Cameras are watching you
By David G. Molyneaux, editor, Travel Mavens
Every day, thousandsof people walk around Las Vegas casinos with hundreds of thousands of dollars in their pockets. Think of a casino as a big party room, where everybody is on the make.
"The adrenaline rush is to beat the system," said Eric Mescall, a surveillance shift supervisor at the upscale Bellagio resort and casino on the Strip.
"Every gambler is here to beat something -- the house, the dealer, the odds, the other players, and sometimes the law.
"Odds are, a city of undesirables is waiting to beat you, too. Wherever there's big money, there are people planning to take it away."
Unless you are among the thieves and scam artists drawn to the Las Vegas honey pot, you may take some comfort in "the eyes in the sky."
For decades, surveillance people watched from hidden catwalks in the false ceilings of casinos, keeping their eyes on crooks, customers and their own employees.
Today the sky is full of electronic eyes that not only watch, but also record nearly everything that happens on the floor.
Every movement is on tape
In the old days, said casino manager William Hartwell, "if something happened, we'd talk to a bunch of witnesses" of varying reputations. "Now," he said, "we just call upstairs and have them roll the tape."
Casinos spend millions of dollars on security because owners (hereafter called the House) want everything to operate above board -- no cheating by customers, no skimming by employees, no pockets picked by hangers on. The House makes its profit based on how much money is gambled -- a percentage of every dollar waged is kept by the House -- so as long as things run smoothly, the profits roll in.
On a recent trip to Las Vegas, the folks at Bellagio allowed me to spend more than an hour in their surveillance chamber, which was a room about 15 feet by 30 feet. The cramped room was full of computers and 56 screens for security personnel to see the efforts of Bellagio's 2,000 cameras. All 144 gaming tables in 116,000 square feet of casino are under camera, and 500 VCRs digitally record nearly every movement round the clock.
For a while, we watched two baccarat players wagering big money. One man was down $886,000, a sum I found staggering until I was told the second man, a frequent player in Las Vegas, was up $14 million. The casino had a background report on each player.
"We have three or four major issues every day," said Hartwell, who started working in Vegas in 1965, scraping dirty plates in the kitchen at the Desert Inn, moving up to cook's helper, slots overseer, dealer, floor man and supervisor.
Watching body language, eye contact
"Las Vegas is a city of folks out of sync," said Hartwell. "We watch everything, including what might be called normal someplace else. Being in sync is out of sync."
Surveillance experts said they recognize differences in body language and eye usage among tourists, professional gamblers, casual observers and folks on the make. They look for dealers and players working as a team to beat the House; pickpockets; purse snatchers; and teams of gamblers who count cards (which is not illegal but not allowed by the casinos, as in the great scenes in the 1988 movie, "Rain Man," where an autistic Dustin Hoffman was counting cards for Tom Cruise).
The eyes in the sky also watch out for tourists who are not careful, such as the woman we saw playing blackjack, with her purse slung casually over her chair. Surveillance phoned a floor man who suggested to the woman that she protect her purse.
"We can look at every card played," said Mescall, "see who bet what and when. If you win $100,000 or more at a table, we'll run the tape, take a look, analyze the play, make sure it was clean."
All is game in Las Vegas
Dealers know they are being watched, and they are required to clear their hands -- show them to the cameras -- after they make any move to their bodies or leave the table.
Surveillance people are on the lookout for customers who carry little flashlights used to cheat slot machines by shining beams into the mechanisms that produce winnings. (A warning: Possession of one of these flashlights is a felony in Nevada).
All betting chips worth $5,000 or more have a microchip inside, so the casino can verify the chip and its value.
You are on camera.
Be ready for your close-up: You can bet that if you ever rearranged your underwear in the Bellagio casino, it's on tape somewhere.