What you need to know about memory and sleight of hand when it comes to table games protection
Memory training such as shuffle tracking and dealer sleight of hand are two of the greatest ongoing threats to table game security
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Someone recently asked me, “What does memory have to do with game protection?”
This question threw me for a loop at first, because the people I do business with (my clients and trainees), closest friends, respected colleagues and “in the loop” acquaintances can all easily answer this question; but it never really occurred to me that other people in the casino industry (specifically table games and surveillance personnel) just don’t know.
The question of how much damage a trained memory can cause to a casino’s bottom line is a great question, which I plan to answer here. Some of the biggest scams today, as well as some of the most effective advantage plays (legal methods used by players to gain an advantage over the house, as opposed to cheating), require memory skills that can be easily acquired with a bit of training, though practice is needed to be proficient enough to use those skills effectively. A trained memory is a very powerful weapon to those who like to see a casino as a big ATM for their convenience.
During some of my training sessions, I’ll ask a trainee to shuffle a deck of cards. After shuffling the cards, the volunteer hands me the deck and I memorize the shuffled cards in a matter of seconds. This is not to show off (though it is quite gratifying), but to show that this is possible and the skill is easily taught to someone with the motivation to learn.
In most cases, the motivation behind this type of memory learning is money. A 2008 news article from the Macau Daily Times reported on a dealer who was caught with more than 500,000 Hong Kong Dollars in his bank account, presumably 20 percent of a $3 million score.1 And what was the most critical skill in this convict’s cheating arsenal? Memory, of course!
- Memory & Shuffle Tracking
“Shuffle tracking is an advanced card counting strategy… it does not replace card counting; it enhances it.”—Arnold Snyder, The Blackjack Shuffle Tracker’s Cookbook
First, let’s examine the relationship between memory and certain advantage plays. For card counters (a type of advantage player or AP), a great memory is not necessary, as they are only keeping track of one or two numbers at most: the running count and the true count. A player looking to legitimately capitalize on a blackjack game using an advanced strategy would essentially need a stronger memory. For example, let’s take a look at slug tracking and sequential tracking or “ace tracking,” as it is commonly known, both being forms of shuffle tracking.
For this reason it is important that table games and surveillance departments are, at the very least, aware of how the different shuffle tracking methods work.2
Essentially, shuffle trackers are able to identify a clump of high-value cards during play, then follow that clump to the discard rack and through the shuffle, so that they can exploit the information during the next shoe. Knowing when that clump of high cards will be dealt, shuffle trackers can increase their bets accordingly and gain a significant advantage over the house. This may sound simple, yet it requires well-cultivated skills.
- Slug Tracking
“…tracking (visually following) slugs of high cards through the shuffle in a shoe game, is one of the most powerful and most invisible strategies in use by professional players today. The truth is, however, that it is also one of the most difficult strategies to apply successfully.”—Arnold Snyder, The Blackjack Shuffle Tracker’s Cookbook
Slug Tracking is identifying a post shuffle slug that is rich in high (aces and 10-value cards) or low cards. According to The Blackjack Shuffle Tracker’s Cookbook by Arnold Snyder, a world renowned blackjack expert and highly skilled AP, in order to shuffle track, players must be able to keep several different running counts in their heads at the same time, then refer back to those numbers at a later point, at which time they must add to or subtract from those numbers. Each shuffle is “mapped” so that these players know which segments of cards will be joined together through the shuffle procedure.
If these AP’s know that the two packets that will be joined together after the shuffle have running counts of -7 and -8, then they know that the resulting section will be rich in high cards (15 of them) and will either cut this packet to the top of the shoe, or keep track of it at another location, to exploit that information when these cards are to be dealt from the shoe.
To maximize their ability to capitalize on this strategy, players must be able to remember multiple numbers (representing multiple sections of the shoe). The memory skills required for the next AP strategy are even sharper, as they must be able to memorize multiple cards, including the suit and the value.
