/Richard Marcus  Casino 1

© Words Piers Hernu

“Fifteen million dollars give or take a million.” It’s the answer to a question that FHM has been itching to ask all day: how much money did you make in your career? The man sitting opposite us playing with a pile of casino chips is Richard Marcus, a young looking fifty year old New Yorker who speaks like he’s straight out of Goodfellas but is in fact straight out of Casino. His “career” as he calls it was by no means conventional. Richard made his money by cheating casinos – playing blackjack, roulette, craps and baccarat, he and his team travelled the world conning casinos out of vast amounts of cash and living like kings as they did so. Tonight FHM is in the presence of greatness - Richard Marcus is indisputably the greatest casino cheat of all time.

 It’s 2am and we’re in his room on the 22nnd floor of the MGM Grand, the biggest hotel in Vegas and, in fact, the world. Throughout the nineties, this was one of the hotel casinos that Richard and the other two members of his team, ripped off for hundreds of thousands of dollars on a regular basis. “Now I’m gonna show you how to do the “Savannah,” he says, “I came up with this move back in 1992, and it’s the greatest cheating move of all time ….”.
Earlier in the day we’d met Richard in the lobby of the MGM grand and taken a walk down Las Vegas’s famous strip, a vast six lane highway dominated by enormous themed hotels on each side - a kind of disneyland for adults with a dark side. This is the first time that Richard has been back in Vegas since he retired from casino cheating on New Year’s Eve 1999 in order to write his memoirs. “Ahh I’ve always loved Vegas,” he grins, drinking in the familiar sights and sounds, “how can I not love it, it’s been so good to me.”

Indeed it has but it wasn’t always the case. As we head towards New York, New York, a hotel built to resemble New York’s famous skyline, Richard points out a flyover in front of us. “See that bridge by the lights? That’s the one I ended up having to sleep under when I first came to Vegas.”

Las Vegas  Riviera HotelBack in the long, hot summer of 1976, a twenty year old lad from New York who loved gambling pulled into Vegas’s Riviera Hotel in a Mustang Convertible and took an $800 a night suite. Burning a hole in the boot of his car was $20,000 dollars he’d won in a lucky bet at Saratoga race track in New York. That afternoon he wasted no time in taking it straight to the baccarat tables where his luck continued. “I was on a roll, I turned that twenty into fifty, then eighty, then $100,000. The casino paid for my suite, wined and dined me in their finest restaurants and filled up my champagne glass at its finest parties.” Richard’s champagne bubble was however, about to burst.

On the night of his 21st birthday, in one nightmarish baccarat session he lost the whole hundred grand. The next day he sold the Mustang and blew that too. Thrown out of his suite he went from the lap of luxury to sleeping alongside tramps and winos under the very bridge we’re now gazing at. “I had to use my duffel bag as a pillow,” he winces.

Later that evening we take a taxi to downtown Vegas where the neon burns just as bright as The Strip but the casinos and the people are several shades shabbier. It’s here where gamblers who have lost everything - including houses, cars, jewellery and the money to get home - stay, often for the rest of their lives in a haze of booze, drugs and squandered social security cheques. This is the dark underbelly of what, for the last three decades has been the fastest growing city in the States, a city that can mercilessly dazzle and destroy the unwary, the greedy or the plain unlucky. “Right in here is where I finally got a job and slowly pulled myself out of the shit,” explains Richard as we walk through the doors of The Four Queens casino on Fremont Street. Having shoplifted some clothes and blagged his way into a dealing school, it was here that he became a Baccarat dealer and met a man who was to change his life forever.

 “Wow this is the very table I used to deal at,” explains Richard shaking his head nostalgically as we stand in the middle of the casino, “and it was here late one night in June 1977 I dealt to a guy called Joe Classon.” We head across the street to the most famous casino in the world, Binion’s Horseshoe, renowned to this day for being the only casino in the world to accept any bet whatever size. We have a drink at the bar where after his shift, Richard met up with Classon, a well dressed man in his mid forties who introduced himself as a professional casino cheat and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: come up with a scam to rip the Four Queens off for a few grand and you can join my team of cheats and live the life of Reilly.

Casino Cheat 1.

Richard’s idea involved shuffling the cards in such a way that punters playing against the dealer who took over from him would be guaranteed to win the next seven hands in a row. It worked like a dream netting Joe, Duke, Jerry and the new boy a cool 21,000 dollars. Two weeks later Richard jacked in his job and joined the team full time.

Joe took Richard under his wing and taught him the ways of pastposting, the subtle skill of replacing small denomination chips in either roulette, blackjack, craps or baccarat with large ones under a small one - after the result of the spin or hand was known. Using a killer combination of meticulous planning, discreet communication, teamwork, timing and sheer balls Joe’s four man team would subtly manipulate the dealers and their pit bosses both physically and psychologically to ensure big pay offs on a nightly basis. “After my first claim I told Joe that I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather be doing in my life,” explains Richard upstairs in Binions steakhouse, “I felt great, I felt I belonged. It wasn’t just the money it was the camararderie as well.”

