping track of which cards have come out of the shoe in order to have an idea of what cards still remain in it. By knowing the composition of the shoe, a card counter can adjust their bets, attempting to wager more when the shoe favors them (generally when more aces and high cards are remaining in the shoe) and less, or even not at all, when the shoe is overloaded with unfavorable low cards. In advanced systems, card counters will push this advantage by adjusting basic strategy when the shoe's math suggests it is correct, such as taking insurance when the odds justify it. By doing this, the card counter will get a small edge over the casino: but not much more than what the casino would normally have over the typical blackjack player.
Of course, the casinos hate letting a player hold an advantage over them. That's why casinos have taken plenty of measures to dissuade or prevent card counting. But one thing most casinos agree with players on is that strictly speaking, card counting isn't cheating. Players aren't using any illegal devices, doing anything to influence the cards that are coming, or altering the results of each hand; they're simply betting strategically based on the information being given to them.
But just because you're not cheating doesn't mean the casino has to stand by and watch you play at an advantage. In most jurisdictions, it's perfectly acceptable for a casino to simply refuse you service; they may bar you from the casino entirely, or (more likely these days) just ask you to try playing one of the many other fine games they have on offer. They might also try to distract a suspected card counter to throw him or her off their game.
Some casinos have made some more structural changes to their games in order to prevent card counting. Many casinos now use automatic shufflers that constantly recycle the cards in the shoe; this effectively prevents card counting, as the composition of the shoe hardly changes at all from hand to hand. Other casinos have chosen not to do this; in many cases, inviting "card counting" leads to a handful of successful counters beating the casino, but multitudes of pretenders losing due to their poor understanding of how card counting works.
Online gambling has brought a whole new world of opportunities for players to enjoy their favorite casino games from home. But it has also opened up a new arena in which casino operators must be on guard against the potential for cheaters to prosper. And while in some ways online casinos are much more secure than their live counterparts, there have been examples of cheating even in online gambling.
Of course, the traditional methods of cheating won't work in the digital world. You can't mark the cards, you can't hide anything up your sleeves, and you can't adjust your bets at the last minute. In fact, in most online casino games, the only way a player could cheat would be by exploiting a bug in the casino software, or - if it were possible - to gain access to the random number generator (RNG) that determined the results of each hand or spin. Modern online casinos often even prevent this by making sure the RNG only operates after the players have already made their bets or decisions.
There are two areas in which online casinos and poker rooms have shown some vulnerability to cheating. First, there's cheating from the side of the casino. Often, players accuse major casino sites of having cheated them just because they lose; in most cases, these claims are entirely unfounded, and can be proven so mathematically by analyzing large numbers of bets. However, there are some rogue casino sites out there that have been known to cheat players. These casinos generally come and go from the online casino scene rapidly, quickly appearing on blacklists that circulate around the internet. This is one of the major reasons why players are usually advised to play only at online casinos with strong reputations; while most online casinos are on the up-and-up, it's certainly possible for a new site that's using some unknown software to be pulling some kind of scam.
Online poker has also famously had its share of issues with cheating. In the early days of online poker, some ambitious players figured out that the RNG at one poker site didn't produce a completely random set of "decks;" instead, it chose from about only 200,000 different possible deck configurations. This allowed the players to know what flop was coming if they knew the hands being held by three players – an example of how early online gambling wasn't nearly as secure as it is today.
In more modern times, issues like the "Superuser" scandal at Absolute Poker showed how a player inside a company that had access to an administrative account which allowed them to see the hands held by all players could win at will. That particular cheating scandal may be the most famous in the history of online gambling, having been covered on the mainstream media after being uncovered by players who realized the guilty party was having an impossible level of success at the tables.
Players have looked for other ways to cheat as well, though these methods are constantly being fought by major poker rooms. For instance, some players have developed "bots". These are automated computer gamblers that take their places at the tables and play according to pre-programmed strategies 24/7. Others have tried working together in collusion rings, sharing the contents of their hands and working together to win pots. However, poker rooms have taken steps to combat these measures, and players who are caught using these or other illegal tactics are banned, with some sites going so far as to refund every penny to players who lost money to their cheating opponents.
Cheating: Is it worth the risk?
In the end, casino cheating is a high-risk, high-reward proposition. There's a lot of money out there in the casino industry, and that makes it a very tempting target for those inclined to cheat or scam their way into riches.
But overall, it's hard to see cheating as being a worthwhile enterprise in gambling. At both live and online casinos, security measures have risen to the point where even envisioning getting away with a scam requires complex planning and meticulous attention to detail. And even if you don't make a single mistake, you'll eventually catch the eye of casino security, law enforcement, other players, or some combination of all three. At that point, the consequences can be severe, including massive fines and potentially even jail time. For most people, that should be more than enough to keep their play on the level.
There are many additional casino cheating stories out there, and some are truly stranger than fiction. We have gathered up some interesting resources for you to continue exploring.
You can read all about the Tran organization and their scam here: https://www.fbi.gov/news/stories/casino-cheating-ring-dismantled.
Ever wondered about how to cheat slot machines? You can read about the master cheater, Tommy Glenn Carmichael, here: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2003-aug-17-adna-cheat17-story.html
eCogra is the home of THE standard in casino testing and player protection. They are there to ensure you have a safe environment. Their site can be found at eCogra.org.
If you feel like seeing a scam in action, then this movie is one of Hollywood's classic portrayal's of how to beat a casino: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0240772/