- Ace Tracking
In ace tracking, another AP technique and more elaborate form of shuffle tracking, the dealer legitimately shuffles the cards and the AP can predict, with pretty good accuracy, when an ace will appear (based on information memorized from the previous shoe), giving them the opportunity to bet big at that point with a substantial advantage over the house. In blackjack, when a player knows that the first card of a hand dealt to them will be an ace, they have a 52 percent advantage over the house. This is monstrous! 3
For example, in the picture below, the player would memorize the three cards (suit and value) in sequence, called the key cards, which will be on top of the targeted ace after the dealer picks the cards up and places them into the discard rack. The ace (with suit) is also memorized, so that the order for this sequence would be queen of hearts, four of spades, seven of clubs, and ace of spades, in that exact order. 4
After the shuffle and on the next shoe, the AP begins looking for the key cards in the order memorized. The key cards (underlined) are dealt in order, yet separated by the cards in-between them: queen of hearts, (followed by the dealer’s 10 and the first player’s deuce), then the four of spades (followed by the three and dealer’s four), and finally the seven of clubs (followed by the player’s six hit card and the dealer’s six).
We see that there are now two cards in between each of the key cards after the shuffle, which means that the dealer’s shuffle was consistent (which under other circumstances we would consider a good skill for a dealer) and great for tracking, and two cards after the last key card (seven of clubs), so it is highly likely that the target ace of spades will make its appearance within the first two cards of the next hand. To ensure that the ace is dealt to the AP and kept away from the dealer (in case the calculations are one card off), the AP would make three large bets on the next hand, with about a 17 percent player advantage, (dividing the 52 percent advantage mentioned earlier by three hands).
If a player wants to be able to “key” or identify four aces, then he/she must be able to memorize 16 specific cards (three key cards before each ace and the ace itself) with both suit and value. On top of that, the person doing the keying would have to be able to identify the sixteen memorized cards in order, (disregarding the other cards in between them), and depending on skill level, begin to memorize cards for the next shoe. In a well-organized team, a certain player is tasked with memorizing and tracking the cards, while others make the big bets to exploit the knowledge. This invaluable memory pro is referred to as the key girl/key guy or KG.
Renowned card counter Tommy Hyland organized one of the most skillful teams of advantage players that have ever legitimately exploited casinos. Below is an excerpt from the Hyland Manual, stressing how crucial it is to provide the KG with a nurturing environment:
Creating a Peaceful Atmosphere: The Keying skills used in this project are very difficult. When a KG’s concentration is impaired, there is a remarkable decline in their ability to key. For this reason, please refrain from bringing up disturbing topics immediately prior to or during session. Try to delay these discussions until after the session is over. During a session do not make disturbing comments regarding the KG’s score.
As if memorizing and tracking 16 cards weren’t enough to make you marvel at the memory skills of a KG, consider all of the other information one must memorize and relay to the team. I did my own tracking and was able to find out from another successful ace tracking team leader, what skills he requires of a KG on his team. They must:
- Remember and indicate what sequences are being picked up;
- At the end of the shoe, they have one minute to recite the sequences picked up;
- Signal the number of hands to be played and the corresponding bet size; and
- Remember what happened for each ace bet: to self, to the dealer, no appearance.
KG’s surely earn their keep, don’t they? 5
SLEIGHT OF HAND
When working with my casino clients, I’ll often ask trainees, “What is the best game to cheat at a casino?” Answers vary, but the correct answer, in my opinion, is baccarat. This is not just because this game generally has the highest stakes in the casino.
In baccarat, once the cards are shuffled or replaced with pre-shuffled cards and a new shoe begins, the cards will have only one possible outcome, as the game is dealt with one specific set of rules that do not change. This is unlike blackjack, where players have the option of hitting or standing, splitting, doubling down, playing extra hands, sitting out a hand, leaving the table, etc., all of which would affect the hands to follow. Although baccarat players also share the options of sitting out a hand or leaving the table, these actions do not affect the outcome of the cards in baccarat at all.
Baccarat scams involving false shuffles (sleight of hand trickery that appears to mix the cards, yet in reality keeps all or just a packet/slug of cards in a particular order) are probably as old as the game itself. There are several documented incidents of crooked dealers, who were skilled at sleight of hand and employed false shuffles after their accomplices wrote down the order of the cards from the previous shoe. The accomplice would then leave the table to calculate all possible outcomes of the slug recorded. After identifying key cards during play, the scribe and confederates would know exactly when the slug would appear and whether to bet player, banker, or tie (or even the many side bets now available) for multiple hands to follow because they knew the exact order of the cards that were about to be dealt.
