Friday, April 30, 2010

Robotic Casino Dealer, by Organic

Robots have been used in some casinos for more than 10 years. The reason why some casinos decide to use a robot is because of necessity, because in some countries casino gambling is not allowed, so they get around the laws by setting up automat-casinos, or game centers. Basically, if there are no croupiers the joints cannot be considered casinos. Also, even in countries where casino gambling is legal it is still easier and cheaper to get open up a game center than it is to obtain a casino license. So, basically game centers have to be fully automated, to meet the legal restrictions.

One way to achieve that objective is to introduce virtual games. But many players don't like those because there is absolutely no transparency. Yes, everyone knows that the virtual terminals are supposed to be inspected by the authorities and that they are supposedly honest, but still, the experience of playing a virtual game does not compare to the real thing. The player puts the money into a machine, presses a button, and the results are displayed on a monitor. And since the house always wins, even the most naïve of suckers eventually question the integrity of those games. So, mainly for these reasons some game canters like to offer games with mechanical terminals that allow the players to see with their own eyes how the results are achieved.

One very popular piece of gaming equipment that meets this objective is the automated roulette wheel. That roulette wheel is completely encased in a glass dome and no one can interfere with the movement of the ball or the wheel. But that's an easy solution for roulette, which is a game that already uses a mechanical piece of equipment, so all that had to be done was to replace the croupier with an electric motor and a device that shoots the ball. But card games are different and there are no relatively easy solutions for mechanical automation.

The only solution seems to be to replace the human dealer with a robot. A robot can easily be taught all the rules as well as the mechanical movements to distribute the cards. Robots have already been in use for decades in the automobile industry, to replace human workers, so all that had to be done for casinos was to take one of those robots and teach it how to deal various card games, mainly blackjack and baccarat.

The usual robots that are seen in various game centers are standard industrial robots, like the one seen in the post Cambodian Gamblers. But the problem with those machines is that they are extremely slow. A robotic arm cannot possibly deal the cards as fast as a human dealer. So, as a result, each round takes forever to play out. And we all know gamblers don't like to wait. After all, time is money.

So, to address this problem, one company came up with the most logical solution: to build a robot that has been designed specifically for the casino industry. In other words, a robot that can do nothing else but deal card games. The company that designed this machine is called Organic and below are some photos of their robot.

The mechanical distribution of the cards happens under a glass dome, so the players can see at all times how the cards are dealt. The results are then displayed on individual touch-screen LCD terminals. All the cards are printed with bar codes, so that the robot can scan each card and interpret the results. The robot is basically a giant mechanical Random Number Generator. But unlike software-based RNGs, the players can actually see how the results are being generated. This offers a piece of mind, I guess, despite the fact that the players will always lose, regardless how the result are generated.

The following image offers an inside view of the robot, when the dome is removed and the lower part of the machine is raised up for servicing.

And finally, below is a short demo video that shows the robot in action. Since this robot does not have any multi-purpose mechanical arms, the distribution of the cards is really fast.

Mechanically, the robot is pretty well designed. Aesthetically, it is not really my cup of tea, bust since I'm not going to be buying any of those, any time soon, I don't really care about that. From a practical point of view this robot is a much better solution than the conventional industrial robots that have been taught to deal casino games. But the industrial robots are still more fun to watch and definitely more cute than this big monster. This machine is also more confusing to watch, because all that it really does is to deal a sequence of cards and show what they are; then the cards go into the discard pile without ever being dealt to player positions (which would be redundant from a practical point of view, but certainly easier for the eye to follow).

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Casino Cash Counter

In recent years we've seen many changes in casino gaming equipment, that have all been made possible thanks to all the recent developments in technology. Some of these changes are impressive and well thought out and some are just gimmicks. But so far, whenever I talked about casino equipment, I always talked about actual gaming accessories; i.e. props that assist the croupiers in dealing the games. But casinos are actually not really about the games. The whole objective of any casino is to collect money, and lots of it, and as quickly as possible. The games are actually just there to create an attraction. But it's really all about the cash. This is why it is also important to see how the cash is handled.

Below is a picture showing a new currency counting machine, with some of the accessories that are used for the purpose. But before we get into this, let's see how cash is traditionally being handled in the casinos.

Traditionally, the cash is handed off by a player to the croupier, right at the gaming table. The croupier goes through all the proper procedures to count the money and then exchanges the cash for an equivalent amount of checks. At that time all the banknotes are laid out across the table. As soon as the player receives his/her checks the croupier gathers all the cash, places the pile across the slit of a drop box, then places the lower edge of the paddle over the cash in alignment with the slit, and presses downwards. That's the last time any of the players ever see any of that cash. From that moment onwards the players who brought that cash into the casino will engage in a contest against the casino, to recuperate all the cash and even get some more from the house. That's a fantasy many suckers have been dreaming about for centuries. But let's leave all that aside for now. All that we want to know is what happens to the cash that went through that slot.

