One safe bet at Cincinnati casino? Some will cheat

Sophia Hargrave practices shuffling a deck of cards with the help of trainer Charles Zascavage, Tuesday, Nov. 27, 2012, at Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati in Cincinnati. One of the safest bets at the new casino set to open this spring is that cheaters will be among the gamblers, targeting dealers who have only dealt cards in a training room. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

CINCINNATI (AP) -- One of the safest bets at a new casino set to open in Cincinnati this spring is that cheaters will be among the gamblers, targeting dealers who have only dealt cards in a training room.

But there also will be hundreds of surveillance cameras, pit bosses with years of experience at other casinos, and about a dozen agents with the Ohio Casino Control Commission — all working to spot and stop people from cheating the house, and indirectly, the state.

Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati, a gleaming, $400 million property right off busy Interstate 71 in the city's downtown, will be the last of four voter-approved casinos to open in the state all in less than 12 months. Casinos in Cleveland, Toledo and Columbus opened starting in May.

Since then, the state has charged more than 60 people with cheating, or about 10 each month since the first casino opened in Cleveland, said Karen Huey, the commission's director of enforcement.

"I was struck by the level of cheating that came in," Huey said. "It was so immediate. People came in and from the first few days were trying to steal and cheat."

Ten people were charged this past week with cheating at the Columbus casino, which opened in October. Authorities allege that each one, acting separately and on their own, cheated the casino mostly by either adding or removing chips from their bets after they knew whether they'd won, known as capping and skimming. They all face up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine.

Though the cheaters surely will come once Cincinnati's casino opens, management is doing all it can to teach future dealers how to spot them.

This past week, dozens of potential dealers gathered in a room cordoned off from construction at the casino to learn the right way to shuffle, get in the habit of clapping their hands and turning their palms up every time they leave the table and eyeing each person's bet before dealing the cards — all in an effort to root out stealing among players and the dealers themselves.

"There are some people who are very good at cheating," said Steven Mitchell, the lead supervisor training blackjack dealers and a future pit boss at the casino. "And if you're doing all the procedures right, those people tend to not come to your table. If you have someone getting lax on the procedures, you're giving them that opportunity and they will take advantage."

Among the most difficult thing to teach dealers, Mitchell said, is how to properly shuffle, which includes keeping two sets of cards mostly flat on the table, barely lifting a corner of each stack away from the players and pushing them tightly together.

At one table at dealer training, 60-year-old Sophia Hargrave of Cincinnati struggled with the lesson, either losing her grip on the cards, bending them too much or exposing them to them to the wrong side of the table.

Her trainer, Charles Zascavage, told her to keep her patience and keep working at it.

"This usually gets everybody," Zascavage said before explaining why getting it right is so important.

Doing it the wrong way "exposes too many cards to players," he said. "There are people that dedicate themselves to reading those cards and figuring out where they're at. It becomes part of their betting strategy."

In all, the casino will hire 750 dealers, none of whom can have even a single charge of theft in their background, even if it's a misdemeanor, or any felonies whatsoever. Those who have large debts they aren't paying off also will be out.

Of the 4,040 people who had sought dealer licenses with the state through the middle of November, 79 were denied or disqualified for various reasons, according to the commission. That amounts to about 2 percent.

No matter how stringent the requirements, stealing from casinos among dealers will happen, said Jim Edwards, a former senior agent at the Nevada State Gaming Control Board who now trains agents across the country, including in Ohio, to catch cheaters.

In Nevada, Edwards said more than 40 percent of people arrested for cheating are dealers.

In one infamous case, a high-stakes dealer at a Lake Tahoe casino pleaded guilty in 2004 to grand theft for using her position to steal $500 chips from Harrah's Stateline casino over a four-year period. Authorities said she was able to steal more than $800,000 before getting caught.

Since Ohio's casinos opened, one dealer has been charged with stealing. Ryan Straker, 27, has been charged with aggravated theft and having criminal tools after authorities say he was slipping chips into a wristband while dealing at the Cleveland casino.

The September indictment against Straker says he stole between $1,000 and $7,500 over an unknown period of time.

Straker did not respond to a message for comment, and court records show he does not have an attorney.

Edwards said dealers don't necessarily set out to steal, but that they have so many opportunities that some find it impossible to resist.

"People working in a casino are no more honest or dishonest than someone working at a supermarket or a department store or any other kind of business," he said. "A lot of times this is someone who just fell victim to a lapse in judgment and a hint of greed."

In 2009, Ohio voters approved putting casinos in the state's four largest cities to allow the state to collect 33 percent in gross revenue taxes, money that goes to the state's counties, school districts, the four casino cities, the casino commission and programs for problem gamblers.

"When you're stealing from a casino, you're stealing from the state of Ohio," Huey said. "We take it very seriously. We want people to know we're they're and we're watching, and they should come and play and have fun, but don't come and cheat."


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