Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mobsters Are Passed by Cheats on the Casino "Black Book"

Of the 21 people banned from Nevada casinos between 1990 and 2000, most had alleged mob connections. From 2001 to today, only seven names were added to the list, and all except one were casino cheats.

This twofold change — the decline of additions to the list and the emphasis on cheaters instead of mobsters — is an easy indicator of how Clark County and its casinos have been transformed. The contrast reveals a Las Vegas that has perhaps outgrown a landmark bit of gaming regulation: the infamous Black Book.

"How important is the Black Book today?" asked Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno, then answered his own question: "I would say not very."

At least not in comparison to the first List of Excluded Persons, issued in 1960 with 11 names tightly tied to organized crime — mob bosses with hidden interests in casinos, enforcers connected to gangland murders, drug traffickers and a person linked to a Castro assassination plot.

"It was a very powerful symbol," said Robert Faiss, a gaming attorney and former Gaming Commission secretary. Federal authorities saw Las Vegas as a town where mobsters colluded with casinos; the list began as a public relations counter-strike intended to forestall federal regulation of gambling.

Today's Black Book, by contrast, is used to combat the threat of cheats, people who damage Las Vegas' revenue.

Consider the last two names to be added: William Cushing and Michael McNeive. Both pleaded guilty in court late last month to cheating at slots with devices that tricked the machines into thinking $1 bills were $100 bills. Cushing and McNeive have no apparent connections to organized crime.

The first cheaters without mob connections appeared in the Black Book in the mid-'80s, when gaming was becoming increasingly corporate. The threat had shifted from something political — the appearance of organized crime — to something fiscal — lost revenue.

In the past nine years, the board has focused almost solely on cheats, and the rate of additions to the list has considerably dwindled — a change that may also reflect larger changes on the Strip. It's no longer possible to cheat a slot machine with fishing line attached to a quarter. Anyone suspected of marking cards will have surveillance cameras zoomed into their pores. Gaming is now coinless and computerized; cheats who can't crack a computer are out of luck.

This means one of two things: There are now fewer cheaters, or there are now better cheaters.

"It's just much more difficult to cheat the machines," said Jerry Markling, chief of enforcement at the Nevada Gaming Control Board, "and, logically, it's much more difficult for us to detect those types of cheating."

If cheaters are caught, it's certain casino operators won't fight the Control Board adding them to the excluded list. With casinos keeping their own in-house records of undesirables, the board's list is — depending on whom you ask — a doubling up of noble and mutual efforts, or a redundant relic.

"As Vegas changes we have to change with it," Markling said. "The Black Book is probably a good example of that."

Thanks to Abigail Goldman

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