Eyes alight with memories, he explains how during that September of 1977, the team launched an all-out assault on Vegas’s roulette tables every weekend. But it wasn’t all plain sailing. “The payoff rate was about 85% and we had a few close misses.” When things didn’t go smoothly carefully coordinated retreats were necessary and soon, as word of their exploits spread throughout Vegas, it was time to get the hell out of Dodge. “That’s when we went on our world tour,” he grins, “and it lasted for twenty two years.”

Las Vegas  Caesars PalaceLater that evening, having been given a guided tour of Caesars Palace: “This is where I want to be buried, they just paid and paid and paid us here,” and Pepermills restaurant, the team’s emergency meeting place, we head up to Richard’s room at the MGM.
“Ok this is the Blackjack move, the real bread and butter move of pastposting,” he says spreading some chips out on the table, “It’s the only one you can do on your own.” He winks and I grin nervously, knowing that I’m probably going to have to give it a go.
 “You have to approach the table in a way that does not draw attention to yourself,” says Richard wagging a warning finger, “when the dealer is sweeping the cards from the last hand played, place your bet squarely in the circle and sit down at third base – the first betting circle on the dealer’s right. Do not fuck up her robotical function - once you do that then you become the fuck up!” And so begins lesson one of the Blackjack move. Third base, he explains, is the last place to be dealt a hand and the first to be paid. Richard shows me how, immediately after being paid for a winning hand, he swaps his original three $5 chips for two $10s under a five, pockets the original bet, taps the hand of the dealer and tells her she’s paid him wrong – all in one fluid motion. “Never be afraid that the dealer is gonna see you switch the chips, it almost never happens,” he says, “the beauty of it is that when she pays you your hands are supposed to be coming out there to get your money.” Now it’s my turn and he makes me repeat it time and time again. “That’s Good,” he says after my twentieth move, “three weeks after I taught Pat this move he went through Caesars doing 5,000 dollars a pop and we made $112,000 in one weekend.” Having mastered the basics of the blackjack move Richard moves on to his masterpiece – the Savannah (see box) “The real beauty of this move is that there’s minimal risk,” he grins, “even when you get caught red-handed.”  

The next morning finds us back in downtown Vegas, inside the Fremont casino at a roulette table where two people are playing. “This is the exact same table where Pat and I tested the Savannah back in 1995,” he whispers, “and I’m gonna show you exactly how we tested it. Now if the dealer sees my black $100 chip, because it’s a large amount, he has to announce “black action”. Ok go and stand by the wheel.” With that he pulls two chips out of his pocket, places the red $5 chip on top of the black $100 chip making sure it juts out over the red by about the width of two matchsticks. From where I’m standing the black chip is invisible. From where the dealer’s standing it obviously is too because, despite looking twice at the bet, he says nothing and spins the ball. Smiling, Richard removes his bet and beckons me to follow him outside. “That’s the move,” he shrugs, “it’s that fucking simple, it’s ridiculously stupid but it made us millions. If the bet won we’d get paid $210 and if it lost I’d rake it off the table. If I was caught, and nine times out ten I wasn’t, I’d simply apologise and replace it with the two red chips that the dealer thought were there.”
From there we head up the street to the Golden Gate where Richard sits at third base at one of the Blackjack tables. He wins a hand, the dealer pays him and, as she moves to pay the next person, Richard switches his chips in one smooth movement but doesn’t claim. We exchange subtle nods and winning the next hand, he does it again and again. “It simply doesn’t matter what the dealer sees,” he explains over a well earned beer, “she can look at your three red chips ten times but the shock factor of slapping her hand and claiming wipes the image in her brain and replaces it immediately with what she sees in front of her.” 

Las Vegas  2.

As we wander past the banks of bleeping, gurgling slot machines, Richard illustrates the point with the story of “The Rainbow”, a move done by Joe Classon, on the night of his retirement from pastposting at Caesar’s Palace back in 1989. “I watched that with absolute amazement,” he smiles shaking his head, “he bet five reds and switched it for a red with a green, black, purple and yellow underneath it. $1,630 in all and it got paid without a moment of doubt - definitely in the top ten greatest moments of my life.”

On the way back to the MGM I mention that an old adversary of Richard’s, a man who would happily have put him away for many years, has agreed to meet FHM this afternoon. “Wow George Joseph is coming to see you?” he says obviously impressed, “he’s the biggest name in surveillance, the number one authority on cheating. He’s the guy all the casinos go to when they’ve got a problem.” Richard says he’d be happy to meet George Joseph but doubts that George would be happy to meet him.