Beneath the surface of the felt table, right under the slot that engulfs all that cash, lays a piece of casino equipment that most of the players never pay any attention to. In fact they rarely get to see it and the modest design does not really attract much attention to itself (the looks of it can't really compete with all those cocktail waitresses in miniskirts). Casino folks call it the drop box.

The drop box is, well, a box with a way to put the cash in from above and a lock that allows authorized personnel to open the door and pour all that cash out. The idea is really simple. The croupier puts the cash into the box, then the box is carried off the casino floor into a secret room where authorized personnel are in charge of counting and sorting all the money.

I'm sure that most people can already figure out what some of the problems may be, with this system, without me going into too many details and hypothetical scenarios. But the short version of the story is that there's always reason to worry that all the cash doesn't always make it to its intended destination. If anyone has trouble believing this claim, just think of all the scams that have been discovered in the banking industry; that was all done with recorded transactions. Now imagine what goes on in an industry where lots of cash is being handled by employees, where the cash always goes through a phase when the exact amounts have not yet been recorded.

This is where the new casino cash counting machine comes in.

Currency counters have been around for quite a while, and some casinos have already used various counters on the floor; even at the gaming tables, especially in countries where the currency is inflated. But this cash counter is different than conventional ones. It's been designed specifically for casino gaming tables and has some interesting features.

The machine itself has three compartments. The first compartment is where the croupier inserts the cash. Next, the croupier closes the lid and presses the button, and the cash gets transferred into the second compartment as it is counted (all the counting is fully visible through the clear lid). The machine will detect certain kinds of counterfeits (although I have no idea how good this counterfeit detection really is). When the cash is counted the amount will be displayed on the LED display of the machine. The croupier will ask the customer if this is the right amount. If the customer says no, the croupier opens the lid, removes the cash from the machine and repeats the process. If the customer says yes, the croupier presses another button and the cash gets transferred into the third compartment.

The third compartment has a drop box and a tamper resistant cartridge (this part is not really seen through the clear lid). When the cartridge is full the machine will alert the staff to remove it and replace it with an empty one.

Any activity performed by the machine is logged and the data is sent to a central database. This data can be used in various ways (depending how the casino is set up) including a dataveillance system.

When the cartridge containing the cash is removed, some information is written on the actual cartridge (all in full view of the eye in the sky) and then the cartridge is sent to the counting room. Unlike the most primitive procedures where the cash is recorded for the first time in the counting room, this system records the cash the moment after the croupier puts it into the machine. So, in this case the folks in the counting room are really just in charge of sorting the bills, and not trusted with the job of declaring how much cash came in.

Below are a few closeup views of the tamper proof cartridge. In the first photo you can see a cartridge with the lid on, and in the second photo the same cartridge with the lid off. Note the tiny green plug. This little plug prevents the lid from being pushed all the way into the receiving end of the cartridge. The cartridges are initially stored with the lids on and the small security plug in place. The plug simply falls off when the lid is pulled off.

The last photo shows more of a closeup view of the tamper proof locking mechanism. In this photo the green plug is off. The part that actually locks the lid is in the middle of the mechanism. I've looked at this really carefully and as of now I really can't see how it could ever be opened, once the mechanism is really locked, without showing signs of tampering. Please note how I carefully phrased my last sentence. I did say, "once the mechanism is really locked." But what if it's not really locked? In any event, the cash that is counted in the counting room must match the cash that the system recorded at the gaming tables. So, if anyone is going to steal any cash it might as well be the whole cartridge. Why bother tampering with the lock to snatch a couple of bills?

The system is really well designed. The cartridge cannot be inserted into the machine without removing the lid first. And the cartridge cannot be removed from the machine without sliding the lid inside, first, in locked position. So, a really well designed system that deserves both thumbs up.

Although this is definitely a well thought out piece of casino equipment, some casino owners and executives may not actually want this. The reason is simple. Not because they don't believe this machine can do a good job. On the contrary, because they are afraid this machine does too good of a job.

It should really not come too much as a surprise to anyone that most of the cash is actually stolen by the owners and/or casino managers. It may sound confusing, at first; why the hell would a business owner want to steal from himself? But if we look closer it all makes sense.

