5 Ways to Make a Fortune at the Casino — Without Gambling
If you go to the casino and gamble, you will lose. Don’t tell us about how you used to count cards before they installed automatic shufflers or how you beat several other gamblers at poker — we’re talking about gambling against the house, using house rules, and if you do this, you will lose. Even if you stumbled into a hot streak or hit a jackpot and got rich, that doesn’t prove us wrong. You didn’t win money because you gambled. You won money because you stopped gambling. If you stuck around long enough afterward, you would have lost it all.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get any money out of a casino. After all, the place is absolutely bursting with money. People have tried a few alternative methods, with varying degrees of success, for getting their hands on that cash, such as the idea to...
Bring in a Bomb
On August 26, 1980, three men dressed as deliverymen arrived at Harvey’s, a casino by Lake Tahoe in Nevada. They rolled with them some huge machine, covered in a cloth labeled “IBM.” They were dropping off a new photocopier to one of the offices in the adjoining hotel, they said. Though the men were secretly criminals infiltrating the place, the box did not contain one member of the gang who sought to slip into the vault. It contained a thousand pounds of dynamite.
A note beside the bomb warned that if anyone tried moving it after the men set it in place, it would explode. If anyone tried opening it, it would explode. If anyone tried drilling into it, it would explode. These claims appeared to be true, concluded the bomb squad when they showed up and X-rayed the device. The thing had a complex network of wires and eight different firing systems. The only way to avoid the bomb exploding, claimed the note, was to deliver $3 million to a drop-off point. If they did that, the hotel would receive instructions on how to safely separate the bomb from its base, so they could truck it out and dispose of it elsewhere.
The FBI went to the drop-off, which is their usual method of catching extortionists. The guy didn’t show. It would later turn out that the bomber (John Birges, a man bitter after having lost $750,000 gambling at Harvey’s) had screwed up the directions. The bomb technicians therefore decided they had to try to defuse the bomb on their own, no matter how hard it seemed. They evacuated the building just in case their efforts failed, and then they remotely fired a charge at the box in hopes of neatly splitting its modules apart. The bomb detonated.
It blasted through five floors of the hotel. Outside, people cheered because no one died and explosions are cool. Harvey’s might have been a little dissatisfied, since the explosion did some $18 million worth of damage to the property, rather more than the ransom would have cost. It also blew through a wall of the attached casino, but as investigators crawled over this wreckage, Harvey’s kept the remainder of the casino open. They had to make that $18 million back somehow.
The FBI caught Birges thanks to a tip from his son’s girlfriend. He received a life sentence, and the two other guys who’d wheeled the bomb in — who, it turned out, really were deliverymen — received sentences, too. You’ll notice that as flawless as the bomb plot might have sounded, it did not in fact end with the perp walking away with a fortune. Still, if you’ve ever talked about wanting to “do a little damage at the casino,” you can’t do much better than John Birges.
This next story does begin with someone gambling. It even begins with a win. Choo Hong Eng, a 58-year-old manager of a vegetarian chain of restaurants, went to play the slots at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands resort in 2011. The building is a famous and very weird part of the city’s skyline. It has three towers, topped with a skyway that looks like a cruise ship, and the whole thing is also supposed to look like decks of cards, though we admit we don’t see it.
Eng hit the jackpot. She won $416,000. Then, when she went over to management to find out exactly how they hand over a payout that big, they told her that there had been an error. The slot machine was faulty, so her win was invalid. They could give her a smaller cash payout, maybe. Or they could give her a car. She could even sell the car back to them afterward, in exchange for some other smaller cash payout. That last option sounds downright suspicious, and we’d need a team of accountants to explain why the casino offered it.
As promised, this story began with someone gambling, and we suppose that the next step was also a gamble. Eng had a choice between accepting the (still quite valuable) consolation gift or fighting for the full win. If this were some morally instructive tale, you’d be yelling at her to choose the bird in the hand. The universe has a way of punishing anyone who holds out due to greed.
On the other hand, we aren’t huge fans of the “don’t be greedy” maxim. We prefer a different one, which says, “Take from them what they owe you.” And so, Eng lawyered up. The matter reached the Gambling Regulatory Authority, which reviewed a bunch of surveillance footage and concluded that she was indeed owed every penny of the original win. No word on whether they also fined Marina Bay for trying to cheat their way out of the payment, but we’ll take what victories we can get.
After getting her win, it turned out that Eng did subscribe to the “don’t be greedy” idea after all. She pledged to give half the winnings to charity. Then she went and gave away the whole thing, to groups like the Singapore Buddhist Federation and the National Kidney Foundation. The restaurant biz pays well, it seems, so she didn’t need the money. This legal fight was all about the principle (and $440,000 adds up to a lot of principal).
Kidnap the Owner’s Daughter
Ocean’s Eleven contains a line referencing a real-life casino crime. Andy Garcia tells Brad Pitt, “If you should be picked up buying a $100,000 sports car in Newport Beach, I'm going to be extremely disappointed.” In 1994, an ex-circus performer named Ray Cuddy was arrested paying cash for a sports car, after successfully nabbing over $1 million from a casino. The crime that got him his money, though, wasn’t quite Ocean levels of cool.
