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Eye in the Sky or Spy in the Sky

Las Vegas Security and Surveillance


Lynn Rosen and Steve Giordano

Photos by Steve Giordano


  Poker hand   Poker chips
Not a bad hand...
Chips Ahoy!

Treasure Island, Las Vegas

It's not easy to cheat a casino, but that doesn't stop people from trying. In Las Vegas, the effort to keep the games honest involves elaborate surveillance, rigorous procedures and shrewd observers.

At Treasure Island, we took an Eye in the Sky security/surveillance tour to gain some understanding of the ways casinos protect themselves. We were met by Richard Amalfitano, vice president of table games. Richie, as he is known by everyone, oversees gaming on the casino floor and has an institutional memory of 32 years along with savvy experience that goes very deep.

"I watch the property," he said. "When I come into the casino in the morning, I first check to see that the property is in order. I check dealer procedures and customer behavior." These are his two priorities.
He goes by the proviso-"I trust, but everyone's suspicious."

By design, Richie blends in with the customers. He wears an unobtrusive yet stylish golf shirt and handsome slacks, but nothing flashy. He wears no badge, no fancy suit, no official costume. If you didn't know him, you couldn't identify him as the Man in Charge on the casino floor.

"The first thing we're concerned about is customer service," said Amalfitano. " But if someone is making a $10,000 bet, you can bet we'll ask for ID."

Every table in the casino has at least one glass bubble hovering above it. And every bubble contains a camera - an "eye in the sky." All together, there are 997 cameras on the Treasure Island property. Some cameras are so small, they are undetectable, such as those imbedded in the grill bars on the cashier's counter facing out toward the customer. Many cameras you can plainly make out in the bubbles above the 64 gaming tables. There are also cameras watching the slot machines, the hallways, the entrances, the parking garages, the elevators and - who knows where else?

Some tables have more than one camera that can be focused on the dealers and the players, such as the high-stakes Baccarat tables. During our visit, one regular customer, who reserves her own table and was making $25,000 bets, had five cameras trained on her transactions. Bet-switching is one type of cheating they see a lot, where the bettor, on getting a winning hand, will try to slip a $100 chip under the $5 chip he actually bet. Cameras from side angles can reveal the number and value of chips in a stack.

Casino operators have a couple of valuable tools at their disposal. The Griffin Book in casino parlance is the Security Book or the Black Book of Bad Guys. Established in 1967 by ex-metro Vegas cop, Bob Griffin, The Griffin Book lists the pedigrees of suspicious and "known" grifters, muckers, cheaters and more. They do alerts for card counters and holers, weak dealers who carelessly flash the hole card - some players make a living off it. Card counters can be asked to leave any property even though counting cards is not illegal.

  Crap table sees a lot of action  
Crap table sees a lot of action

This information is also tied to a computer database to which all casinos are linked. Casinos with gaming licenses can legally subscribe to this service. For each suspicious character, the data base includes multiple photos, a complete physical description along with each suspect's gaming specialty and history. It's remarkably detailed. If someone in security spots a "known character" in the casino, a database search for a number of leading elements turns up information on this person within seconds. There are tens of thousands of names in the database.

The casinos also subscribe to SIN, the Surveillance Information Network, which shares a data base of known suspicious characters. SIN profiles in much the same way as the Griffin data base.

The Nevada Gaming Control Board, which regulates gaming in the state, is bigger than the FBI. It's affiliated with Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, ATF, and has the authority to seize anything it deems suspicious. And yes, some security guards do carry concealed weapons.

  Treasure Island Hotel and Casino  
Treasure Island Hotel and Casino

Have your Las Vegas weddings at an elegant hotel like Treasure Island Las Vegas

Kim Smith, Director of Surveillance for Treasure Island, supervises the "Eye in the Sky backstage" room. He met us after lunch and led us through a nondescript "exit" door, down a labyrinth of hallways and through an unmarked Chinese red door into the small surveillance room. It contained three working people, three or four desks and racks of video monitors (36 on one wall) and VCRs (over 300 that we could see) that record every move, everywhere. They record 1,230 tapes per day from the 997 cameras and the casino must keep them for at least a week.

The telephones and TV monitors are answered and watched in what looks like an air traffic control tower by a small, quiet staff of pros, schooled in how to spot and deal with cheaters and frauds. They all have direct contact with security agents on the casino floor. "We get one to three calls an hour from agents on the floor on a normal day. The worst times are during big tournaments, Super Bowls and baccarat tournaments," said Smith.

We were not allowed to take photographs, but with high irony, Smith played a tape of our group being tracked from the front of the property all the way to lunch, and then to the surveillance room. Spooky. Cameras can follow you from anywhere in the hotel or casino to your car, where your license plate can be recorded.

The Strip during the day
The Strip at night
The Strip during the day
The Strip at night

Dealers are carefully monitored too. When they leave their table, they must show their hands facing up, then down (called showing their "clean" hands for the cameras), but if they clap their hands it's an "uh-oh" signal. The sound of clapping hands can mask the sound of rubber bands snapping, possibly up their sleeves and holding bills.

Smith doesn't gamble, explaining, "I learned a long time ago…" Basically the house bets that the gambler is greedier than the house is. Lucky bettors don't usually know when to quit, thinking a few more good hands will be in their run. Over the long haul, the house bankroll will always last longer than the bettor's - that's the house advantage.

"Gambling tricks and scams, like fashion, come and go," said Smith. "We have to keep the procedures tight and always realize that all the rules can be violated." He and his people are diligent. He said of one foiled theft which he showed us on tape, "They all had their family reunion in jail."


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