LINCOLN – In the pantheon of table games, they say craps offers the well-schooled gambler with a head for numbers the best chance of beating the odds.
But on a busy night when chips are flying around an exotic mix of mind-boggling games with names like Spanish 21 and Pai Gow Poker, this may be the safest bet in the house: somebody’s trying to rig the system.
That’s where Detective Lt. John Flaherty comes in. The 23-year veteran of the state police is in charge of the new Gaming Enforcement Unit, created to squeeze cheating and corruption out of the table game business at Twin River.
Training for the mission began as soon as table games were approved by voters in a 2012 referendum, but the GEU wasn’t thrown into the mix of real-life casino-floor enforcement until Twin River launched table games on June 19. Officially, the GEU didn’t exist until the night before, when the General Assembly created the squad as part of a wide-ranging anti-cheating statute inspired by the models of Atlantic City and Las Vegas.
The first arrest announced by the GEU on July 11 had more in common with a purse-snatching than a casino scam. Police said Steven E. Sabitoni, 46, of Lincoln, pilfered about $250 worth of chips that belonged to another patron. He faces misdemeanor larceny charges.
But Flaherty says he’s seen enough already to be convinced that others are probing the security apparatus for a more clever class of chicanery.
“We’ve had suspicions of people interested in cheating, definitely,” says Flaherty. “We’ve had activity already. There are people on the radar screen.”
There are eight members of the GEU, but they hardly work alone. Twin River employs a private security staff of approximately 100. Most are dedicated to traditional security chores like keeping the peace and corralling the rowdy, but about 20 of the casino employees specialize in surveillance.
The combined surveillance operation is based out of a new building behind the casino, but the state police and the casino’s surveillance staff do not intermingle. They are cordoned off from each other in the same building, by design.
The state police are there to complement and support Twin Rivers’ in-house surveillance efforts, but their interests may not always intersect, says Flaherty.
The state police have a broader mission to insulate the table games from cheating that originates not just from outsiders, but potentially from anyone who works at the casino.
As State Police Supt. Col. Steven G. O’Donnell says, “We’re here to protect the integrity of the games and the income stream from Twin River. We want to make sure that vendors are safe and patrons are safe, that they have a nice venue to come to that’s a destination people want to come to, a destination of choice.”
The transition to the GEU was a natural move for Flaherty because he was to be assigned to investigations that grew out of the operations of the Lottery Commission, which also houses security workers at the Twin River surveillance building. O’Donnell says most of the picks for the GEU saw it as an “intriguing” assignment, though Flaherty readily admits that members are learning as they go along.
It’s not the first time the state police have invented a new task force to respond to changing needs and societal shifts in criminal tactics. Neither the fugitive task force nor the computer crimes unit of the state police existed when he first joined the state police.
What type of nefarious behavior might the GEU encounter on the floor of a full-fledged casino?
Flaherty tells a story about a complicated three-man scam he was exposed to during training. One conspirator had a tiny television camera hidden up his sleeve, televising pictures of the cards players were holding in a certain game back to a criminal partner in a truck parked outside the casino. The truck man communicated with a third conspirator sitting at the card table via two-way radio, instructing him how to bet based on the information originating from the guy with the camera.
There’s also card-counting. Technically, it’s not illegal, but card counters are routinely barred from casinos all over the country. Then there’s post-betting, which is what happens when someone discreetly tries to slap down chips on a winning number after the bet is called. That is bona fide cheating, as is chip-trading in roulette, which is sort of like swapping $1 bills for $100s with other players on the casino floor, only with chips.
An Ocean State native named Louis “The Coin” Colavecchio did seven years in jail after getting caught in a very lucrative scam he pulled on a series of major casinos back in the 1990s that involved counterfeiting metal tokens. Chips – not metal tokens – are the in-house currency of choice at Twin River.
“Good luck to anyone who tries counterfeiting chips,” says Flaherty.
He says they have safeguards built into them that are as sophisticated as those the U.S. Treasury puts in paper money.
BACK IN the old days, when Twin River was a mere sea of video lottery terminals, the swindler’s options were well-defined and fairly limited. Fake coins and slugs were the artifice of the day. Occasionally, someone would attach a piece of dental floss to a coin and engage in an endless pattern of inserting and re-inserting it into a VLT until all the bells and whistles signaled a payoff.
Members of the GEU prepped for the new challenges of table game enforcement through the state police in Delaware, home of several gambling venues; the New Jersey state police; and the Nevada Gaming Commission. Staffers from the Atlantic Cape Community College in New Jersey also came to Rhode Island to provide training, which began over six months ago.
There are generally two methods at the disposal of the state police to keep an eye on what happens on the gaming floor. Sometimes police dress up in street clothes and mingle directly with the players, but more often they’re seated in front of a closed-circuit television monitor in the surveillance building. There are hundreds of cameras positioned on virtually every square inch of the casino, including the gaming room floor, and one monitor can home in on images from up to 20 of them simultaneously, according to Flaherty.
The cameras can zoom in patrons without them knowing it, but there is no audio accompanying the pictures, says Flaherty. Knowing how to read body language comes in handy.
There are other computer-based technologies in the surveillance room used to identify and track the activities of certain patrons, but state police are reluctant to talk about them. And one thing they won’t let a reporter do is see what the surveillance setup looks like from the inside.
There are still other layers of security designed to ferret out swindlers at Twin River, including mathematical analysis of the win-loss ratio coming out of specific tables, according to Craig Sculos, vice president and general manager of the casino.
“I don’t want to get too deep into how we do it,” said Sculos.
But the results of all games are based on known odds which result in a predictable win-loss ratio over time. It’s a red flag if the numbers don’t fit the pattern.
“Gaming is statistically driven, so if you see a variance from what the statistical win-loss expectation would be, that’s an area we would take a look at.”
Somewhere in the loftiest echelons of Twin River’s security hierarchy, there lurks a skilled statistician, right?
Sculos isn’t saying, but odds are the answer is yes.