LAS VEGAS -- Moments after Kevin Lewis sat down at a high stakes blackjack table inside an Atlantic City casino last summer, the pit boss got the word: Lewis was a card counter.
Soon after, Lewis bolted.
"It was obvious that somewhere and somehow I had been made," said the 30-year-old Lewis, once part of an infamous team of Massachusetts Institute of Technology students who won millions of dollars at blackjack in the 1990s by keeping track of the aces and face cards played.
How security pegged Lewis so quickly was no mystery. The casino, like others across the country and around the world, relies on Griffin Investigations, a detective agency that supplies an extensive list of suspected cheats and highly skilled gamblers called advantage players.
Griffin's files include thousands of names and mug shots and can be accessed online, using sophisticated facial recognition software. When casinos want to target a player, surveillance cameras relay the person's image back to a computer that compares the photo with Griffin's files. Minutes later, a casino will have its answer.
Griffin's efficacy is legendary.
"I always feared it," said Lewis, who uses a pseudonym to hide his identity because he still plays blackjack.
The exploits of Lewis and five other MIT students' exploits were chronicled in the book "Bringing Down the House" by Ben Mezrich. The book claims that somebody sold a list of the students to Griffin, effectively ending their card-counting days. Today all their faces are in the Griffin system.
Oft-praised and much-dreaded, Griffin also has critics who claim the detective agency is prone to errors and smears people without proof.
"It is an incredible compilation ... peppered with mistakes and falsehoods based on some of the grossest hearsay," said lawyer Bob Nersesian of Las Vegas. Two of his clients are suing Griffin after they were arrested for cheating based on information in the Las Vegas company's database.
Griffin Investigations was founded in 1967 by Beverly S. Griffin and her husband at the time, Robert R. Griffin. In the beginning, it battled small-time casino crooks and relied on shoe-leather detective work, not high-tech gadgets to expose people. Griffin investigators collected intelligence on gamblers who tossed loaded dice, rigged slot machines and marked playing cards. These were cheaters who broke the law.
Card counters, while not welcome in casinos, operate within the law. They don't influence the game's natural outcome; they just calculate the probability of cards yet to be played.
"They are not using a device," said Keith Copher, enforcement chief for the Nevada Gaming Control Board. "They are using their head. If they use some sort of instrument to track cards that would be illegal."
But Beverly Griffin likens card counters to competing corporations that threaten the financial health of casinos.
"They scout. They have people to count. They have people bring the money and place the bets. They are bankrolled," she said.
Little is known about Griffin Investigations; other than clients, only state gambling regulators are allowed to see its files. Beverly Griffin declined to say how much her service costs or how many people it employs.
However, in a recent deposition, Griffin manager Gordon Adams said the company had six employees and more than 100 clients. The agency obtains its information from the casinos, among other sources, Adams said.
Armed with Griffin's database, security experts at casinos scrutinize players at table games or slot machines, looking for matches in the system. People are listed in the company's database for a variety of activities or crimes, such as impersonating casino employees, card bending, stealing chips, coins and purses from gamblers.
"It's very effective in protecting our casino," said Margaret Brooks, director of surveillance at the Bellagio hotel-casino. "We would be missing a lot without it."
Casinos don't react automatically because someone is listed in the Griffin, Brooks said.
"We make our own determination," she said. Casinos are allowed to ban advantage players and may have them arrested for trespassing if they return.
Some people nabbed by Griffin have fought back, including Michael Russo and James Grosjean, who were winning big at a Caesars Palace poker table in April 2000. The pair had pocketed $18,000 thanks to a weak dealer who was exposing his cards.
Security guards and state Gaming Control Board agents stepped in and arrested the pair for cheating. The charges were later dropped.
Both men sued Griffin, claiming its database contains false information that led to their arrests. Court records indicate Griffin listed Russo as part of "a team of 21 cheaters" and Grosjean "working with card bender on 3-card poker."
"We feel that they defamed them," Nersesian said. "They have no proof to back up the allegations."
Anthony Curtis, a professional card counter plying his talent on the Discovery Channel, said the problem with Griffin is that it lumps cheats and counters together.
"I've seen myself in the Griffin where they've got me listed as an accomplice with people I don't know. It's ridiculous," said Curtis, also the editor of Las Vegas Advisor, a consumer newsletter tracking casino promotions and gambling trends.
Beverly Griffin has heard the complaints, and thinks there are plenty of card counters who would love to see her out of business. Griffin said she doesn't tell casinos what to do with the information, and her company works hard to get the data right.
"We provide information to casinos," she said. "We don't have anything to be ashamed of."
But Griffin concedes that her investigators can get things wrong. "Nothing is 100 percent in this world," she said.
Nobody knows it better than Lewis, who still manages to play blackjack occasionally in Las Vegas.
"It's a cat-and-mouse game," he said. "The mice find ways to make it work."
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