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Surveillance Skill Set for the Roaring ’20s

As technology advances, the future belongs to those who have more skills and greater flexibility

Surveillance Skill Set for the Roaring ’20s

The capabilities of artificial intelligence technology and camera technology are endless, especially in the casino industry. We’re only just starting to scratch the ticket and see the prize. If casinos invest and adopt in the technology—and quite frankly, why wouldn’t they?—it could change the way we run casinos forever.

All eyes will be on the department formerly known as surveillance, the gatekeepers of the casino camera system. They are in a position to have a huge role in the development of automated computer vision-based systems to provide valuable intel to management across the organization and to help them run their departments more efficiently and profitably.

Or they could be put in a corner. Their role diminished in the organization, as managers are given access to all of the available data, alerts, video analytics and actionable intelligence. Some casino executives might ask the question, why have a surveillance department? If facial recognition technology works, why do we need (you) people to recognize people?

It would be easy for surveillance people to argue that using computer vision for managing casinos in the future will never happen. Over the years casinos haven’t exactly shown a lot of enthusiasm for investing in surveillance technology and changing the operational status quo of what our Las Vegas founding fathers intended.

Fair point. I’m just saying that I believe there will come a day when the cost-to-benefit ratio cannot be ignored by accountants. For those who say the technology is not there yet, I point you to Moore’s Law, which states the speed and capability of computers can be expected to double every two years.

I’m not in the “robots-taking-jobs” camp but I think we can all see that automation is having an effect in the job market all over the world. It has been for a long time, in some shape or form. I see automation ramping up over the next decade. In the casino industry we’ve heard the stories of robot cocktail servers and seen the YouTube videos of robot dealers. Industry old-timers used to say you will never replace dealers and cocktail waitresses—that’s why people come here. Yeah… no.

Could surveillance people lose their job to a robot? My answer to that is if you consider it to be just a “job” and all you do is come in every day and watch monitors, then yes. Computer vision software will interface to your cameras (every one of them) and monitor the casino using sophisticated algorithms to detect undesirable activity. No training. No time off. No sleep mode. No pay. No health care.

If you consider yourself to be an employee with a very particular set of skills (think Liam Neeson in the movie Taken) that can contribute to achieving the casino’s business goals of profitability, protection and growth, then I say you have a future in the business. A great future.

To realize their potential, surveillance employees will need to develop and upgrade their skill set. Obtaining knowledge is important. It’s what most surveillance people have been dieting on for years through cramming manuals, reviewing videos and on-the-job experience. But having knowledge tucked up in your head doesn’t always equate to getting tangible results, adding value or achieving company objectives. It just means you know stuff.


Hire For Character, Train For Skills

Changing the role and the way surveillance departments traditionally run will require hiring people with different skill sets. Alternatively, existing talent can be developed through creating internal advanced training programs or funding education in local colleges.

I used to hire people with no casino knowledge or experience about 95 percent of the time. Actually, that policy was more of a necessity, because outside of major markets and casino clusters there was a limited pool of expertise to choose from. I took the clean slate/open mind—our training is the best approach.

What I looked for in an applicant was good character and attitude. Resumes meant nothing to me except for reading their work experience. It was on us to train and develop good people and turn them into warriors. To be honest, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Over the years I have learned that nepotism has plagued the casino industry. People in power juicing family and friends into jobs. It’s not good, particularly in surveillance. More often than not the juice-ee is a problem child. The thought is that they can be hidden away in surveillance where they don’t have to do much.

Wrong! If it’s a proactive surveillance operation focused on adding value, there is nowhere to hide. This is another reason it is important to educate other managers in the organization and always promote high standards in people and performance.

Then there are the HR people who conveniently try to move gaming people up into surveillance because of a “situation.” I once got a call from HR eight months after we opened a casino that went like this:

“Willy…we have a problem. I was hoping you could help us. It would be really nice. We have just found out that one of our baccarat dealers only has one eye. She didn’t mention it (she lied) when we hired her. Anyway, she makes a lot of mistakes on the table (especially on the side she can’t see), so the table games director thinks she should be fired. She loves working in the casino and we thought… well… it would be really nice if you could give her a job in surveillance.”


Traditional Surveillance Training

Once you have chosen the right person, there are two ways to learn to become a surveillance operator. You can go through a 12-week in-house training program before starting the job, or perform on-the-job training. Which path you will take will depend on the size of the casino.

Large casinos around the world often run schools on a periodic basis that will take on multiple students. Scheduling of the schools is based on turnover rates, and a goal to always keep team numbers at an optimum level. To save money, smaller casinos tend to replace surveillance people reactively after someone leaves. New people are thrust into the job and required to get up to speed as soon as possible.