First of all, there's taxes. All the cash that a casino makes is taxes by the government; and often at a very high tax rate. Also, in some countries the casinos are actually set up as part of that country's National Lottery. So, the casinos in such countries must share a huge part of their profits with the National Lottery, and organization that is there only to collect part of the money. Those are some of the reasons why most thefts are orchestrated from higher up; and that includes (sometimes but not always) armed robberies (known as inside jobs).

Disclaimer: I don't want to make is sound as if I am saying that casino executives are thieves. I was simply giving some examples and saying that in some cases some of them may have reasons to cross the line over to the dark side. But of course, we all know that casinos provide a lot of value to the society, which can only mean that casino owners can only be outstanding pillars of our society.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The "Bee" Electronic Baccarat Dealing Shoe, Part 2

In a previous post, titled The "Bee" Electronic Baccarat Dealing Shoe , I talked about how the "Bee" shoe came to be. In this post I will try to explain why the Angel Eye dealing shoe is still a better product.

The short explanation is that Angel is a company that understands the Asian market much better than the US Playing Card Company [USPCC]. So, although the USPCC copied the Angel shoe and therefore had a chance to come up with improvements, they actually failed and ended up producing a product that is inferior to the original.

Just like the Angel Eye shoe, the "Bee" shoe also requires special playing cards to be used. In fact, the sole purpose why the USPCC made this shoe in the first place was so they could sell more of those special playing cards. So, let's have a closer look at those cards, shall we?

Below is a photo of one of these playing cards. I've illuminated one side of the card with a black light, so we can see the UV bar code (since this is a low powered UV light, only one side gets illuminated, but the other side of the card bears the same code). At first glance everything looks more or less OK, but a closer look should reveal some details that should tell the world that the USPCC could use a consultant.

First, let me be clear that the playing card in this photo is actually not exactly a USPCC brand. This is in fact a Fournier card. However, Fournier is now owned by the USPCC and the parent company is now promoting this shoe through Fournier (as discussed in the previous post). But I'm not interested in those details. The USPCC is behind this project and Fournier's role is insignificant, apart from the fact that the USPCC dumped this product on them.

So, what's wrong with that card?

The short answer is that this card design totally misses the point from the point of view of an Asian baccarat player (i.e. the gambler for which this shoe was supposedly designed for).

To understand why this is so, one must first understand how Asian gamblers play baccarat. Baccarat is a game of chance, so baccarat players cannot focus their energy on using skills. But even when there's no skill involved the players still pretend to do something to influence the outcome. This is all because the stakes are high and the players experience a rush of adrenaline. One thing that some players do is to rub the card on the table before turning it over. As if the rubbing is somehow going to bring them luck. The damn card has already been dealt, so this rubbing is even more moronic than blowing on the dice before shooting. But the player is king and if the player feels like rubbing, let him rub. After all, the odds are stacked against all the player, so let them rub all they want.

But the rubbing is not the main method of handling the cards by the players. Asian baccarat players are famous for "slow-playing" their hands (in this case "slow-playing" should not be confused with slow-playing in poker).

Once the cards are dealt out of the shoe the player could simply turn them over to see what they are; in fact, the dealer could just deal them face up (which is how the game is dealt in many places outside of Asia where players are not allowed to touch the cards). But in Asia the player will expose the card very slowly, by bending the corners little by little, until the value of the card is revealed. The players will actually start bending the cards at the non index corners, to maximize the suspense. By bending at the non index corners the player will not know what some of the cards are until much later. For example, a 7 of diamonds may appear like a 6 of diamonds from one end and like an 8 of diamonds from the other end. So, if a player seen a card that looks like it could be an 8, from one end, the player will then first go and look at the other card, to see if there is a chance the cards add up to 8 or 9. Only after seeing the other card (slowly) will the player go back to the first card to see if it was an 8 or a 7, this time by milking it from the other end. In some case the players may go back and forth between the two cards.

So, that's how Asian baccarat players play the game. Now let's go back to the picture of the baccarat card above. What's wrong with that picture? Well, the card is a damn jumbo index. That's exactly what baccarat players don't want.

These jumbo index cards were first designed for casino blackjack games, so that the eye in the sky could more easily see the numerals. The USPCC should know that. And they should also know that jumbo index playing cards have no place in Asian baccarat games.

The other thing that's wrong with this card, that can't be seen on the photo is the fact that this card is plastic. That's kind of mind boggling.

In Asia, the cards are handled by the players, so in any Asian baccarat game the cards are used only once. In fact, this is the very reason why the USPCC wants to sell their shoes to Asian casinos; so they could sell them more of the special cards. So, since they obviously know that, what the hell are they printing plastic cards for? I guess the blame should be on Fournier, but still, it just goes to show that their hearts are not in it.