When they were busted in 2006, the Tran Organization had already pulled off one of the biggest baccarat scams ever (up until that time), swindling casinos across the U.S. and Canada out of an estimated $7 million. They used a network of players and dealers, whom they recruited and trained to do false shuffles (that pesky sleight of hand skill). A team member would record a slug during one shoe by writing it on a baccarat score card. Then, the dealer would employ some false shuffles, but not for the entire shuffle procedure, to retain the order of the slug. Knowing the exact order of the cards, and thus the outcome of the hands involving those cards, the team would capitalize on the information. 6
In response to this scam, some casinos have eliminated baccarat score cards and have installed electronic scoreboards instead, which display the results of the hands of the current shoe. Many legitimate baccarat players are superstitious, so they sometimes like to bet with a trend when they see it. Electronic scoreboards are a great tool for them to quickly walk by a table and spot a trend they’d like to bet on or against (like banker shown to win many times throughout this shoe), and subsequently, an ingenious marketing tool for the casino.
The electronic baccarat scoreboard below displays the results of the hands. The dealer just finished dealing the 59th hand of the shoe (“GAME NUMBER 59”). The outcomes of the last five hands, including the 59th, in order, were two ties (green circles with a “T”) followed by three bankers (red circles with a “B”), which are all in the 10th column.
As table games evolve, so do the methods that cheaters use to defraud them. With paper scorecards and pencils removed from the game, so too were the tools that the slug scam scribe used for deception. What can a slug team use to ply their trade now? Memory, of course. Which also eliminates the evidence used to prove the scam, save for a confession.
Even before electronic scoreboards became popular, I was thinking about the classic baccarat slug scam and thought, “What if the cards were memorized instead of written? Then that physical evidence would be eliminated.” So I started to look up different memorization techniques and fell in love with mnemonics. I read everything I could get my hands on, talked to anyone who would share their knowledge of mnemonics, and practiced day and night until I became proficient at memorizing a slug of cards. (Not much has changed for me since then… I still do memory drills daily and read anything I can get my hands on about memory improvement.) 7
Originally, I practiced to see if my concepts were realistic and they are, which was proven by the incident described by the Macau Daily Times I had mentioned at the top of this piece. The article describes how a dealer was taken to a unit and was shown how to memorize cards while he shuffled them. The most technical parts of this scam were the dealer peeking and memorizing the cards and the false shuffles, and the most ingenious part of the plot was that the dealer could not identify his accomplices because he had no idea who they were or to whom he sent the texts with the sequences of cards that he memorized!
SHUFFLE MACHINES VULNERABILITIES
A couple of the reasons to use shuffle machines are to improve productivity and to protect the games from crooked dealers who would scam the casino using false shuffles.8 So, in a casino using machines, could a dealer still use false (manual) shuffles to swindle a game? Of course they can!
Picture this scenario… A dealer removes the cards from the shuffle machine, gives a player the cut card, then presents the cards for the player to cut. Somewhere between offering the cards for the cut and placing the cards into the shoe to deal, the dealer “accidentally” spills the cards onto the table with many of the cards landing face up. Since the other set of cards are unavailable because they are in the shuffle machine, which can take several minutes to process, the supervisor would tell the dealer to do a manual shuffle to keep the game moving. For a crooked dealer, it’s like giving him/her a license to steal. The dealer could then do the same as the dealer in the Macau scam previously noted.
This picture illustrates how a spilled shoe might look. As the dealer gathers the cards, he/she would quickly memorize a slug. In this case, the dealer is peaking at cards at the top section of cards in his left hand by fanning them. After the cards are gathered, the dealer would employ false shuffles, (only with the memorized slug, then legitimate shuffles with the rest of the shoe) retaining the order of the slug. When the dealer begins to deal the new shoe, his/her confederates are looking for a specific card sequence. In a multi-deck shoe, there are multiples of each card value, so to determine whether or not they found their slug, they will seek at least three key cards in a row. The odds of a multi-deck shoe having three exact cards (suit and value) in the same order together is very minute. Once the cheats spot the key cards, they know that the rest of the slug will follow and can easily calculate the outcome of the following hand(s).
Though the video demonstrates an example of this in blackjack, this same scam is also applicable to baccarat.
