The Casino Detectives

5 years ago
Meet The Cheat-catchers
31 Mar

Hot on the heels of our article on casino cheats, downright dodgy dealers, and scams across the world, PokerTube has been looking into the people whose job it is to investigate and catch all the nastier elements of the gambling world.

Unbelievably, to me at least, we have to go all the way back to the 1800’s to meet the first of our cheat-catchers, as self-confessed professional casino cheater Richard Marcus describes them.

The French Connection

Oscar Gabin was his name and his formation of the ‘French Gaming Police’ led to many interesting arrests and cases, including European royalty and the infamous Pierre Dugal.

In the early 1800’s, when gambling in the USA was still in its infancy and being played in wild-west saloon bars and riverboats, some 50 years before a coin-toss decided whether Oregon’s newest town would be named after Boston or Portland, casinos were grand affairs on the European continent. And with money flowing among the nobility of the day, cheating and scamming were, of course, also rife.

Enter Oscar Gabin and co, whose crack-squad of casino detectives kept a close-eye on the ‘sleepers’ of the roulette wheels and various other ne’er-do-wells of the time. As Marcus relates from the annals of casino history:

The multicolored roulette chips you see today on American and English roulette tables were not in use, so there was often bickering about whose winning bets the dealers were paying off.”

Taking advantage of this were “professional cheats, sometimes posing as members of royalty themselves”, who “made lucrative livings scooping up winning bets and payoffs that did not belong to them.”

Gabin’s most infamous case surrounded the ‘master carpenter’ Pierre Dugal, whose “specialty was hiding inside the grand casinos after they closed.” Using his great woodworking skills, Dugal would file down the grooves on certain areas of the roulette wheels, creating a bias for the ball, and allow his accomplices to know where to place bets. Very simple, very clever, and very bold!

The cheat catcher Gabin finally nailed the master thief, Dugal, by staking out casinos overnight. Dugal was successfully jailed for his crimes. However, once released, he immediately went back to his old ways and the Gabin/Dugal rivalry continued for several more years, ending in another victory for the casino detective – and another prison term for the wayward carpenter.

Gabin’s French Gaming police are still going strong to this very day, focusing mainly on online scams.

Absolute beginners and Ultimate cheats

By far the biggest online scams ever perpetrated – and ones which still reverberate around the poker world to this day - were the Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet scandals, which occurred in online poker’s heyday in the mid-noughties.

It was the ‘Wild West’ version of poker that occurred shortly after Chris Moneymaker’s big Main Event victory. That win in 2003 launched a million poker-hopefuls onto the virtual felt - and nobody seemed to care as long as the gold-rush kept flowing. Until, that is, suspicions began to surface about some seriously unusual play on Ultimate Bet, play so suspiciously accurate that you might even think that certain ‘players’ could actually see their opponents hands and act accordingly.

Enter, stage left, one Michael Josem, followed shortly afterwards by Serge Ravitch – the two main figures responsible for uncovering the multi-million dollar ‘God-mode’ cheating taking place on the two sites in question.

Josem, an online player, became highly-suspicious of certain online accounts – calculating their win-rate to be 100 times the normal rate for a decent player. Not only did they have a remarkable win-rate, they also played poker as if they could see their opponents’ cards – and, it transpires, that’s exactly what they were able to do!

When Josem’s initial complaints to Absolute Poker went unheeded, he redoubled his efforts with the help of fellow 2+2 forum members, uncovering so many suspicious hands and playing accounts that eventually the site could not ignore Josem and co.

The unlikely detectives had forced a full investigation into the cheating, at the end of which, the site informed players that “a high-ranking consultant in its Costa Rica office breached its software and spied on competitor's hands, cheating them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to the WashingtonPost/60 minutes investigation which looked deep into the allegations.

[Absolute Poker] began by refunding $1.6 million,” they reported at the time, “but in a move that angers players, it refuses to identify the cheater or turn him over to authorities.”

In the meantime, and overlapping the amazing allegations over on Absolute Poker, Josem’s fellow forumite Serge Ravitch was knee-deep in hand-history spreadsheets which he’d been passed along, many of which indicating that cheating on an industrial scale was also happening at Ultimate Bet.

