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Using Critical Thinking to Better Protect Our Casino Games

Author’s Note: This article first appeared in the Atlantic City Surveillance News, spring 2010 edition.

The topic of critical thinking is something that is stressed in business college. When I went back to school and received my master’s degree in business, the process of “critical thinking” as used in the business environment was considered one of the important steps in achieving a competitive business or personal advantage. It’s important that we learn to look at things from different angles before we render an opinion or make a crucial decision. Some situations aren’t always the same as they first appear. This is true even in casino game protection. Sometimes failing to look at the “big picture” will prevent us from seeing the real problem. Sometimes we focus on the symptom of the problem and not the problem itself. And sometimes we try to force the proverbial “round peg into a square hole” because we are certain that our first impression of a situation is the true problem. Let’s examine several real-life situations involving gaming and game protection, and see how the lack of critical thinking affects our ability to solve the true problem.

What are the differences between floor operations and surveillance’s perception of the threat of card counting?
Operations perspective: The player is beating us for $100,000 in blackjack. He must be a card counter.

Situation: A blackjack player who is not counting, and has virtually no bet spread, continues to win. Surveillance has checked the customer’s play, confirmed there is no card counting issues, and based on the casino procedures, can’t find any indication of marked card play or hole-card play. They give their finding to operations, but operations still backs off the player.

For some reason, executives in operations are fixated on card counting. Any player winning a decent sum in blackjack is always suspected of gaining an undetermined edge through the process of card counting, regardless of their bet spread or hand decision characteristics. Years ago, as a casino floor supervisor, I was asked to watch a higher limit blackjack game to determine if the suspected “winning” player was counting cards. After watching several decks, I told the casino shift manager that I didn’t believe the player was counting. To further support my opinion, I explained that the player had made a series of bad betting and hand playing decisions that were contrary to the count of the cards. I thought explaining these betting and play decisions would help support my opinion that the player wasn’t counting cards; however the shift manager wasn’t satisfied. “How do you know he wasn’t trying to throw us off by making bad plays?” exclaimed the shift manager. Even though I offered evidence that the suspected customer was not counting cards, the shift manager still clung to the possibility he was winning because he was counting. Is the shift manager trying to force the round peg into the square hole?

Another familiar comment from operations is, “I don’t know what he is doing, but he is doing something.” In many cases when a blackjack player is winning an unusual amount of money, floor supervisors immediately assume he is up to no good. Players can’t win at the game of blackjack “on the square,” can they? They have no concept of result fluctuation, nor are they willing to believe that the player deserves to win occasionally. I know of a casino where floor operations and surveillance had to come to an agreement as to a minimum “win” threshold for mandatory video review. Floor operations had tested surveillance’s patience. Unless surveillance was prepared to conduct continual video reviews on winning blackjack players, they had to establish some parameters for review—either that or double the surveillance department’s workforce.

Why do we focus on one specific detail and have a problem looking at the entire picture?
Surveillance perspective: Based on a recent surveillance flier, an operator thinks he recognizes a person standing near the craps table as a suspected craps “rail thief.”

Situation: Surveillance is worried that a suspected “rail thief” is working the outside of a craps table waiting to steal $100 checks from a player. They watch the alleged thief standing near the player, and focus on the player’s chips in the rail. When the suspect leaves the casino, one of the operators makes a startling discovery. Upon video review, the black check bettor was observed making illegal “late” bets on the odds and in the field. While surveillance was focusing on a possible $100 theft, the player they were trying to protect cheated the casino for several thousand dollars.

The previously described situation actually happened. One of the Strip casinos had recorded some surveillance tape on a suspected rail thief, and had a gaming consultant look at the tape to see if he could identify the suspect in question. After watching the tape for several minutes, he inquired whether or not surveillance had been watching the dice player with the black chips strung out along the craps table’s rail. No, they hadn’t. “Well, maybe you should,” the consultant commented.

When surveillance went back to watch the tape again, this time focusing on the craps player, they noted several incidents where the player past posted the field and pass line odds on winning rolls. Why had they missed the obvious? Because all of us have a tendency to channel our attention toward specific actions or details. The flier indicted that the person in question might be a rail thief, so that was everyone’s focus. Self help books would tell us we need to start thinking “outside the box,” or looking at each situation from different angles regardless of what we have been led to believe about a situation.

The importance of using the word “why” when evaluating a situation.
Floor operation and surveillance perspective: A person playing poor basic strategy is nothing but a poor player. Let’s move on to something else.

Situation: For two weeks, surveillance and floor operations have been watching several players consistently win large amounts of money on a couple of six deck shoe games. The players’ hand decisions have been quite bizarre to say the least. Because of the wins, the play has been reviewed a number of times from both the floor and surveillance. The consensus: observations indicate the players are poor basic strategy players.

The concept of knowing basic strategy is paramount in the gaming industry. Floor supervisors and managers who watch blackjack have to know it. Surveillance personnel have to know it. Blackjack basic strategy is the foundation of understanding and protection the game of blackjack. Without knowledge of basic strategy, no one would be able to determine if a player was counting cards, shuffle tracking, gaining hole-card information, or cheating by marking cards.

One day I received a phone call from a casino manager regarding a recent loss his casino experienced due to a team of hole-card players. He explained that the team played several different dealers over an extended period of time, and beat the casino out of a “large” amount of money. He further went on to explain that the hole-card play occurred on a shoe dealt game. “My floor staff and the surveillance operators all know basic strategy, but it took two weeks before someone on the casino floor snapped to the unusual play,” he explained. “Why didn’t anyone catch the play sooner?”

There are two reasons why this situation occurred and the casino lost money to an obvious hole-card play. First, most of us limit our view of hole-card attacks to hand pitch games only. We know what “front loading” is and how it occurs, but how can someone front load a shoe dealt game? Since we harbor the opinion that the shoe game is safe from hole-carding, we rule it out as a possibility. If we see a bad hand decision in the shoe game, we don’t get suspicious. It’s because the player doesn’t know basic strategy and is a “poor” player.

Second, we teach our employees basic strategy and test them on a regular basis; isn’t that enough? Teaching people basic strategy, and teaching them why they need to learn it, doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand in our industry. They need to know the “why,” and they also need to examine situations where bad hand strategy plays can indicate there is a game protection problem. In this casino’s case, they armed their people with the tools to do the job. The problem was they didn’t teach them the proper way to use them.

Thinking “outside the box”
In my game protection seminars I tell everyone that the most important tool we can use to protect the casino games is the word “why.” Why did the blackjack player take insurance when wagering a large bet? Why did the roulette player make a series of late bets at the top of the layout after the dealer waved off? Why did the blackjack player stand on a hand total of “12” while the dealer displayed an up-card of “9”? Using the word “why”, we force ourselves to look at the situation one more time. This will help steer us away from the obvious, “dumb play” or “stupid player,” toward a possible problem, “past poster,” “card counter” or “hole-card player.”

By using “why,” we start to think outside of the box. It leads to the use of critical thinking to examine a problem so that we don’t focus on the symptom of the problem, or worse, ignore the problem entirely. By re-directing our thought process, whether we are in surveillance or floor operations, we will become better at what we do, and provide the best game protection coverage that our organization deserves.

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