“I came to Vegas in the fifties with some people who were involved in one of the hotels in the old days. If you know what I’m saying,” says George Joseph sitting at a bar in the MGM, (and we know what he’s saying) “they wanted me to look for cheaters so I set up surveillance rooms and systems and since then my job has been catching cheaters and pastposters.” He talks about his friendship with Frank Sinatra and how the mob ownership of casinos gradually gave way to big corporations. Slowly FHM steers the conversation round to Richard Marcus. “Oh that man has all the guts in the world,” he says, a note of respect in his voice, “you get a lot of cheaters that talk a lot of bullshit but his stuff was for real.” FHM mentions the Savannah. “There’s no question it is brilliant,” he nods, “but what makes it so brilliant is it’s simplicity. I give lectures on it to new dealers all the time.”

It’s time to tell George that Richard Marcus is in town and ask him whether he’d like to meet the Savannah’s inventor. For a moment he looks taken aback. “Sure, why not?” he shrugs, “Richard’s retired now right but if he’s doing business again I don’t want to know about it.” Fifteen minutes later on the bridge between the MGM and New York New York, a historic meeting takes place - the greatest cheat Vegas has ever known shakes hands with it’s greatest cheat catcher… and they get on like a house on fire. For fully twenty minutes they swap stories, gossip and reminisce about the good old days. Sworn enemies during their active careers, they both seem genuinely delighted to meet each other on friendly terms and the mutual respect is obvious. At the end of it George even insists on taking Richard to his car so he can give him a signed copy of his book about Vegas. “Ain’t he a wildcard?” grins George as he starts up his car, “you gotta like Richard he’s a loveable character and that’s part of what makes a good hustler.”

Las Vegas  1Half an hour later it’s time to say goodbye to Richard as well as he takes a taxi for the airport. With an early flight to catch the next morning, FHM wastes no time catching a taxi downtown to put Richard’s teachings into practice. It’s time for a blackjack move.

Seated at third base at a full blackjack table in the Golden Gate, my plan is to pop a green $25 chip under a red $5 and switch it for my bet of two reds. The dealer deals. My mouth is dry, my heart is thumping, cold sweat beads my forehead. The first hand I play, I win. The dealer pays me, I begin to make the move but freeze up at the crucial moment. Twenty minutes later having downed a quick beer to steady the nerves I sit down at another table. George Joseph’s answer to a question I asked him earlier echoes in my head: “The current penalty for switching in a bet in Vegas regardless of the amount of money, is a ten thousand dollar fine and six years in the state penitentiary.” On my second hand I win again with a Jack and a nine. The dealer pays me but once again my hands won’t do what my brain is telling them. It happens again and, as I leave the table in disgust, the simple truth hits me – the real genius of Richard Marcus and his fellow pastposters is not their planning, not even their moves, it’s their balls. It takes balls of steel to take on the might of the casino’s sophisticated surveillance systems and highly trained staff and normal blokes simply don’t have them.
Just before Richard left for the airport I’d asked him whether it had all been worth it, being a pastposter and risking jail on an almost daily basis. He had patted his wallet and flashed me a big smile, “You bet!”

Richard Marcus’s book The Great Casino Heist  Available Here

George Joseph’s book The 101 most asked questions about Las Vegas and casino gambling Available Here

True stories box

In the spring of 1996 at Treasure Island Casino, a homeless man cashed his social security cheque of $400 and started playing $5 blackjack. His strategy was so erratic and strange that experts were called in as he kept on winning and a week later was up over £1.5m a week later. Two days later he was back down to 50,000. He blew the rest downtown and died shortly afterwards of a heart attack

The biggest single win for one stay is attributed to wealthy Aussie cricket fan Kerry Packer who won 22million dollars at the MGM Grand. Packard gave back about a third of his winnings to the MGM’s employees betting up to $50,000 on one bet for the dealers and tipping waitresses with $5000 chips.

On the 23rd Decemeber 1967 and alcoholic beggar called Wacky who frequented the Four Queens put one dollar on his lucky number four. It won, he put one dallar back in his pocket and let the other $35 ride. It came in again. This time he bet $100 and it came in again. He then won a fourth and fifth time making a Las Vegas record for consecutive wins on a roulette wheel and netting him nearly $12,000. He then played blackjack at £1000 a hand and was ahead $300,000 by the time he hit the craps table where he turned it into a million. It took him a whole week to lose the whole million bucks leaving him with just the lucky dollar that started it.

In the late 70s a shoeshine boy bought in for $20 at a craps table at the Aladdin Hotel. He quickly turned it into $20,000 but by the end of the night was broke once again. When asked by his workmates at the betting shop where he worked how last night had gone he replied: “Oh I lost twenty bucks.”

Jay Sarno who founded the casinos Circus Circus and Caesar’s Palace was one of Vegas’s biggest high rollers throughout the 60s and 70s. He lost between 50 and 60 million dollars in his gambling career.

Used by Kind Permission

Originally Appeared in FHM

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