There are no standards for surveillance training, so often the syllabus and learning objectives vary from property to property. Most training programs are knowledge-based, involving reading a lot of manuals. Archived videos are often used to show common cheating and theft moves.

Often casinos hire game protection consultants to come in and train them on things to look for. Unfortunately, a number of these seminars (although entertaining) resemble a magic show—often filled with sleight-of-hand trickery and cheat moves that haven’t been reported in the last decade or two. I like the fact that they raise awareness of the possibilities along with key elements of cheating like deception and distraction, but quite frankly, in my career I’ve never seen a magician cheat a casino. I do see the value from a motivation perspective, but would prefer to see trainers teach casino people how to fish instead of just throwing them fish.

Most in-house training programs teach basic skills required to do the job like using the equipment in the monitor room, reporting, communication, calculating game payouts, card counting and making coffee. A small number of casinos may offer advanced skills after the initial training like body language, conducting threat assessments and audits.


Upgrading the Skill Set

The introduction of AI computer vision-based systems will change the role of surveillance and the job description of employees. Essentially, the monitoring of games will be automated. Cheating, advantage play, theft, breaches of rules and procedures, efficiency, wager amounts, payouts, player identities and behavior will be monitored by artificial intelligence. To optimize the potential of the new technology, staff can be reassigned to new tasks and responsibilities.

In order to do this, staff training will need to be more competency-based. In other words, learning how to do stuff. Learning knowledge will remain in the core curriculum, but if trainees don’t already have them, they will be taught advanced skills that can add value. Of course, it will be desirable to hire people with these special skills from the outset, but if existing people don’t have them, they should have the opportunity to learn them.

The skills I think will be important revolve around four areas: investigations, analysis, systems, and communication.

Investigations: Be able to conduct a criminal investigation and interrogation. Be able to gather and analyze open-source intelligence (OSINT).

Analysis: Be able to interpret gaming data and performance. Be able to review large losses and identify reasons. Be able to conduct trend analysis. Be able to solve business problems. Be able to examine processes and make recommendations for improvement. Be able to conduct and write a threat assessment. Be able to conduct and write an audit.

Systems: Be able to write code. Be able to design algorithms to detect fraudulent activity. Be able to work with vendors and suppliers to develop system interfaces. Be able to maintain and secure the department database and information systems. Be able to examine electronic games and design detection mechanisms.

Communication: Be able to confidently present information to senior management either verbally or digitally in a clear and accurate matter. Be able to design infographics, slide shows and videos that can be used internally for training and management presentations. Be able to design effective court presentations for criminal prosecutions. Be able to come up with strategies to maintain positive relationships across the organization. Be able to set up clear channels of communication with other departments in a crisis management situation. Be able to get everyone in the department on the same page.

To be clear, I don’t expect anyone to have all the skills listed. The department would designate specific functions and responsibilities for individuals. After the initial induction training course, new people would be thrust into the response team to deal with live situations and AI interface alerts. In time, their special skills would be utilized in specific roles within the team. Essentially, each member of the team would be responsible and held accountable for specific tasks.

Ideally, over time it would be good for staff to develop all of the skills I have listed. I used to think it was better to specialize in one thing. Find your niche, work on it and do it better then anyone else. Over the years I’ve changed my thinking slightly. I think if you want to stand out it is good to be excellent at one thing. However, to open yourself up to new opportunities, you should gain knowledge and skills in many things. Become a jack of all trades. Know a little bit about everything and continue to develop new skills and gather knowledge.


Start Thinking About the Future

Casinos will have to pay more for individuals who have special skills and talent. The cost could be offset by halving the size of the team and paying skilled people twice as much. Additionally, the reduction in “watchers” and the return on valuable management information could fuel financial growth for the organization. I believe an environment that requires the skill sets I’ve mentioned could become an incubator for future games and marketing programs, a catalyst for innovation and the creation of a smart casino.

There are obvious hurdles to get over. The technology is a long way off. Development costs for customizing technology for the specific purposes of casinos may not be initially seen as lucrative for tech companies. It will take a financially mutual partnership with a visionary technology leader to make it happen. An alternative would be for casinos to invest in the creation of their own AI development teams.

I don’t see this happening any time soon. I would probably take the over on 10 years. In saying that, there is no reason why we can’t start thinking about the future and what it’s going to mean to our jobs. Are any jobs safe from robots? What skills can I learn to make me more valuable to my employer or even lead me in a fantastic new direction I would never have dreamed of?

Personally, continuous learning and developing new skills has worked for me. When I started in the business as a trainee surveillance operator I never thought I could write articles for GGB magazine, do podcasts, have my own newsletter, train people around the world, consult for major corporations or create a gaming conference in Las Vegas. Knowing stuff helps, but doing stuff opens up all sorts of new opportunities.

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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