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Shiny New Objects

Why are electronic table games the hottest target for cheats?

Shiny New Objects

Electronic table games (ETGs) have been out for a while, but in recent years they’ve really taken off. Arguably the catalyst for this surge in sales was the Covid-19 pandemic. Regulators saw the social distancing benefits of ETGs as they reduced the need for human interaction. Casinos saw the benefits from a money-making perspective. Gaming equipment manufacturers reaped the rewards.

The introduction of electronic table games on the gaming floor makes sense for casino operators. They reduce labor costs and associated issues. They’re a plug-and-play solution. They create trainer-wheel games for shy new players. They allow casinos to keep up with the Joneses while adding an enticing shiny new object on a casino floor that hasn’t changed since… well, forever.

ETGs make sense to me, and for the record I’m a big fan, for reasons I’ll divulge a little later, but I’ve heard mixed reactions regarding their financial performance. Reactions have ranged from failed trials that have led them to being “voted off the island” by the casino manager to customers loving them and the casino making a matzo.

I’ve also heard numerous reports of cheating on electronic table games. In fact, it’s the security vulnerability of many of these games that has led to uncertainty and ultimately the withdrawal of some of these games from casinos in the U.S.

Many of the game protection issues have arisen from a competitive rush to market of new games that haven’t been adequately scrutinized or assessed by seasoned game protection consultants and authorities.

The shadow that exists behind these shiny new objects is getting longer, and should be concerning for gaming equipment manufacturers. In some cases, the withdrawal of these new games has been because they’ve fallen victim to cheating. In other cases they’ve been outed because they are underperforming.

Casino managers may not always have evidence of foul play on the games, but they may have spies in the casino world who have informed them of cheating incidents. This along with the industry intel and online reports are enough for an executive to pull the plug, search for an alternative product or boycott ETGs from the casino floor altogether.

Apart from the benefits mentioned, I feel ETGs represent the first step to digitizing the casino wagering process, thus making the casino industry legitimately more accountable and transparent.

I want ETGs to work, so in the rest of this article I’ll raise some of the general game protection issues we’ve seen over the last year or two and offer some suggestions for best game protection practices. Names of products and companies will be left out. The intent of this article is to not to bag the vendors but to discuss what casinos have learned so far in their development and to work together to establish best practices for electronic table game protection.

To put this topic in context, we must first view ETGs as new games that casino operators know little about. Unlike traditional games, there are no recognized ETG game protection experts out there who offer training. There are no protection books or videos on these games. To add an extra challenge to knowing and being prepared to protect the games from cheats, manufacturers are generally tight-lipped about their products. This means as game protection professionals, we are going to have to write our own manual. Let’s get started.

Tilting the Machine… and the Dealer

Some people might say an ETG is just a table game with electronic stuff. However, there are two big problems that make these games more vulnerable to cheating than their traditional counterparts: the electronic stuff and the absence of human supervision, a staple element of game protection since casinos first began.

Tiago Aguiar is an ETG cheat currently wanted in various states across the country for being the mastermind of the “electronic roulette reset scam.” Aguiar is a former employee of a Florida casino organization who obtained inside information about a software glitch in a well-known electronic roulette game. He’s become the poster child for electronic table game cheats in surveillance monitor rooms across the country.

The electronic roulette game in question does not require a dealer and players wager through kiosks surrounding an actual roulette wheel. Players wager electronically and the ball is spun automatically using an ejection mechanism. When the ball drops, the result is indicated and winners and losers are decided.

Aguiar has worked out how to manipulate the electronics on the game so he wins big and never loses.

The Scam: Aguiar possesses a master reset key (apparently they’re easily obtained). He and various associates place maximum bets on Red or Black. If they win they collect the winnings. If they lose they physically lift the top of the machine until it places the game into a tilt. The group then slams the machine closed and inserts the key which disables any sort of notification to the slots/surveillance team, and resets the machine, refunding any losing wagers. Imagine betting the maximum on every spin and never losing.

At the time of this writing, Aguiar and his buddies are believed to have cheated casinos out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in at least four states and Puerto Rico over the last year. The physical security weakness and software glitch has been brought to the attention of the manufacturer, but it is not known if the problems have been rectified.

Cheating ETGs is not confined to hitting dealerless roulette machines. Hybrid electronic craps games (ETGs that require a dealer) have become a popular target for various craps cheating teams.

Using various successful methods, the teams are taking advantage of a physically large table game traditionally operated by four trained staff that is now being managed and controlled by a single dealer.

The dealer is primarily responsible for the integrity of the roll, entering the correct result into the game computer, calling the game, controlling the speed of the game and assisting customers. All wagers are placed electronically via individual kiosks for each player.

It doesn’t take a seasoned gaming veteran to recognize the game is particularly vulnerable to dealer manipulation. Distraction teams have been known to draw the single dealer’s attention away while one of the conspirators leans over and enters favorable results on the game computer. Controlled dice shots are made easier through shorter rolls from players opposite the dealer (where a stick person used to stand) that only require a 5-6-foot roll to be valid.

