PolySciFi Blog

Friday, August 19, 2005


Counterfeit Chips

Every time I'm in Las Vegas, I've wondered idly about the possibility of counterfeiting casino chips. It certainly seems easier than counterfeiting money (plastic! With a stick-on label advertising "Mama Mia!" How hard could it be?), and I don't think that you'd violate federal law by doing so. (Of course, the kinds of things that the casinos could arrange to have "accidentally" happen to you in the Las Vegas City Jail are probably more unpleasant than Federal prison anyway). I suspected it wouldn't be as easy as it looked, however, and it turns out I was right. Here's an article from silicon.com about some of the systems in place to catch theives and cheats, from the obvious (pit bosses) to the anal-retentive (chips from the Wynne have RFID tags in them!). In any event, it seems that chips in Las Vegas would be considerably harder to counterfeit than good old U. S. currency. I mean, really: RFID tags?

I'd argue that Las Vegas has, on its own, come up with the most secure ways of dealing with large sums of money; that there is no bank that can account for every penny that flows into it as precisely as casinos. (This ignores the fact that casinos have been known to fudge their own math to hide money coming from, shall we say, less reputible sources than gambling). A government looking to, for example, control access to nuclear materials could learn a lot from the Mirage. Two lessons:
  1. To quote Bruce Schneier, "good security has people in charge." Pit bosses, dealers, and floor bosses are the most important parts of Las Vegas's cheat detection systems, mostly because they can act on intuition. For more on this, see here, for an excerpt from Beyond Fear about profiling.
  2. You can't be too paranoid about your own employees. It appears that it would be easier to become an FBI agent than become a dealer at a casino, if you had anything questionable in your past.
I don't think casinos provide a working model for policy decisions regarding citizens in an open society; but if I were designing a bank vault I'd spend a lot of time in Las Vegas. I'd also visit there pretty regularly if I were trying to design a society in which privacy violations were routine, but citizens were mostly unaware of them--note that the other thing that's been guiding Las Vegas security design is making their guests feel welcome and not under suspicion. So perhaps if Ashcroft weren't such a stickler about gambling, he would have been able to expand the Executive branch even further.

Also, one possible hole to exploit: you can play, cash in, and change chips from other casinos in most cases. If the Wynne relies exclusively on RFID to identify counterfeits, and other casinos don't have this technology, they can't detect fakes. (Actually, when I was at one of the divey casinos, the stickman had to ask his boss whether he could accept chips from the Wynne--he was able to--but actually, at that time, no one knew what a chip from the Wynne looked like, which has limitless counterfeiting potential). And although chips are examined pretty closely at the cages, at the table, chips from a losing bet are just swept into a dump box. I'm not sure if you can bet, say, a $100 chip from another casino, but I know you can bet a $20. If you had 50 fake $100 chips from one of the big casinos, and you wandered the strip betting on single number roulette spins, you might get lucky. If you did, you'd get to keep your fake chip (ensuring that that specific bet wouldn't receive much post-spin analysis) and you'd get 36 real ones. Alternatively, you could bet the fake chip on a single hand of blackjack and hopefully get a real $100 in return, so that a large number of fake chips wouldn't show up all over Las Vegas on the same night. As we learned in Ocean's Eleven, if you've got a foolproof scheme to beat the casinos, you're sure to win. So who's with me?


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