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In a cramped and stuffy security room tucked at the back of the Empire Casino in the heart of London's West End, burly security guards crowd round a television monitor, quietly watching five customers play poker.
To the untrained eye, the screen appears to show three smartly dressed men and two women sitting at a horseshoe-shaped table, as a yellow-shirted dealer presides over a game of three-card poker. But what the guards are actually watching is a highly trained three-man team of professional poker cheats (sometimes turning up in a variety of wigs and disguises) trying to swindle the casino with an elaborate card- swapping technique.
Doug Reeman, head of security, briefly pauses the tape. "To see how they cheat you've got to pay close attention to the two men on the right side," he says, and restarts the feed. As the dealer is distracted by a man on the other side of the table, the two men skilfully swap cards with little body movement in a well-rehearsed move. The women in the middle, innocent bystanders, do not know one man now holds a particularly strong hand which he uses to clean up.
For casinos across Britain, the growing popularity of glittering roulette wheels and high-stakes poker games is a multibillion-pound industry. For a small number of professional cheats, casinos can be rich pickings. Were it not for an eagle-eyed dealer who initially picked up on the scam, and hours of painstaking surveillance by The Empire's security team, the two men who tried to rip off the casino might have got away with it. Instead, Mehmet Mersin, a poker cheat who uses numerous aliases and is well-known to Britain's casinos, and his friend, Suleyman Arik, were arrested at the poker table.
Security staff had watched the pair swap their cards over a two-day period and had built up such a wealth of evidence using high-definition CCTV cameras that the two men had to plead guilty. Last month, they became the first to be convicted under the new Gambling Act, which makes cheating in casinos a criminal offence.
Doug Reeman, a former police officer, directs security at London Clubs International, which owns 11 major casinos across the country, including The Empire. He said the capture of Mersin and Arik was the kind of sting operation ex-coppers dream about. "It was a near-perfect operation where the evidence was so compelling they had to plead guilty," he said. The specialist "pan-tilt-zoom" (PTZ) cameras they used were so effective that the security team were even able to film the cards in the two men's hands before and after the swap, a move they used seven times to net more than £5,000 in illegal winnings before the police swooped. "We suspect that the third man on the left was deliberately distracting the dealer, but that would have been very difficult to prove."
On a shelf next to the glowing bank of television screens in The Empire's security hub are three green lever arch files labelled "Facebook". Mr Reeman says: "Most of the faces inside those files are people with gambling addictions who we know not to let in. But, yes, there are quite a few career criminals in there as well."
Detective Inspector John Anderson heads the club unit within the Metropolitan Police's specialist clubs and vice department. He has been tracking casino cheats for two years. "Many of the people we are after work in organised teams and are very good at what they do," he says. "They often move internationally, targeting anywhere from casinos in Britain, Turkey and Monte Carlo. Some have even started turning up in the United States."
Securing convictions can be difficult, partly because of films including Ocean's Eleven, which portray casinos as dens of iniquity that are fair game for the criminal underworld. "Often the public has very little sympathy for casinos," says DI Anderson. "But stopping casino cheats is essential, not just because they are stealing, but because they are often linked to wider organised crime networks. The trade-off for us is that the casinos – which are so heavily regulated now and above board – are fantastic sources of intelligence for crime networks that might be involved in, say, money laundering or identity fraud."
Securing convictions has become somewhat easier thanks to three recent pieces of legislation: the Gambling Act, which criminalises cheating in a casino; the Fraud Act, which simplified various bits of anti-fraud legislation; and the Identity Cards Act, which makes it illegal to use fake identification.
Back on the casino floor at The Empire, Mr Reeman is checking up on the croupiers, the establishment's eyes and ears in the war against the cheats. A croupier's training is long and arduous: learning how to work the roulette wheel takes six weeks. The Empire, on the north side of Leicester Square, has about 1,600 visitors every weekday, many more at the weekend. Tourists easily outnumber locals, with almost half the main gaming floor given over to punto banco, a complicated card game popular with Chinese visitors.
As well as its vigilant croupiers, The Empire relies on more than 130 CCTV cameras. Each table is fitted with its own camera and microphone which can be supplemented by PTZ cameras. Most of the time, the equipment is used to settle disputes that arise over called bets or numbers. But they are also invaluable for combating thieves. Before CCTV, monitoring was by eyeball only.
But cheats are also employing increasingly sophisticated gadgetry to stay ahead. Roy Ramm, another former police officer who is head of compliance at London Clubs International, has seen it all. The most technologically complex plot he encountered was a four-man poker team, one of whom had a camera hidden up his sleeve. The group would look for a croupier who tended to deal the cards at an angle the camera could pick up. The pictures were relayed to a man in a van outside, who told the other members of the team through hidden earpieces what each player's hand was.
Most cheats, Mr Ramm says, are low-level opportunists. Some throw a few more chips on the table for a winning bet (called "past-posting"), some superglue a pin head under their nail to mark playing cards. Then there are the utter failures. "There's one chap – let's call him 'Jimmy' – who is known to pretty much all the casinos," Mr Ramm says, grinning. "He has tried to disguise himself in so many different ways. I've seen him with a shaven head, shoulder-length hair, fake moustaches and beards. He's tried everything but we always spot him before he even gets in the casino."
Then, with a wry smile, Mr Ramm adds: "In our industry, he's what we call a busted flush."
Hands up: The world's best cheats
A 19th-century poker cheat who spilled the beans on his 40-year career swindling players on Mississippi riverboats. He would pose as a rich plantation owner, and claimed to have netted $1m. Used marked cards.
*Dennis Sean McAndrew:
Perhaps the world's most prolific slot-machine cheat, who started rigging them in the 1970s and is believed to have netted $16m before being caught in the late 1990s. He even created silicon chips that overrode the software which controls payouts.
*Joe and Henry Classon:
Brothers who in the 1970s and 1980s perfected several techniques, often involving a corrupt croupier. The dealer would secretly pass them winning hands but to keep the casinos in the dark the croupier and the Classons would have to ensure opponents lost enough to cover the cost of their cheating.