Distracting an unsupervised, often inexperienced craps dealer is very easy, but the big money is in collusion between the dealer and players. The modus operandi of choice for electronic craps collusion teams is for the crooked dealer to enter favorable results for accomplices at the table. It’s not hard when there are no other staff or supervisors around to monitor and oversee the game. Hybrid games are controlled by dealers who have the power to manipulate the game, not by sleight of hand or a subtle breach of procedures, but by simply pushing a button on the game computer.

Technology is a Useful Servant But a Dangerous Master

The good news is the introduction of technology to traditional table games has resulted in increased game efficiency and eliminated a number of common threats like past posting, overpayments and fraudulently leaving losing bets to ride.

The bad news is the replacement of the dice crew. The solo dealer, essentially an unsupervised data entry operator with no required dealing skills, has added new opportunities for cheating and dealer collusion with players. There are a number of variations of electronic craps scams that developed over the last year, that I won’t divulge in this article, but there is a general pattern that can be abstracted—manipulate the dealer and you can control the game.

The reliance on computers and electronics to be used to determine and enter the outcomes of table games means the traditional means of monitoring and protecting the integrity of ETGs will need to innovate and adapt.

To ensure a successful future for ETGs there will need to be a collaborative effort from gaming equipment manufacturers and casino operators. Like putting new cars on the road, it’s in the best interest of manufacturers, consumers and regulators to test drive and review for performance and safety.

Here’s what I think needs to happen to restore confidence in the industry and advance the growth of ETGs:

The first step is for casinos to internally conduct new game risk assessments. This should be completed by the surveillance director during the initial trial period of a new electronic game. Why the surveillance director? The surveillance director’s primary role is monitoring, investigating and reporting possible threats and risk to the operation. They are independent of operations and can make an objective risk assessment using their expertise, experience and contacts in game protection.

I recommend casinos should not entirely rely on information provided by other casinos that have trialed the game in the past. Often the game design has been changed, ironically to address security vulnerabilities and weaknesses discovered by previous trialists of the game. Unfortunately, there seems to be a culture adopted by a number of gaming equipment manufacturers in recent times of rushing new products to market with the attitude of letting the casinos find out if there are any flaws, because they’re the experts. Not really a responsible attitude, but admittedly, they’re right.

The risk assessment should be conducted with the full cooperation of the manufacturer. Access to product information including reports of cheating methods discovered by clients should be forthcoming. The surveillance director should be involved in the installation process to enable questions for the manufacturer to gain a better understanding of the game design and electronics.

Product manuals and suggested operational procedures should be reviewed and if necessary amended to meet game protection best standard practices. As a general guide, there are five principles of casino game protection that should be met.

The Five Principles of Casino Game Protection
  1. A random result
  2. Execution of the correct outcome
  3. Correct payments and forfeiture
  4. Checks and balances
  5. Competent staff

The five principles apply to all casino games, traditional and electronic. Once assurance has been established that all five principles can be maintained effectively within the operation, it’s time to train your staff and develop a marketing plan for the new game.

The second step is to set up surveillance of the game. Cameras should be installed and positioned above and on the table to achieve the live monitoring and review of the five principles of casino game protection as well as player activity on and around the game.

The third step is to set up the ETG monitoring interface in the surveillance monitor room. This will allow surveillance officers to monitor the game and wagering activity of all the players via a direct real-time interface to the game. The interface can provide security alerts of illegal and legal access to the machine along with other relevant real-time security information. It can also provide archived data for review and analysis.

Traditional camera coverage is often obstructed from viewing player activity on ETG betting kiosks. This makes the surveillance interface to the ETG crucial. As ETGs are not supervised on the floor and the betting is carried out on multiple betting stations instead of a traditional game layout, it really is the only way to effectively monitor the entire game.

The fourth and final step is for casino operators is to share security information and analysis with other casinos. Whenever there is a cheating incident on an ETG—spread the word! Detail the cheating method and the significant findings of your investigation. Pass that information on to your manufacturer and request remedial action.

Involving all interested parties in the process with the spirit of continuous improvement and helping each other prosper will build trust and create a better relationship between vendors and operators—one that will hopefully lead to the development of great games that customers will be lining up to play and casinos will keep on their gaming floor forever.

Don’t Throw the Baby Out With the Bathwater

ETGs are the talk of the gaming floor right now. Not for all good reasons. Since their flaws and vulnerabilities became more exposed in 2022, a cloud of doubt has been cast over the integrity and ability for these shiny new objects to be protected from scammers. At the same time, a number of smart progressive casino managers see the unlimited potential moving forward. Casinos need new products.

Most casino veterans know that new games, like new casinos, are going to get scammed. When they do, they don’t shut it down. They gather all responsible parties around the table and review their execution of the five principles of casino game protection. They make an honest assessment of their policies, processes, practices and systems and collectively put together a plan of action to improve.

Instead of manufacturers and casino operators retreating into a cone of silence when there’s a problem with a product, if they got together in a “war room” and drew up a game plan to combat the bad guys, these problems could be solved more quickly. If they want to prevent battles from happening in the first place, they would get in the war room with their allies before stepping foot on the battlefield.

We are in this together.

Willy Allison is a game protection consultant/trainer and the founder and managing director of the World Game Protection Conference in Las Vegas. He started in the casino business in 1987 and has worked in surveillance management, consulted for major casino organizations and conducted game protection training seminars around the world.

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