15 Real Life Casino Scams
Casinos are hotbeds for glitzy and glamorous guests. They also attract thieves and con artists and scammers who would rather rig the games in their favor than play it straight.
Some of these crooks are so elaborate in their schemes that one can’t help but be impressed with the lengths they take to pilfer a casino’s coffers. Sometimes, some have argued, they're not even crooks. From magnetic roulette balls to card counting to manufacturing slot-cracking tools, these are some of the more interesting ways that people have tried — and sometimes did — to extract money from casinos.
The Computer Shoe
The “Eudaemons” were a small group of college physicists at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, managed to make an average 44 percent profit off of every dollar spent at the roulette wheel. And it wasn’t by luck.
When you have shoe computer, anything is possible. The Eudaemons had two people with two mini computers hidden in the soles of their shoes; one watched the wheel from a distance while the other bet at the table. The observer would use a toe-operated switch to clock the motion of the wheel, and the computer would send a signal to the bettor. A complex math system would attempt to predict where the ball was going to land and send vibrations via solenoids; depending on the reverberations, the bettor would know in which of the roulette wheel’s eight sectors to place a bet.
This scheme was successful. The Eudaemons made about $10,000.
Counterfeit Coin Cash-ins
Louis Colavecchio scammed thousands upon thousands of dollars from various casinos in the U.S. and Europe by counterfeiting slot machine coins. And it took a long while for him to get caught.
The con artist — whose nickname is “The Coin” — was arrested in 1996 at Caesars Atlantic City. He had 750 pounds of counterfeit coins in his car’s trunk. Two years later, presumably after his two-year prison sentence, he was paid $18,000 by the feds as a consultant.
Colavecchio is in his mid-70s and has written a book about his exploits (the forward is by his arresting officer). He was arrested again in 2018 for counterfeiting $100 bills.
Contact Lenses With an Interesting Tint
Did you know infrared contact lenses weren’t some “Mission: Impossible”-type tech only found in movies? Not only are they real, they’re also readily available. A group of four thieves purchased a set for 2,000 euros online from China. And then, in 2011, they set out to a casino in Cannes, France, with a plan.
The dirty tricksters marked cards at a stud poker table with invisible ink, during the game. The infrared cheater — code name “Parmesan” — would wait for a cue from an accomplice — code name “The Israeli” — who would signal which cards to mark. Two casino workers were also in on the job.
Using these tricks and special contacts, Parmesan and his gang made out with 70,000 euros. And they would have gotten away with it, had Parmesan not gone back for seconds. Two months later the con artists came back to the same casino and won 21,000 euros before being arrested. The casino had found it suspicious that Parmesan knew exactly when to fold, even though he held an amazing hand. Parmesan received a two-year prison sentence and a 100,000-euro fine.
A Bad Beat for the World Series Champ
Phil Ivey was a familiar face during the World Series Poker boom of the early-to-mid 2000s, and he’s still considered a high roller. That’s why, when he stepped into Crockfords casino in London in 2012, the dealer gave him some liberties at the baccarat table.
Ivey and his partner, Cheung Yin Sun, convinced the dealer they were superstitious and that several cards — cards that were favorable to Ivey — needed to be rotated 180 degrees. Why? So they could use the edge sorting technique, which is used to spot tiny little differences on the backs of cards in order to identify which card was about to be played.
He won $12.4 million. Accusing Ivey of cheating, the casino refused to pay up. Ivey sued. Two years later, London courts sided in favor of the casino, ruling that Ivey cheated — even though he never touched the cards, or really did anything but game the system. Ivey appealed the case, but he lost the bid for a Supreme Court hearing in 2017.
False Shuffles and Casino Insiders
The FBI tracked the Tran Organization for several years before making a bust.
Led by Van Thu Tran and her husband, Phuong Quoc, the Tran Organization led a sprawling ring of casino cheaters that began in 2002 and ended in 2007, after the gang had pilfered $7 million from 29 casinos all across the United States and Canada.
Both former card dealers, the two bribed dealers and casino insiders to fake shuffle cards at blackjack and baccarat tables. The other players would be Tran Organization members. One would put a cigarette to his lips, obscuring what he was really doing: speaking into a microphone hidden up his sleeve. A man in a car outside listened in, and plugged numbers into a computer which calculated the most likely outcomes in that hand.
Casinos hit by the gang knew they had been cheated, but they just didn’t know how. Eventually, the FBI began investigating them in 2004 and broke the case with undercover agents, surveillance and wiretaps.
As of 2012, the FBI had rounded up and charted 42 people. Van Thu Tran received 36 months in prison and was ordered to pay over $5.7 million in restitution.
A Not-So Mysterious Heist
In 2013, the Crown Casino in Melbourne, Australia made international headlines for losing $33 million overnight, in an apparent “Ocean’s Eleven”-type high-tech robbery. It was speculated that robbers gained access to the casino’s own security system and used the in-house cameras to spy on certain hands, where a high-roller made out with millions by the end of the night.
But the Crown Casino was rather tight-lipped about the incident, and didn’t report the $33 million heist to the police. Why? According to a 2015 article by the Sydney Morning Herald, the robber wasn’t some unknown fraudster who appeared at the tables and then disappeared into the night. It was James Manning, a New Zealand millionaire.
According to the Herald, the casino believes Manning’s incredible winning streak at the card tables was because someone had infiltrated the camera system and was signaling to Manning, who was later evicted from the casino’s hotel room and banned from the casino. (Manning denied the accusations to the Herald).
