LAS VEGAS -- Baccarat -- the only Las Vegas game that is growing -- is attracting cash-rich Asians and leading to a spike in crime.
To fight back, casinos are improving security and profit -- adding pre-shuffled packs of cards, "smart shoes" that hold shuffled cards on a table game and playing cards embedded with radio-frequency identification chips.
Using chip readers built into tables, casinos can track each card as it is played, detecting unusual winning streaks or foreign cards introduced into the game.
Besides high limits that can start at $100,000 per hand at posh Las Vegas casinos, baccarat is known for the curious antics of its players -- which can include tearing cards after a losing hand, yelling for the desired outcome and jumping up from the table before uncovering a crucial hand that could mean the difference between losing and winning the equivalent of five years' salary.
Although few people will try to cheat a casino game, baccarat -- a high-limit, raucous game with simple rules and no strategy decisions to complicate the flow of the cards -- is "ripe for the picking," says Bill Zender, a former Nevada casino regulator turned security consultant.
Some California casinos have dozens of baccarat tables going at all hours, dwarfing the pits in Las Vegas properties and creating potential training grounds for cheaters, Zender says.
The largest cheating ring of all time involved baccarat: Some industry insiders say the San Diego-based Tran Organization may have stolen up to $15 million from dozens of casinos in more than 10 states and Canadian provinces over a four-year period, until it was taken down by the FBI in 2007.
The group's ringleader pleaded guilty in 2008 to scamming up to $7 million from as many as 27 U.S. casinos and was sentenced this year to nearly six years in prison. More than 30 co-conspirators have pleaded guilty in the scam, which involved bribing dealers to execute an incomplete or "false" shuffle of cards.
The crooks tracked the cards the first time they were played, alerting accomplices when the same combination of unshuffled cards appeared in the deck again. By knowing the outcome of the cards beforehand, the cheaters could make multiple winning bets.
Unlike blackjack and other card games where players may choose whether to receive more cards, baccarat requires players to draw a third card depending on the sum of their hand, allowing cheaters to determine the order of multiple hands in mini-baccarat games where cards are reused.
"If I know what the next 40 cards are going to be, that's about eight hands in a row" where a player can bet low or high and maximize his profit, Zender says.
Some cheats have worn baggy sleeves to switch out cards or have used accomplices, trading cards underneath the table. Others mark cards before they are dealt again.
"It's high tech and low tech," Zender says.
Caesars Palace recently agreed to pay a $250,000 fine for allowing a man to walk and dance on a baccarat table while the game was being played. The player compromised the security of the game as well as people's safety, regulators say.
Although standing on a table is unusual, other forms of childish behavior are common among high rollers, Zender says.
"It's an annoyance casinos put up with for bigger players. If I'm playing $25 a hand at a minibaccarat at the Plaza I might be a big player and get away with something, but if I'm at Caesars betting $100 a hand they're going to ask me to leave. If I'm betting $100,000 a hand they're going to let me do it."
Security experts aren't easily distracted by such antics, Zender says. Moreover, casinos are watching tables more carefully these days because of the economy, which has forced debt-ridden companies to cut back and grab profits where they can.
"They sweat the big action" while fighting over a limited number of high rollers by offering discounts on gambling losses and other perks, Zender says.