One July night, Cuddy and his accomplices broke into the home of Kevyn Wynn, daughter of Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn. The plan was to ransom her for $2.5 million. Just in case Steve didn’t buy classic kidnapper threats (e.g., “Pay up, or we start cutting off fingers”), they tried something else to ensure that he followed their rules. They had Kevyn strip to her underpants, taped her eyes shut and took photos of her, so they could threaten to release those publicly if Steve called the police.
Steve Wynn did not call the police — not at first, anyway. He already had his own private security team, led by the former head of the Las Vegas FBI. He also had a vault full of money, so he could put together some cash stacks without any time-consuming trips to the bank. He did negotiate with the kidnappers about just how much money he could assemble on short notice. He talked them down to $1.45 million, dropped the money off at a parking lot that Cuddy specified, then went to another lot to collect a bound Kevyn from her car.
At this point, the Wynns did bring the authorities in. They looked at call records from pay phones near the drop-off point, and they cross-referenced the people who those numbers called against license plates sighted in the area. This drew them to Cuddy, who was also doing a pretty good job drawing attention to himself by bringing cash stacks to an auto dealership to buy a Ferrari in installments. The next time he showed up there, 14 agents awaited him.
So, Cuddy didn’t get to enjoy his haul for that long. He was sentenced to 24 years for extortion, conspiracy, using a weapon in commission of a crime and money laundering. We’d think that forcing someone to strip and photographing them would merit an additional charge, but maybe legislators had neglected to ink that specific offense into law.
Hack a Fish Tank
If you’re thinking about pulling off a casino heist, you’re probably hoping to walk out with cash. Cash isn’t the only sort of valuable stuff that the place stocks, however. A big casino will also store a more modern type of currency: customer data.
Data broking is an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars. While your own personal data may be worth just a modest amount, advertisers are a lot more interested in the identities of casino high rollers. These are people who spend big and have poor impulse control. A list of every single such person in a casino’s records could be worth a fair bit to the right buyer.
A casino should secure its electronics just as tightly as it secures its vault. But one hacker found a strange backdoor. A cybersecurity firm who spoke at a Wall Street Journal conference revealed that they once investigated how a casino got breached, and they discovered that the culprit was the lobby aquarium.
This tank’s temperature was controlled by a smart device that had internet access. It logged on to the same network as the place’s computers but didn’t have its own network safeguards. By hacking the fish tank, someone got into the network and uploaded the customer database via the thermometer.
The hacking community has a name for this specific type of attack: It’s called phishing.
Just Rob the Place
In 2010, Tony Carleo lost just about all he had gambling. Much like John Birges (the bomb guy we talked about earlier), he decided to take it all back and more, by force. On December 14th, he headed into the Bellagio in Las Vegas and pulled out a gun when he reached the high-limit craps table. Then he shoved all the chips on the table in his backpack, dashed out of the building and zoomed away on a motorbike. In the days to come, people would call the masked man the Biker Bandit.
Carleo had gotten away with $1.5 million in chips. He’d be a rich man, if he could convert the chips to cash. About $1 million of the haul was in $25,000 chips, and converting these would be especially tricky. Hardly anyone ever won those chips, so walking up to a Bellagio counter and asking to cash those out would raise eyebrows, even if the casino hadn’t just been robbed. The remaining chips, however, he figured he could successfully exchange for regular U.S. legal tender, so long as he spaced it out.
So, Carleo returned to the very casino he’d robbed. He played poker, cashed out considerably more chips than he’d won and attracted no suspicion in the process. He moved on to craps, to that same high-limit table he’d visited before while armed, and he played for hours. Then casino staff took him aside. Not to arrest him, no. They wanted to comp him a dinner and a suite.
He now had a sort of base of operations so he could conveniently keep going back to the casino floor every day. This is, of course, the reason casinos give winners meals and rooms — to keep them around longer so they can lose whatever they won. In Carleo’s case, he wasn’t actually trying to win when gambling; he was just putting in his hours so he could head to the cashier later and turn in the chips he’d brought to the floor in his pocket. Still, playing for so long, and so recklessly since it didn’t feel like he was using real money, drained his chips away.
What money he did cash out, he spent. He spent it on drugs and on paid companionship (he said he paid one woman for a four-hour hand job, which doesn’t sound like much fun for anyone involved). It’s possible that these dealers and sex workers also accepted payment in chips. By New Year’s, he had run through just about all of the small denomination chips. This still left him with $1 million, if he could figure out how to cash out those big $25,000 chips.
Like all who are truly lost, Carleo turned to the internet. He went to a poker forum and dropped some hints that he had chips he wanted to trade. He met a willing confederate, who claimed to be connected to the mob, and he did manage to exchange a few chips for cash through him. Only after the first few exchanges did he realize the mafia dude was really an undercover cop, which explained why a dozen officers were at the next meetup and Carleo was now in cuffs.
He received a three-year sentence for the robbery — and then an additional six-to-16-year sentence, since this robbery let authorities link him to an earlier robbery of his. This makes Carleo yet another story of someone who got himself some casino winnings but didn’t manage to hold on to them. In fact, he’d never stood a real chance of cashing those $25,000 chips out. The Bellagio discontinued them right after he’d stolen them. He should have just dumped those. Either that or offered the entire lot of them in exchange for a five-hour hand job.
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