The Crown Casino said that the “majority” of the $33 million winnings hadn’t been transferred, and so they didn’t call the police. So Manning just sort of…left.
Danny Ocean, he was not.
The MIT Whiz Kids
Card counting isn’t illegal, but it’s banned in most casinos because over time, the odds turn in the card counter’s favor. The casinos don’t like that. These Massachusetts Institute of Technology students didn’t care.
The MIT Blackjack Team started out as a handful of card-counting students in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and ended in the early ‘90s with a roster of about 80 players gaming casinos worldwide.
Bankrolled by investors, MIT Blackjack Team members weren’t trained just to count cards; they were also trained in hand signals and learned to act as entirely different people to fool casinos into thinking they were exotic high rollers. One student took on the personality of a Russian arms dealer, while another shaved his head, put on a wig and dressed as a woman.
Using cash from shady investors, these students grossed undisclosed sum — possibly several million — from unsuspecting casinos until the best players were ferreted out and blacklisted. Eventually, the entire enterprise became too difficult to sustain.
Movies, television shows and books have been written about the MIT Blackjack Team, and to this day, many of the former members remain anonymous.
Nothing Fancy Here
This guy clearly needs a master thief to take him under their wing. In 2012, a man broke into the restricted area of the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, grabbed $1.6 million worth of chips, and bolted. No one even saw him until after he had escaped, but he wasn’t on the lam for long. Police found him hiding out at his mom’s house about a week later.
A Heist so Big it Hurt the Stock Market
In 2015, $258 million went missing from a junket — a third-party operation that helps attract high rollers to casinos — operating within the Wynn Resort casino in Macau. It’s suspected to have been an inside job, and the fallout impacted the entire gambling industry. Shortly after the heist, stocks in MGM, Wynn Entertainment, Las Vegas Sands and others dropped between 2 percent and 6 percent.
According to Business Insider, the stock drop had to do with the junket system, which Macau heavily relies on. It had less cash to play with, and that meant less money for everyone.
Betting Way Against the Odds
If you’re going to scam a casino, you might want to be a bit more subtle than this. Between 2012 and 2014, four men scammed the Bellagio in Las Vegas out of $1.2 million by playing a fixed games of craps. Two of the men would mutter last second, incompressible hop bets while the corrupt dealer would miraculously understand the bets and pay out. To their credit, the men did place legitimate bets and lost thousands in order to remain inconspicuous, and it worked until the casino noticed that the men were consistently winning with against astronomical odds.
The two lead men were added to Nevada’s infamous black book, which contains a list of people who are not allowed in any state casino. They were only the 33rd and 34th names to make the list.
The Slot Machine Genius
Dennis Nikrasch was one of the most brilliant minds to ever bilk casinos out of millions of dollars. During the late ‘70s, he and his team would rig slot machines with wires and magnets to get them to pay out, and was arrested in 1983 on charges of looting Las Vegas casinos out of $10 million. He was subsequently imprisoned.
After being paroled in the ‘90s, Nikrasch purchased a personal slot machine and figured out how to hack its computer and trigger the jackpot. He went to work again, with fellow con artists positioning themselves to hide Nikrasch from security cameras as he cracked the machine open and altered the jackpot code in the computer. The process took less than a minute. Nikrasch would leave, and another con man would trigger the jackpot.
He was caught in 1997 and is suspected of stealing over $40 million a year.
The Cutter Gang
In baccarat, after the dealer shuffles, a player can cut the cards. The game was the main target for the Cutter Gang, which allegedly used a mini camera hidden up a sleeve to glean a quick look at the divided deck.
The Cutters were a large Asian gang that’s suspected to have robbed casinos from Macau to Las Vegas. In 2011, they scammed the Cosmopolitan casino out of $1 million. The casino suspected foul play and summoned security, but they couldn’t find any evidence of hidden cameras and had to release them. In 2012, the gang resurfaced in New Zealand where it attempted to steal $4.5 million from SkyCity, but the casino withheld the funds. Later, the gang — or at least some of its members — was arrested in Asia.
A Remote-Controlled Roulette Ball
Why bother with a shoe computer and complex physics when you can just control the ball itself? That’s what five men did in an Austrian casino, where they planted a remote-controlled magnetic roulette ball on the table. It’s suspected that the group could control the ball within three spaces by using a device emitting an electromagnetic field. Over a few weeks the men conned the casino out of $324,000, but then had to flee when the ball stuck itself to a casino worker’s cufflink. It seems like they got away with it, too.
The Slot Cracker
For almost 20 years, Tommy Glenn Carmichael went from stealing $35 to pilfering thousands. Carmichael is known as another slot machine genius, but unlike Nikrasch’s knack for computers, Carmichael invented his own tools to snake into the slots.
He invented the “slider,” a tool made out of guitar wire and spring steel, which netted him $1,000 an hour moving from machine to machine and later $10,000 a day. He also created a “light wand” that used a bright light to fool the machine into paying out. When he was finally arrested in 2001, he served less than a year in prison, but also lost two of his homes.
A Super Successful Con
In 2004, two men and one woman walked into the Ritz Casino in London and approached the roulette table. They didn’t have a shoe computer or a remote controlled ball, but they did have a mobile phone with some impressive software installed. The phone was equipped with a scanner that could measure the ball’s speed and predict where the ball would land. The trio walked out with about $1.7 million in winnings total, but the casino withheld the majority of the winnings, and later took the trio to court over cheating.
After nine months, the courts ruled that the con artists did nothing wrong and ordered the casino to pay out the rest. Those guys had luck on their side the whole time.