Hidden cameras are everywhere in Las Vegas, a magnet for professional cheats

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July 2004 Scotland on Sunday

THIS is better than James Bond. I’m standing at an internal phone on the gaming floor of the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. I’ve arranged to call Conrad Steffen, the hotel’s surveillance supervisor, and now we need a place to meet. I tell him which phone I’m at and he asks me to look over to my left. “No, not your left, your right,” he says as I turn. That’s when I realise he can see me. He’s watching me on his closed circuit TV. Freaky or what?

In this town built on gambling, the hidden cameras are everywhere. A hotel such as the Mandalay Bay might have 850 monitoring the casino and another 700 for the non-gaming areas. The moment you leave your hotel room, a hidden eye is tracking you. “We want people to believe we’ve got a 1000 people up there watching every camera,” says Steffen, refusing to disclose the actual number of security staff.

It’s the job of people like Steffen to spot erratic behaviour, to look out for those tell-tale ticks that separate holiday gamester from professional conman. “It’s their body language,” says Steffen when we come face to face at the mini baccarat tables. “I’ve always been someone who observed and watched people. I can just see them as they walk into the casino. I’ll say, ‘Watch that guy,’ and 15 minutes later we’ll find him doing something. Long before he actually does it, I can see in his face that he’s up to no good.”

Steffen is a mild-mannered man with the kind of four-square physique that would make any card-sharp think twice. He has to know the rules of every game, make sure staff are following correct procedures and keep his eyes peeled. He once caught a team after they’d raked in $350,000 by exploiting a glitch in a slot machine. He suspects another man of stealing $6m from craps tables around Las Vegas. This is big business.

One of his key tasks is to identify card counters playing blackjack. Keeping a tally of the cards on the table allows the seasoned gambler to anticipate the value of the remaining cards and to bet accordingly. Although it’s not illegal, the casinos like to keep the odds in their own favour and will politely ask anyone who jeopardises that to leave.

“We don’t find something absolutely illegal going on that often – on average close to once a month – but we do catch card counters several times a week,” says Steffen. “There are a number of ways to identify them. They’re not going to bet the same amount every time and we look for people who have a large bank roll. Card counters will generally have $5000 in this pocket, $5000 in that pocket and maybe something in their sock. You don’t have your normal tourist loaded up like that.”

The joke is that to spot a card counter it pays to be a card counter yourself, which is exactly why Steffen is so good at the job. He’s even devised a foolproof counting system of his own and it’s only the rigours of the card-counting life that stops him using it. “No-one could touch me,” he says. “When I came up with my system, it was very difficult for me to figure out how I would catch someone doing it. I once met a Japanese guy who was involved in a group of 32 players. The year before he won $1.2m counting cards. To do that you’ve got to travel. He was putting in an average of 80 hours a week, travelling all over the world because you can’t spend too much time in one place. It’s not a lifestyle for a family man.”

Although you might question the appeal of visiting a town dedicated to cleaning you out, you shouldn’t write off Las Vegas. I’m no gambler and I found the place tremendously entertaining. The scale of the dedication to gambling is a sight in itself. Every one of the 30 or so hotels that dominate the centre is the size of a shopping mall and each one has a vast floor crammed with one-armed bandits, roulette tables, money wheels, bingo games, craps tables and any other way they can tempt the money out of your wallet. You will notice that instead of saying “Enjoy your stay,” the receptionists say, “Good luck”.

I spent my first night simply walking from one hotel to the next, wide-eyed at the bright lights and excessiveness of it all. I didn’t spend a penny. It’s fascinating just to watch the parties whooping it up at the craps tables, the dead-eyed addicts feeding the slots and the seasoned professionals trying to beat the system. When that pleasure pales, you can gape at the over-the-top entertainment that many of the hotels lay on, whether it’s the pirate show at Treasure Island, the fountains at the Bellagio or the fun fair at New York-New York.

But it would have seemed futile to travel all the way to Nevada without enjoying a flutter, so one afternoon I withdrew $120 at the Monte Carlo hotel, assumed I was going to lose it and headed to the casino floor. I called first at the roulette table, reckoning you couldn’t go too far wrong choosing colours and numbers. The table had a $5 minimum bet, which was a bit alarming, but I decided to play up to $40 and not gamble any winnings. I left 20 minutes later with $91 to my name. It felt like an achievement to have any money left at all.

To lower the pressure I went next door to New York-New York where I knew there were some penny falls – my favourite way of losing money since childhood. What I didn’t know was they were in the gaming area reserved for children and they paid out in “smile points”. I was chuffed to rake in 186 smiles, but nonplussed to exchange them for three cheap firemen, one badly painted dinosaur and two pairs of trick sunglasses – surely not worth the $6.25 I’d gambled. Still, it was the only booty I finally brought home with me.

So over the road to the MGM hotel for some hot slot action. The cheapest one-armed bandits are just 25c, which sounds like good value until you’re tempted to win bigger amounts by playing three coins at a time. I generally lost, but had the occasional $3 win which would put me at least at breakeven again. By this time, though, my pockets were so laden with quarters that it was impossible to keep track of how much I had. And with all those coins it was too easy to keep playing.

By the end of the afternoon I was down to $70. It gets hazy after that, but set against the evening’s many losses were wins of $11 and $26, which meant I still had half my original stake by bedtime. A win the next morning made me imagine it might be possible to claw my way back to breakeven point, but even taking out club membership at the Palms Hotel to get a free $10 bet couldn’t halt my slide into ruin. By 3.30pm I was down to my last 25c. And that didn’t win either.

Be warned. Once you’ve got into the gambling habit Las Vegas makes it very difficult to snap out of it. Everyone tells you about the time they won $500, but no-one mentions the money they frittered away. Any time you have 15 minutes to kill, there’s always a hungry slot machine offering to pass the time. They’re the first thing you see when you get off the plane and the last thing you see before you return home. I know: I was the sucker still withdrawing cash at the airport because I’d just blown my last $20 on a fruit machine. Maybe I’ll get lucky next time.

© Mark Fisher 2004/2009

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