PROS & CONS OF PRE-SHUFFLED CARDS
Many casinos around the world with major baccarat play have been using pre-shuffled cards (cards that are shuffled before they are used on the table, whether by the card manufacturer or in a room designated for that purpose at the casino) to take game productivity one step further than the shuffle machines. This is also great for game protection when used correctly, but does not fully eliminate the vulnerabilities of the game. While pre-shuffled cards can eliminate false shuffle scams (where there are no further manual shuffles required of the dealers—a big mistake some casinos are making that creates more vulnerabilities, in my opinion, and defeats the purpose of pre-shuffled cards), crooked dealers still have an opportunity to access a sequence of cards during the cut.
This picture was taken during a training session where I demonstrated this baccarat scam. When the dealer takes the cards out of the pre-shuffle box for the cut procedure, they can manipulate some of the cards so that they see and quickly memorize them (the cards at the rear, in this case, which are hidden from overhead cameras). For the following card sequence, 0 is the value of jacks, queens, or kings in baccarat, A is ace and R is red. In the video, the dealer sees: 4, 0, A, 2, 0, 8, 6, 0, JR, QR, and 5R. 9
For this sequence, the key cards are a red five, a red queen, and a red jack. Because the dealer is peeking and memorizing cards from the back moving forward, the memorized sequence needs to be reversed to exploit that information.
To memorize 10 cards takes less than two seconds, which is more than enough for one coup. With baccarat having the biggest limits on the casino floor and multiple players being able to bet on the same side, a coup like this can significantly threaten the game’s hold percentage. On the video, the key cards come out on the same hand, which resulted in a tie: player two and bank two. This means that they have found the slug and the next hand dealt will come out in this order: 0, 6, 8, and 0, resulting in a natural win for the player: player eight and bank six.
These are just a few examples of how a dealer can obtain a slug of cards and memorize them to scam a casino. This is by no means an exhaustive list; there are many opportunities for a dealer to obtain a slug, yet they must know how to record or memorize the cards to exploit the information. There are also scams and advantage plays, using memory with the One2Six continuous shuffling machine, which are relatively easily accomplished. However, there are tells for many of these scams that seasoned and properly trained table games and surveillance staff can detect.
HAND SHUFFLE SHOE SCAM
There are still casinos today who have their dealers do hand shuffles on the game, which could be for many reasons—maybe their budgets do not allow for the expense of shuffle machines or pre-shuffled cards, etc. For whatever reason, if your casino still uses hand shuffles on the shoe games, this section is especially for you, as well as anyone interested in how crooked dealers can collude with players on this type of game, using memory and sleight of hand. 10
In this case, we examine a two-part dilution shuffle, which is a staple in the industry. During the first half of the shuffle procedure, the dealer places all of the cards in a single pile at the center of the table, then splits that in half. Next, the dealer takes about a half-deck from the top of each pile and riffles them together, placing the combined cards into a new pile in the center. For the remainder of this first part of the process, the dealer will take a half-deck from the center (cards already shuffled together) and a half-deck from either the left or right pile, riffle them together, then place them on top of the cards in the center. Then, he/she will alternate each side: center-right, center-left, center right, etc.; until all of the cards are shuffled and placed into one pile at the center.
Most of the scam takes place during this first half of the procedure. During the shuffle, the dealer would riffle the cards too high. This enables him/her to see the index, and thus the value, of the card at the top of the segment in the left hand. The dealer memorizes the card and continues the shuffle procedure. On the next riffle, the dealer will again riffle high to see that top card in his/her left hand, and using sleight of hand, deliberately place the peeked card directly on top of the card on top of the pile in the right hand, which is the first card peeked and memorized.
Through this first part of the shuffle procedure, the dealer will continue to build this slug, one card/riffle at a time, carefully ensuring that the top few memorized cards in the right hand land directly under the top card in the right hand. 11
For the second half of the procedure, the dealer will split the cards in half again, but this time, he/she will only take about a half-deck from the left and a half-deck from the right and riffle them together, then place them into one pile in the center, repeating this until the cards are again all in one pile (not alternating sides with the center pile as in the first half of the procedure). The high riffle is only done during the first riffle of this second half of the procedure. The dealer can either riffle high to peek one or multiple cards to place on top of the slug that he/she is building.
