Over the past year, casinos around the world have lost millions of dollars to baccarat cheats. Between the antics of the globe-trotting Cutters syndicate, the Chinese nationals who hacked auto-shuffler machines in Macau, and the South Korean duo who hid a card-switching device up a sleeve at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, baccarat has attracted some very shrewd con men and women. To understand why, it helps to know a bit more about the rules of the game.
A favorite pastime of James Bond, baccarat attracts high-rollers willing to make large bets – and it's easy to play. In the most common variant of "punto banco" baccarat, the game requires a gambler to make just one decision: whether to bet that the value of a "player" or "banker" hand of 2 or 3 cards will end up totalling closest to 9, with face cards counting as zero and aces as 1. Game outcomes are fixed by the cards dealt, and players make no decisions after the initial bet. There's no skill to it at all…unless a person cheats.
The "Cutters" syndicate preys on a tank-sized hole in the security protocols that most casinos apply to baccarat. As part of the tradition that has built up around the game, high-end players expect to participate in flamboyant, superstitious rituals. Gamblers may handle, fold, or blow on the cards. Many baccarat tables allow players to use a single card to cut the deck. The Cutters cheat by exploiting that ceremonial cut, surreptitiously riffling the deck with a finger and recording a section of the card order with a hidden camera.
"It's stupid that this is allowed to happen," says a Las Vegas game security consultant, who asked not to be named out of concern for angering casino managers. "The lunatics run the asylum."
But when a "lunatic" at the baccarat table will wager a million dollars over a long afternoon, recession-weary casino managers starved for high-end action will indulge superstitious antics – even if it drives the surveillance guys nuts.
Fooling those eyes in the booth was the key strategy in both the Macau auto-shuffling scheme and the card-switching gambit in Connecticut.
"These are con men," says John Connolly, a casino security expert based in Central Europe. "They practice the art of distraction."
At unnamed casinos in Macau, a gang of seven people repeatedly slipped doctored auto-shufflers onto the table while surveillance eyes were diverted elsewhere, until they were caught in March. At Foxwoods, the female accomplice Wookyung Kim would nuzzle close to her male partner Young Su Gy and otherwise block the view of casino personnel as he made switching cards look like he was idly shuffling his hand.
And the mathematics of baccarat make a scam in progress difficult to spot. “The use of statistics for live gaming is limited in what it can prove or disprove,” high-end casino security contractor Bill Zender concludes, in a 2009 analysis of baccarat. The game has a small but significant house advantage, over time transferring just over $1 from player to casino for every $100 wagered. But Zender’s analysis shows that results may fluctuate wildly in either direction until the sample size goes above 10,000 hands. A high-roller who wins $250,000 by playing 1,000 hands over a holiday weekend is well within the normal range of probability for a non-cheating player.
With a speedy pace of about 60 hands per hour, a compromised game can cause six-figure losses in a matter of minutes. After multiple huge baccarat wins by the same player, a surveillance guy can't know from the laws of probability if he's just temporarily unlucky – or been taken by a con.