Donning his best Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat, Ravitch, along with Josem and others, uncovered a trail of IP addresses and, most importantly, an anonymous invisible account – with a player named ‘potripper’ at the centre of almost every instance of suspect hands. The IP address of this ‘observer’ was traced back to the location of the site’s servers – proving that it was indeed an ‘inside job’ – the site was cheating its players, for literally millions of dollars!

The Kahnawake Gaming Commission, responsible for the integrity of both sites, finally held their own investigation – and by now there could be no outcome other than a guilty verdict for both sites. However, the Gaming Commission was considered by most players to have failed when it only fined the sites a total of $2million, those persons responsible for the actual cheating not being officially named or held to account.

For Josem and Ravitch, it was an end to a year of investigations which they probably never expected to be involved in. For the rest of the poker world, it was the biggest and scariest cheating scandal ever to occur. If players couldn’t even trust their own poker site, how could they trust anyone?

The fabled Griffin

Just as the Pinkerton detective agency set off in search for Jesse James, the Wild Bunch, and many other outlaws of the day in the mid-19th century, so to does Griffin Investigations pursue the modern-day casino outlaw.

Gone are the old-fashioned ‘wanted’ posters. In are the 21st century, facial recognition programs, databases, and instant communication between casinos and their hired guards make for a tight net when catching crooks. According to

The Griffin GOLD's five volumes contain thousands of names and mug shots and can be accessed online. It uses a sophisticated facial recognition program and sends out alerts that notify casinos when a swindler or card counter is on the prowl.”

Just how effective this approach is could be considered a closely-guarded secret; Griffin Investigations themselves not particularly willing to talk about cost or success rate, but Margaret Brooks, former director of surveillance at the Bellagio hotel-casino is on record as stating that:

It's very effective in protecting our casino. We would be missing a lot without it."

The casino crime-busting organisation was set up in 1967 by Beverly Griffin and her then-husband Robert, and within a decade they would find Blackjack card-counting in casinos set to hit the big-time. The MIT card-counting team, a crack squad of math-oriented geniuses, took their roughly-honed techniques to casinos nationwide, and then further afield with a European ‘tour’ of sorts.

It all came crashing down when, according to the book "Bringing Down the House" by Ben Mezrich, Griffin bought detailed info on the players and spread it throughout their casino contacts and customers – much the same way that they fight ‘cheating’ to this very day. The films 21 and The Last Casino are loosely based on the MIT team, although they are not really accurate in their depiction of events.

Despite some serious financial problems brought on by mistakes in their Griffin Gold standard system - "In my opinion, it is an incredible compilation ... peppered with mistakes and falsehoods based on some of the grossest hearsay," said lawyer Bob Nersesian of Las Vegas when he was representing and winning a case brought by two gamblers caught in Griffin’s net – the agency still operates to this day.

Their website claims that:

The gaming industry is under siege from cheaters, scam artists and skilled players worldwide. Converging on the Internet, these people represent a threat to the casino's bottom line. Their actions cost gaming operations untold millions every year – and their number is growing.”

Of course, casino cheating isn't relegated solely to the card tables. I will always remember the Game King Glitch which allowed two lucky players to steal about a million dollars by discovering a programming glitch in the Game King slot machine series. One has to wonder if this was the only instance of a slot game glitch hemorrhaging cash, or if there may be more programming bugs existent in other different types of slot games just waiting to be found by a lucky play. Of course, there are much more honest ways of getting the most out of your casino experience, with this extensive guide to slot machines from Wink Slots giving you the lowdown and facts you need to stay ahead of the game.

From battling “small-time casino crooks” and relying on “shoe-leather detective work, not high-tech gadgets to expose people,” to the modern-world’s high-tech online scams, almost five decades of experience have kept Griffin Investigations at the forefront of casino cheating detection.

With plenty of crooked and clever people out there looking for an opportunity to take the house for a ride, another five decades isn’t out of the question!

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Andrew from Edinburgh, Scotland, is a professional journalist, international-titled chess master, and avid poker player.Read more


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