There are other things wrong with the "Bee" shoe.

For example, the front of the "Bee" shoe has a large opening for the cards. Anyone on the casino business should know that this is bad, because a large area of the back design is exposed. Still, many casino equipment manufacturers continue to make dealing shoes with large opening. This was also true for the first Angel Eye shoes. But as soon as these shoes hit the casinos in Macau, the casinos placed makeshift gates (made from black felt) on the front of every single shoe. The company later modified the Angel Eye shoes and now the new shoes are made with a gate. It took a couple of year for this modification, but at least it was done. And what happened then? Well, then (meaning later on) the USPCC "invented" the "Bee" shoe. And they obviously had no idea that the shoe should have a gate, or bristle brushes, or something to protect the top card at the front. After all, these shoes are quite expensive and it is kind of ironic to pay all that money for the latest technology that is supposedly a security product, if it doesn't even have the most basic protection against marked cards (which is historically one of the most common casino scams).

There are some other reasons why the Angel Eye shoe is still superior from the "Bee" shoe. But I will keep those reasons to myself. After all, if the USPCC wants to know more about all this, they should do some more homework beyond reading my blog.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Antique Men's Club Photograph with Card Cheater

I recently picked up an interesting antique photo on eBay.

The photo is definitely antique and was described as being from the 1900 to 1920 era. It's basically a photo of a group of young men playing cards and checkers. Amongst them is a card cheat with a face card stuck to the tip of his shoe.

There's no shortage of antique and fake antique photos of card cheats on eBay, but I feel this one's unique. The photo is definitely posed, so it's not as if it offers a rare and genuine behind the scenes look at some of the early American cardsharps. However, I still feel this photo is different from a lot of the more commonly seen card cheat photos on eBay. First of all, unlike the thousands of clones that are listed on eBay ever day, I have never seen this specific photograph. Also, most of the usual card cheat photos on eBay are quite corny; this one's more subtle. In fact, it is very easy to miss the card cheat altogether.

The enlarged view shows a close-up of a playing card stuck in the cheater's shoe, under the table. The cheat is the man in the center of the photograph, smoking a cigar and looking at the camera.

Cheating also takes place above the table. The charismatic man situated in the center of the card table is peeking at the hand of the player seated at his right, i.e. the older man with the mustache who is obviously the sucker.

Since it's really difficult to depict the details from the photo (because of all the black) I decided to make a quick hand tracing of the most important details of the composition. Note the extra playing card that lies on the floor, at the side of the holdout man (right next to the foot of his chair).

The photo is 4"x5" affixed on a 7"x8" mounting board. The actual card faces are readable under magnification (with the exception of the card under the table). At the lower right of the mounting board there is a faded publisher's stamp. The ink is very faint but the top line seems to read JOSEPH P. PICHD. The center line is unreadable but the bottom line definitely says Lawrence Mass.

I paid $10.49 plus $5.00 shipping and handling, which is a bargain considering that this is the same price range as all the usual card cheat photographs on eBay.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Dataveillance: A New Weapon Against Casino Cheats

Dataveillance is a relatively new concept that's starting to be used around the casino industry. The definition of dataveillance will vary, depending on whom you ask. A very modest definition is that dataveillance describes any of numerous methods of combining data with surveillance. A more cynical definition would be that this is a way of using automation and technology to spy on people.

In the world of casinos, dataveillance is the logical next step in the evolution of casino surveillance. In early stages of it development, casino surveillance was done on foot from the catwalks. Then some casinos started using hand held camcorders, still from the catwalks. Then came CCTV cameras and VCRs. As technology advanced casinos started using PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) cameras and DVRs replaced VCRs. In places like Macau surveillance departments are not even in the actual casinos, but instead, IP cameras send signals to remote servers. But in recent years there have been many advancements in technology and a lot of the casino equipment used today happens to be generating data.

Most of the casino equipment that generates date was initially designed solely to assist in dealing the games. For example, the now standard Angel Eye electronic baccarat dealing shoe was just made to prevent players from switching cards. But the way it does that is by scanning the values of the cards as they are dealt and then comparing the results; and this ends up generating data. Same goes for other electronic shoes, such as the TCS/JH Optical Dealing Shoe. Then there's Rapid Craps, the Touch-Screen Electronic Craps Table, and so on. Roulette wheels have been generating results for a few decades, already, and so have slots.

So, one look around the casino should make it clear that all this fancy equipment is generating massive amounts of data. Sooner or later someone was going to look at that and figure out how the surveillance department could benefit from all this.

