Casino insider tells (almost) all about security

Engineer built systems used by up to half the world’s casinos

Jeff Jonas knows the Las Vegas gambling industry inside and out. As the founder and chief scientist of Systems Research & Development (SRD), Jonas helped build numerous casino systems before 2005 when his company was purchased by IBM. Big Blue was intrigued by SRD's NORA system (Non-Obvious Relationship Awareness), a technology that uncovers relationships that can be exploited fraudulently for profit, such as connections between dealers and gamblers. Now a distinguished engineer and chief scientist for IBM's Entity Analytic Solutions, Jonas is still based in Las Vegas but is focused more on applying his technology to national security and the banking industry.

Speaking at the O'Reilly ETech conference on emerging technology in the US on Thursday, Jonas promised to reveal some, if not all, of the secrets he learned about the casino industry. Before the talk, he called some of his former clients to make sure certain details could be revealed.

"My idea today was to tell more about the casino industry than I ever told," Jonas said.

After Jonas moved to Vegas in 1990, he met a man who said his job was to cheat casinos.

"I'm like 'are you a card counter?' He says 'you don't get it! That would be like marijuana. What I do is like heroin!' I didn't know anything about this. Then he proceeds to show me his disguises, all these glasses, his mustaches. And I'm like 'this is going to be crazy.'"

Over the next 15 years Jonas helped pioneer facial recognition technology and various other systems in casinos such as the Bellagio, Treasure Island and Beau Rivage.

"Today possibly half the casinos in the world run something or another that I had my hand in," he said.

Vegas seems to put an enormous focus on high-tech security, but in some ways the casinos are just doing enough to get by. "They spend the minimum amount of money on security and surveillance," Jonas said. "They'd rather buy three more slot machines and make money. They only mess with you if you're really, really cheating."

A casino like the Bellagio probably has 2,000 cameras connected to 50 monitors, with just a few people watching live surveillance, Jonas said. But the information is there to be scrutinized when casinos notice players winning unusually large amounts of money.

In one case a dealer -- who said his family had been threatened - helped players rake in US$250,000 at a blackjack table when he used a deck of "perfectly ordered cards" that had been handed to him by one of the gamblers, according to Jonas.

"They didn't detect this as it happened," Jonas said. "Most of the videos the casinos collect are just used forensically. When the table loses a quarter of a million dollars they go back and replay it nice and slow, see that little piece of video, and it's time to make some calls. In the old days it was the kneecaps, but those were the old, old days."

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