A table full of men is avidly watching the dealer and their cards, looking to win big. But something is a bit different here. There’s no smoke, the drinks don’t have booze in them (plus there are no waitresses to bring them out), and the chips don’t have a regular Iowa casino name on them. In fact instead of the usual casino attire they all have badges and handguns. Cops gone crooked or gambling on the job? Nope. Just another day at the office for these hardworking DCI agents in their new casino crime lab in Des Moines, Iowa.
The Iowa Department of Public Safety, Division of Criminal Investigation has a new tool in their fight against casino cheating. A “crime lab” where they can learn hands on about the various ways to cheat and how to spot them. With all the items of a usual casino out of the way of prying eyes it’s a perfect place to get to the bottom of how casinos are being cheated and figuring out how to stop it. It also sends a strong message to cheaters that the Iowa DCI is very, very serious about making the games fair for everyone involved.
The bureau is responsible for enforcing regulations and overseeing investigations at all licensed gambling establishments in Iowa. This includes background checks of all businesses and persons involved in gaming. They have established staff for each of the licensed riverboat casinos as well as other gambling facilities in Iowa. This currently includes fourteen riverboats, and three pari-mutual/slots tracks. They maintain regulatory duties such as inspecting gaming tables, monitoring hard and soft drops, and surveillance system inspections.
Dubbed the Royal Diaz Casino in honor of a retired agent who was key in establishing the unit, the casino is authentic right down to the refinished tables and custom chips all with the DCI logo and name on them. The tables were donated by casinos to help support DCI’s efforts in training their officers first hand to catch cheating. Over one hundred DCI agents are expected to be trained here. Before the lab was established the DCI agents had to travel to Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or Missouri to get trained, and then had no place to work out scenarios in privacy once they were back home. The out of state training was also costly although necessary. The lab cost about $18,000 to put together, not including the donations from casinos and is housed in the newly renovated Iowa Department of Public Safety building. While DCI has wanted a gaming lab for some time, it was only when the new building was in the works that the opportunity really presented itself. With the number of casinos growing quickly since gaming first started around the 1990s it has become increasingly important to have a way to catch cheaters and prevent new ones from getting around the system.
The training facility includes poker, blackjack, slots, roulette, as well as other amusement devices commonly found in casinos. Over a dozen gaming instructors will be employed to train DCI agents twice yearly in how the games work, common know cheating techniques, and any new things that have been found happening. It also includes a vast library of other media such as circulars, videos, books and materials to enforce the training and serve as reference.To add to the ambiance there is a lighted sign with the casino’s name as well as historical photos of past busts, including some from before casinos were state backed. A nice reminder of how much good has come from the DCI unit.
The reason the lab is so effective is it lets the agents look at games at their own pace, not that of a casino floor which is fast paced and often very busy with multiple games, flashing lights, and other loud noises. In the lab they can go over the same thing once or a dozen times without inconveniencing patrons of the casino. Many of the agents will tell you their ability to play common games such as blackjack have improved markedly or at least their understanding of them. This is essential to figuring out where cheaters are finding the time or ways to cheat so they can be caught.
Casinos use surveillance to capture every facet of the gaming floor (and elsewhere) on tape. If a player is suspected of cheating the DCI agent can go back, review the tape and determine if something actually happened. Having the gaming lab to work in can help work out how a player managed to cheat without the dealer noticing, or determine that the dealer might have been in on it. One such case involved a dealer switching card in the hand and paying out on losing hands to the sum of twelve thousand in casino funds.
The state definitely has need for such a facility. In the past couple years the DCI unit has identified and resolved twenty-five cheating cases. These have varied from sliding dice on the craps table, capping bets (adding more chips to a bet once the outcome is known but before payout), or pinching bets (removing chips before the dealer collects losses) to more elaborate and cunning methods. More than 1.3 billion was brought in in gross gambling revenues from more than 22.5million people who visited the casinos. Coinless slot machines have made it somewhat harder to cheat on some games, but not impossible. Sometimes the bill validators jam and cause issues.
The agents are unwilling to go into detail about cheating schemes, to prevent others from following the established methods or creating their own. They follow clues, use surveillance and build a case just like in other crimes such as a robbery. Finding their criminals is just a little harder than an obvious person walking out after smashing in an ATM. Having a way to work out how cheating is going on will be useful in showing cheaters that Iowa is serious about not letting it go on in their state.