It should be noted that in a typical casino the data gets generated by many different departments. Access control will be generated by the casino security department (not to be confused with the surveillance department); the food and beverage department will know which players used what comps; the pit will know how much each player bet and how they played; the hotel will know when they checked in and where they're using their key card to open the door, what calls they are making from the room phone and what programs they are watching on cable (and possibly even when they ordered a "massage"). So, the first step is to figure out how to push all this date to the surveillance department. That's easier said than done, because all these departments are separate entities and by regulation they require to be that way.

One relatively new technology that fits into the dataveillance concept very well is video analytics.

A video analytic software is capable of knowing if there is a customer at the other side of the counter (for example) at the other side of the cage. So, if a transaction is apparently taking place in the cage (as detected by the RFID chip readers, or by the money counting machines...etc) but there is no customer at the other side of the window, the system will flag the transaction and alert surveillance to look at the video(s). A video analytic software will be able to detect if a customer's hand reaches too far behind the counter, and so on.

One very impressive video analytic software is the Tangam TableEye21 System for the game of blackjack. The system is capable of tracking the game in real time and simultaneously analyzing all the players for various scams and advantage play scenarios. So, the system will know if a player increases his bets every time the count is positive, or if the player on first base is likely to be playing top card information, or if a player is likely to be using some hole card information, and so on. I think we can all agree that even the sharpest of surveillance experts cannot do all these computations simultaneously. But what's difficult for a human brain to process is a piece of cake for a computer. And the opposite is true, too. Computers are very bad at doing what humans do effortlessly. Which brings me to my next point.

Dataveillance systems are basically designed to create profiling based on all the data that pours into the system. This should not be confused with artificial intelligence, however. As of now, artificial intelligence is just a theoretical concept that has never even come close to a functional model. It is important to understand this because even the best dataveillance system cannot replace good people. But many "intelligent" systems tend to give their users a false sense of security. As a result, in casino surveillance departments, they may decide to cut their costs by sizing down and/or hiring a less expensive workforce. In fact, that's already happening. After all, the machine is doing all the brain work, right? So, why waste money on expensive people? Everyone knows that the ultimate goal of any surveillance department is to save money, so let's save by replacing the expensive workforce by a state of the art piece of equipment and get some cheap labor in... I'm sure you get my drift. The old saying, I can't afford to pay cheap, comes to mind.

A dataveillance system will provide the end user with the best performance only if the data is pouring from all sides. For example, if the system is able to detect that a particular comp card is being used in the food and beverage department shortly after the hotel registered that this player used his key card to enter his room, then the system should detect the conflict. Is there a comp fraud going on? Did a thief steal the player's key card and is now burglarizing the room? There are of course many hypothetical examples on the casino floor. But basically, the system needs to be integrated and more data is better.

Dataveillance is not just a casino tool. It is actually a broad concept with applications that reach far beyond casinos and beyond surveillance. Targeted ads come to mind. In fact it's really not even a brand new concept, as anyone that's read George Orwell's 1984 knows. So, everywhere we go, we are being watched. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Latest String of Armed Casino Robberies... A new Trend?

This year it's been impossible to escape the news of armed casino robberies. First there was the robbery of the Big Easy Travel Plaza truck stop casino, in New Orleans, on January 4, where two gunmen managed to grab $100,000 in just two minutes; then there was the well publicized Berlin poker tournament robbery on March 6, where a gang of armed robbers made out with the €800,000 ($1.1M) jackpot; Then there was an attempted robbery on the Pirate Treasure Casino, in Butte, MT, on March 20; then there was a casino robbery in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where six men stole $111,000; then the robbery of the Basel Grand Casino, on March 29; then the Denver area Bonanza Casino robbery on April 3; and the latest one is the Pharaon Casino robbery in Lyon, France... and I actually skipped a few others. What's going on? Is this some new trend?

In this latest robbery five commando-style robbers attacked the Le Pharaon Casino, in Lyon, at around 3am, before escaping in a high-powered sports car. According to the Associated Press, the robbers made off with around €30,000 in cash. With the current exchange rate this comes to about $40,000. Or, to be precise, a total of $40,279.27 which in turn comes down to $8,055.85 per head (don't forget the .85 cents; I kind of wonder if they split it evenly 5 ways, or if the "mastermind" gets to keep the "lion's share" of the cash).

I am no expert in armed robberies, but in my humble opinion $8K is not exactly what I would consider to be a tempting risk/reward ratio. A plumber can make that in a week, without risk of incarceration.

Officials actually think that the same gang is responsible for a few casino robberies that took place in the past few weeks (namely the Basel casino robbery). So, perhaps the boys are earning more than plumbers, after all.