Cheating in Vegas
"These days, the private game world is where most of the money is, as far as cheaters are concerned, " says Jason England, magician and cardshark demonstrator. "Most cheaters just aren’t willing to go up against the modern surveillance systems and the modern security devices that they have in the casinos." England has one of Las Vegas’s largest collection of vintage cheating devices, from loaded dice to two-shoes (allowing a cheat to see the top card on the deck) to hold-outs (which keep a card hidden up a player’s sleeve). He also used to have a slot-cheating device, not much more than a bent coat hanger. But that was confiscated by the Nevada Gaming Commission, so now he displays the receipt provided by the confiscating officer.
For England, the allure of cheating devices lies in their ingenuity. Each one represents a way someone thought up to take advantage of our assumptions; they often overturn preconceptions — like magic, they temporarily shake us from our normal perception of the world, revealing a much more enigmatic place. And of course there’s the James Bond aspect: cool gadgets have an allure of power, and cheating gadgets have the allure of secret power. "I don’t necessarily approve of the morality of these devices, " he says, "but I approve of the ingenuity of these devices."
He has special praise for Keith Taft, whose blackjack computers showed an ingenuity and vision far beyond almost anything of their time. Imagine building a blackjack computer today, he says, using current technology. You could farm out building the hardware, writing the software, but even then it would take time and effort. Taft, without the sci-fi technology we take for granted today, did it by himself, in almost a knowledge vacuum, because no one had ever done it before. "The five of us probably couldn’t pull it off in six months, with all the challenges we would face. They managed to do it four decades ago, " he says, "and were very successful at it. I think that’s astounding."
But at the same time, Taft built on concepts that came before him, implementing them in a new and bold way. That’s the path of virtually all progress. Demonstrating a holdout that’s nearly a century old, England says that while cheating technology may change, basic concepts remain the same. You can always come up with a new and clever way to mark cards, for example, but doing so is simply another way of secretly conveying information that — by the rules of the game — you’re not supposed to have. Knowing that a pair of dice is loaded puts you at an information advantage over someone who assumes they’re normal.
"All you’re talking about, at the end of the day now, is information, " he says, standing on the floor of the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show. He’s checking out the possibilities for high-tech cheating, whether with miniature cameras, surreptitious communication, or simple misdirection. When you’re playing a game where decisions matter (rather than pure games of chance), cheating is simply a matter of having better information than your opponent. "If I know your hole card, I’m gonna beat you. If I know the flop, I’m going to beat you. It’s all information transfer. And that’s all everything in this room does, " he says, sweeping his arm to take in the acres of electronics surrounding him, "is move information from one place to another. Information management is all it is."
Muck in gambling has multiple meanings. In poker, it most often refers to the pile of discarded cards into which players may throw their folded hands, and into which the dealer may place burned cards. It may also refer to the action of throwing a hand into the muck. The practice of mucking cards when discarding helps to ensure that no other...