After the shuffle, the dealer presents a confederate the cards for the cut and this player cuts the cards where the slug will wind up near the top of the shoe. Then, the cheats just wait to see their key cards and get their “game on.” 12
MEMORY: A TOOL FOR ALL
A trained memory is not just a device for those looking to take advantage of or swindle a casino game. Memory can also aid casino staff in observing a play, whether it’s during a review or while watching it live, and to increase productivity. Those who can efficiently recall players’ names, account numbers, table and pit numbers, camera and zone numbers, buy-ins, wagers, payouts, win/loss, etc., can get the job done more efficiently and accurately, and provide better customer service to patrons than someone who must constantly refer to something else, like a touchscreen or piece of paper for information, at which time they may also miss something important that is happening on the game.
Now that you know what memory has to do with game protection, I hope you can appreciate its potential power as much as I do. As the casino industry continues to evolve, so do methods cheaters use to bilk casinos and AP’s use to get an edge over the house, and memory can play a part in both legitimate and illegitimate ways to win. As we try to keep up in this cat and mouse game, I think it’s crucial that we equip the people tasked with protecting casino assets with as much knowledge as possible to do the best job they can. I find that most of my trainees are grateful for the education, especially those who take pride in their work, and morale is improved because they know their bosses care enough to invest in them.
On a final note, if you think you have a “bad memory” and you can’t learn to improve it, I think you are not giving yourself enough credit. Provided you don’t have a medical condition that would hinder your progress, you can greatly improve your ability to recall facts, numbers, procedures, etc. I was able to do it for myself and help many others do the same. The mnemonics we use are based on things you already know. Reach out if I can help.
- This is not the only article I could find on this type of baccarat cheating, but it is the first article on the subject that I saw after I presented this very concept at a conference two years prior to it
- Before we begin this examination however, it is important to note that any hand shuffle is exploitable and that the casino makes no money during the shuffle procedure. Therefore, for the sake of productivity and profitability, it is impossible for any hand shuffle procedure to truly randomize the cards within an acceptable period of time. So casinos should use a good mix of shuffle methods in a proper sequence, but ensure that the shuffle is not too long. I recommend 90 seconds or less for multi-deck hand shuffle procedures.
- The premise works with shuffles where the sequence of cards are not disturbed, only separated a bit, i.e., no box nor strip in the shuffle procedure.
- Note: Proper procedure dictates that the dealer picks up the cards in this sequence.
- I believe the first time I saw shuffle tracking explained in-depth was in 1995 in a three-part series in a periodical called Blackjack Forum. These magazines, published by Arnold Snyder, are still references for anyone wanting to learn about blackjack and advantage plays.
- A crooked dealer might not do all false shuffles throughout the shuffle procedures, but only a few to keep a targeted segment of cards in order. This can make it more difficult to spot, as the cheating dealers who have highly developed sleight of hand skills can execute legitimate shuffles and false shuffles that are identical.
- There is no hubris here. I don’t have delusions of being a cheat mastermind, though I can think the way they do. I am not claiming to have been the first to have combined mnemonics and casino cheating, it was merely a thought I had that was worth exploring. Furthermore, one does not have to be as deft at memorization skills as I am to use it against a casino.
- If you want to learn more about shuffling cards, productivity, shuffle scams, and so much more, I highly recommend Casino Game Protection: A Comprehensive Guide by my good friend and mentor Steve Forte. I have been in gaming most of my life (35 years) and have collected a huge amount of books relating to game protection. Steve’s book has replaced all of them for me. This book is out of print and hard to find, but I believe it is worth every penny and the effort to get it. Whether you are an executive interested in maximizing profitability, game efficiency, and protecting games, a table games manager or supervisor or Surveillance personnel looking to make yourself more valuable and knowledgeable, or just someone interested in the subject, this book is indispensable.
- Ideally, key cards should be identified by both suit and value, to leave the least room for error. One only needs to see a tiny portion to identify the number or letter of the index and could miss the symbol for the suit, which happened in this case. The dealer was trying to keep his movements tight to help conceal what he was doing to avoid being caught.
- As far as I know, I am the only game protection expert who demonstrates this scam in training. This is difficult to detect.
- The dealer builds the slug from the bottom up and the slug will be dealt from the top down—the reverse order of what dealer sees while shuffling.
- Generally, in today’s casino environment, most dealers lack good hand-shuffle skills. I see many clump shuffles and high riffles, which go uncorrected by the supervisors. This is a mistake! When you allow poor procedures to continue, it becomes much more difficult to spot the cheats among them.
Special thanks to Dee Jabier Piacente, my wife and partner in everything, who was instrumental in this article.