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November 24, 2014

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Black Book, Vegas’ bad guys aren’t what they used to be

Nevada Excluded Persons

John Joseph Vaccaro, Jr. was convicted in federal court for being the mastermind of a sophisticated slot cheating ring which stole millions of dollars from Nevada casinos. Launch slideshow »

The list of people banned from Nevada casinos includes 21 names added between 1990 and 2000 — all men, most with alleged mob connections, many with monikers: The Fixer, Moose, Dicky Boy, The Pope.

In the near decade that has followed, however, between 2001 and today, the Gaming Control Board added a mere seven names to the list — men who, with one exception, were all casino cheats, crooks more likely to use aliases than earn nicknames.

This twofold change — the decline of new names and the emphasis on cheaters instead of mobsters — is an easy indicator of how Clark County and its casinos have been transformed. Compare the list’s newest inductees with the oldest, and the contrast reveals a Las Vegas that has perhaps outgrown a landmark bit of gaming regulation: the infamous Black Book.

Answering his own rhetorical question, “How important is the Black Book today?” Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming at the University of Nevada, Reno, put it like this: “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, for example, linked to a Castro assassination plot.

The list was a message to mobsters: Keep out. It was also, perhaps more importantly, a message to casino management: Keep them out.

“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 was a public relations counter-strike intended to forestall federal regulation of gambling.

“It was a symbol of Nevada’s determination to keep organized crime out of the industry,” Faiss said.

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 in 2008 and Michael McNeive this August. The men both pleaded guilty in District 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. Moreover, they’re men casino managers would happily escort off their premises.

“The objectives of the regulatory bodies and the casinos are much more consistent now than they would have been in the 1960s,” Eadington said.

Perhaps that’s because the objectives have changed.

It’s no coincidence that the first cheaters without mob connections appeared in the Black Book in the mid-’80s, when gaming was becoming increasingly corporate. No matter which came first — the corporate casinos or the legitimacy of gaming as a business — there wasn’t much room for made men on Wall Street. At least not of the type who once haunted casinos.

Put simply, there were just fewer mobsters to worry about, Faiss said. The threat had shifted from something political — the appearance of organized crime — to something fiscal — lost revenue. The perception problem had shifted too, from law enforcement worrying that casinos were corrupt, to tourists, and perhaps investors, getting the idea that people could cheat.

And so regulators found themselves focusing more on cheaters, said Jerry Markling, chief of enforcement at the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

Of those 21 names added to the Black Book between 1990 and 2000, just shy of 40 percent were cheats.

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,” Markling said, “and, logically, it’s much more difficult for us to detect those types of cheating.”

The games are now mathematically better understood and tracked, Eadington said — meaning that divergences in predicted payouts are going to be picked up sooner than they would in the past.

“It may be a supply and demand phenomenon where the supply of new, successful cheaters is just not there,” Eadington said. Or the successful cheaters are so deep inside, and so sophisticated, that they haven’t been caught.

And if they 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, a graveyard for cheats who lack that certain mob flavor, for better or worse.

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

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