By David Stratton
Federal prosecutors announced last week that they’ve broken up a sprawling card-cheating ring that bilked millions of dollars from 18 North American casinos, including Palace Station in Las Vegas.
According to a 70-page indictment unsealed on Thursday, a federal grand jury in Southern California has indicted 19 people of the "Tran Organization" on racketeering, money laundering and conspiracy charges.
The charges stem from a scheme to cheat casinos by rigging card games — specifically blackjack and mini-baccarat — as well as bribing casino personnel and using electronic devices to transmit betting information.
Over the course of the 44-month investigation, the organization netted at least $3.3 million from casinos, 10 of which are tribally owned, according to federal prosecutors.
"The FBI characterizes this scheme, which originated in California, as probably the largest cheating scheme ever brought by the federal government," said Kathy Loedler, acting head of the FBI office in San Diego. "We are not aware of any other cases of this magnitude."
Casino experts characterized the method used by cheaters as surprisingly simple, nothing that would inspire a sequel to Ocean’s 11.
According to the indictment, the defendants and associates executed a "false shuffle" by bribing dealers, who would create a block or "slug" of un-shuffled cards, which would be inserted into the shoe along with shuffled cards.
A member of the organization who had been tracking the order of cards, would signal accomplices when the un-shuffled clump of cards began to appear, thus allowing them to bet with the knowledge of which cards were about to be dealt.
Using this method, the cheaters often racked up to $50,000 in a few minutes of play; twice they scored more than $800,000 in a single night at the casinos in Ontario, Canada and East Chicago, Indiana.
Prosecutors added that dealers were typically paid between $500 and $1,000 for every false shuffle they made, although some were offered as much as $10,000.
At Palace Station, the take was much smaller. On December 8, 2004, four members of the organization used the scheme at mini-baccarat table No. 7 to take about $18,237 from the casino, according to the indictment.
Palace Station officials were unavailable for comment Monday because of the Memorial Day holiday. GamingToday will follow-up with Station’s legal and regulatory representatives for further details and reaction to the cheating ring.
According to published reports, an outstanding arrest warrant in connection with the federal probe has been issued in Las Vegas.
Prosecutors, however, said not all dealers who accepted bribes or were involved in the probe are facing charges. Some agreed to cooperate with investigators.
Among those arrested were the group’s ringleader, Phuong Quoc Truong, also known as "Pai Gow" John and John Truong. He was fired as a card dealer at the Sycuan casino in El Cajon, California in 2002 after he was caught rigging a game.
Five others indicted are also former card dealers at Sycuan, including Truong’s partner, Van Thu Tran.
Also indicted was Jacob Dyson Nickels, the son of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. He worked as a pit boss at the Nooksack River Casino near Seattle, Washington.
Nickels worked at the casino in the summer of 2005, when he accepted $5,000 to introduce one of the ring’s conspirators to crooked dealers, according to the court document. Two of his co-defendants won more than $90,000 on mini baccarat that October, the indictment states.
Although the indictment estimated the scheme netted $3.3 million from U.S. casinos, U.S. Attorney Karen Hewitt in San Diego said the actual losses could be much higher.
One of the hardest hit was Casino Rama in Ontario, Canada which may have lost nearly $2 million, according to Rob Knudsen, director of the gaming enforcement branch of the Ontario Provincial Police.
Knudsen added that four of the 15 people arrested in connection with the cheating scam are Casino Rama workers.
Other casinos that were hit by the ring are located in California, Mississippi, Louisiana and Connecticut.