Issue 19 Chance Fall 2005
What's Luck Got to Do with It?
Sasha Archibald and Courtney Stephens
There are essentially two ways of beating a game of chance. The first involves fixing the course of play to alter the natural outcome of the game—weighted dice, consortiums between dealers and players, cards up the sleeve, and so on. The second refuses the premise of chance altogether, using laws of probability, statistics, and physics to accurately predict the game’s outcome, the most common example being card-counting. Practitioners of the latter are called “system players,” and the former, “sharpers,” “hand-muckers,” “subway dealers,” and a host of other colorful sobriquets, “cheater” among them. Both methods require ingenuity, invention, and nerve, but there is an ethical distinction to be made; it is for good reason that marked decks are illegal and card-counting is not. Yet, given the billions of dollars spent on casino surveillance and the overwhelming house advantage—casinos make as high as thirty percent profit on slot machines and keno—perhaps anyone who wins against the casino commands a modicum of regard, no matter their method. The industry’s bread and butter are players who think they can win but won’t; a few of the exceptions are assembled below.
Spurred by Einstein’s dismissive “No one can possibly win at roulette unless he steals money from the table,” a group of UC Berkeley and Reed College physics students in the late 1970s dubbed themselves the Eudemons and began constructing a computer that would accurately predict the final resting place of a roulette ball. Designed to fit in an Oxford shoe and hold the weight of a person—no small feat in the late 1970s—the computer was only slightly more sophisticated than the Eudemons’ feedback device: a series of solenoid buzzers (also located in players’ shoes) that pulsed winning numbers in code. One player used his left toe to enter data on the wheel (to set the parameters of the equation) and his right toe to click each rotation of the ball. A second player standing nearby received the computer’s prediction via solenoid buzzes against the arch of his left foot and bet accordingly. The elaborate scheme was unfortunately plagued by electrical short-circuits, computer malfunctions, and a variance in roulette wheels’ degree of “tilt” that skewed the basic algorithm. The players’ nervous sweating also caused problems. After years of difficulty and innumerable delays, the betters made their last fully equipped trip to Nevada in 1980 and gave up after a few hours. The only group that ultimately planned to use their earnings for the social good—all proceeds were to have been pooled into the Eudemonic Pie, a fund slated for protecting forested land in Oregon, building dirigibles, and setting up a commune—failed to turn a profit.
American Roulette: How I Turned the Odds Upside Down—My Wild Twenty-Five-Year Ride Ripping off the World’s Casinos is the self-explanatory title of Richard Marcus’s account of his career as a professional casino cheater. Finding himself homeless in Las Vegas after a gambling bout, Marcus applied for a position as blackjack dealer, and was eventually recruited by a well-organized scam team. Their method used sleight of hand, psychological manipulation, and sheer audacity to essentially convince pit bosses that the bets revealed at the close of a hand were other than what was apparent at the start of play. In their most successful scam, Marcus and his comrades would hide high-value chips under low bets and claim their full value only if their hand won. If they lost, they would retract the high-value chip so furtively that on the infrequent occasions they were exposed it was almost always by fellow players rather than casino personnel.
In March of 2004, three Serbian roulette players visiting London equipped their mobile phone with a velocity-sensitive laser scanner linked wirelessly to a nearby laptop. The scanner read the location of the roulette ball as it was released and then marked the moment it passed two designated points on the wheel. The data then streamed to a laptop in an upstairs hotel room, which by calculating the velocity of the spin (tempered by its decaying orbit) indicated the ball’s probable final resting place. Before the third rotation of the wheel, after which bets cannot be altered, the prediction was relayed back to the gambler via her cell phone display, for a total turnaround time of just over two seconds. The threesome made 1.3 million pounds in two nights at London’s Ritz before police arrested them in their hotel. They’d apparently broken no existing law and were allowed to keep their loot.
An extracurricular student club at MIT in the mid-1990s became one of the most celebrated card-counting rings, made famous by Ben Mezrich’s bestseller, Bringing Down the House. Students initially learned the method from UCLA professor Edward Thorp’s 1962 gambling classic, Beat the Dealer, which was itself based on an article published by four army engineers in Journal of the American Statistical Association in 1956. Thorp’s system—still revered by blackjack players—involves keeping a running tally of every card played; the count at any given moment suggests whether there are more high or low cards remaining to be dealt. The method yields a solid two percent advantage, but is fairly easy to detect and requires a large monetary investment for a relatively small yield. The MIT ring made a number of improvements to the system, the most significant being the division of labor between Spotters (who counted and bet small), Gorillas (who played dumb but bet big, based on the spotter’s signal) and Big Players (who counted carefully and bet big, becoming familiar to casino houses as high-rollers with money to burn). Team members studied and adopted personas for each role that exploited the casino’s expectations: blond women with overdone makeup did well as Spotters, while Big Players were most convincing as expensively-dressed young Asian men. Flying from Boston to Vegas every two weeks for two years, the team made over three million dollars. They were eventually betrayed by another MIT student who for $25,000 sold information on the team, including photos and personal info, to a private security firm. Following their expulsion from Vegas, three of the former team members founded the Blackjack Institute, a highly successful consulting business for card counters. Their website, www.blackjackinstitute.com—formerly mitblackjack.com, until a successful lawsuit by MIT—offers live seminars, home training courses on DVD, and a weekend of private instruction for $3,000.
In 2003, the Las Vegas Nevada Gaming Commission added “career slot cheat” Tommy Glen Carmichael to its Black Book of excluded players. Carmichael began cheating slot machines in 1980 with a “top bottom joint,” a crude metal device that was inserted up through the machine’s coin release slot to generate a massive payout. A five-year stint in jail (a useful opportunity to collude with other slot cheaters) increased the sophistication of his methods, as did the advent of electronic slot machines in the mid-1980s. In 1992, Carmichael perfected a gadget—a mini-light bulb rigged to a camera battery that when shined into the electronic slot machine would “blind” its sensor and trigger a payout—with which he claims to have made $10,000 a day from the slots, and even more in sales to other cheats. Eventually caught in the act by a surveillance camera, Carmichael was banned from ever again entering a casino, and is currently promoting what he claims is the first ever slot machine anti-theft device, dubbed the Protector.
Sasha Archibald is associate editor of Cabinet.
Courtney Stephens is an assistant editor at Cabinet.
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