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Robbery

It starts with taking little things

Stories of casino thievery

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Photo Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh
John Livorni

Casino thefts begin with Clementine oranges or single-serving cereal boxes. A Clementine is small enough to conceal in one hand as you wave to security on your way out the employee exit. With cereal, you always discard the cardboard box beforehand and place the sealed plastic bag in your coat or pants pocket. You can justify stealing Clementines if you’re ever caught, but the casino fires those who steal cereal, as many housekeepers tell stories of former co-workers who’ve been fired over thefts of Rice Krispies, Cap’n Crunch and Fruit Loops.

Thievery is immoral and makes a minuscule, petty person out of you. One of my former bosses was obsessed with stealing miscellaneous office supplies like pens, rubber bands, staples, envelopes and rolls of tape. It got to the point where he could not leave work without taking a little piece of the company home with him each day. He justified it as revenge, since every day the casino stole his time and youth. “Anyway, everyone steals little things,” he said. And it’s true—you take a few packets of oyster crackers or Saltines left over from a bowl of soup. At home you run out of peanut butter, so you heist some Peter Pan from work. You buy some bagels while grocery shopping and, instead of paying for cream cheese, grab a few of the tiny gray tubs of Kraft Philadelphia from the employee dining room.

Little things.

The Cuban dishwasher I know bursts out laughing when I ask what things he’s stolen. He claims innocence, and I ask what other people like to steal.

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“It’s amazing,” he says. “The amount of silverware that disappears from the employee dining room. The buffet upstairs, okay, you expect the customers to slip a set into their purses every now and then. People are like that. Down here, though, we must lose about 60 pieces a day.” He locks eyes with me to make sure I understand the gravity of his figures. “You understand. That’s 60 per day. You figure a lot of people are building silverware sets for their families, okay, but then you get people who get greedy. When you notice a hundred pieces a day missing, that means guys are building sets to sell on the streets or at swap meets. Also at Christmas they steal a lot of sets to give as Christmas gifts. Usually surveillance gets involved. Catches two or three of them to set an example, and everyone gets scared for a while before we notice 20 pieces missing again. Then 40. Like the stock market, the amount they steal goes up and down.”

An interesting commercial catches his attention on the dining-room television. When he looks back to me, I ask if he’s ever taken anything.

His Cuban accent emerges thick. “Never,” he says. “Not even a toothpick. And you. I know how a host is. You guys steal all the juicy stuff. The stuff that matters.”

I shake my head, but a smile cracks my lips. Both of us are liars. Everyone steals.

Downstairs. Back of the house. In the Chinese restaurant’s steamy kitchen, quick hands steal chopsticks and fortune cookies. Across the hall, white-gloved butlers place Kobe beef sliders in paper cups and stow them in secret hiding places. With the VIP office empty, the attendants creep out from behind the counter to steal chocolate-covered strawberries off the large silver platter as banquet workers down the hallway salvage through the remains of grand parties, stuffing their treasures into purple Crown Royal bags.

It is the cashiers and dealers who speak of more dramatic thieveries. Jameson, an admitted lifetime cashier, starts talking after I’ve paid his ransom of two cigarettes. One, he lights. The other he tucks away for later.

“Stealing stories,” he laughs. “I could go all night with those. Few months ago there’s this guy, this little quiet Asian guy who don’t bother nobody. Guy always balances. He’s always getting those four buffet passes for going six-months without mistakes. Nice guy to boot. Family man. He’s working poker counter one night, and some poker-puke claims one of us paid him only a hundred on one of his yellows. Player’s got a mess of chips. Quarters, crows, yellows, cranberries, melons. But we gotta review the tape because he’s one of those ‘true pukes’ who won a million bucks in World Series of Poker or something. Security runs through the footage, and it turns out the cashier paid the puke correctly, but they also notice our guy in the background slipping a red chip into his palm while making it look like he’s dropping it in our toke box.

“They track him for a few weeks. Catch him stealing about 30 a night from his own crew. Not only is he skimming our tips, but every paycheck he’s getting his dividend from the toke box like the rest of us. Real character, that double-dipper. This good guy with his wife and two or three kids. Some of the ladies still don’t believe it, but me and the other fellas understand these things. Chips can make a man crazy. At first they’re just inanimate objects, until you’re locked behind bars with them each day. You start to smell them. You start to recognize certain chips that have travelled all over the Strip and returned to your hands. Then it starts to sicken you when you realize you’ll never have a fraction of what all those chips are worth. You play with them in your fingers. Then your pocket starts to feel like a vacuum-cleaner hose trying to suck them down. Man, they seduce you. It’s all sexual the way they drive a man insane.”

I finish my smoke before he does. “You ever take anything?”

“From inside the cage? Nah, I’m not that stupid.”

“Elsewhere?”

“About two years ago I rode the bus when I started here so my wife could use the car at night. On my way out one night, I spot about $450 in credits on a slot machine. No one’s around. Not even thinking, I cash out the ticket. As I’m walking I realize this ain’t gonna work. I’ve gotta at least change tickets, so I put it in another machine and hit max credits. Boom. I hit for 80 more dollars. You’re talking over 500 bucks.”

“Get away with it?”

“I’m still working here, right? But that ain’t really stealing. That’s found money. If it wasn’t me who took it, then it was the next guy passing through the casino that moment. Like the stewards. They’re all rich. They walk around with hawk eyes looking for chips or cash people have dropped. Scoop it right up into their little dustpans and it’s sayonara. Nothing a camera will ever see. Nothing Saint Peter would hold against anybody.”

He finishes his cigarette, and we walk back inside as female housekeepers and dealers open their transparent purses to indifferent security posted at the exit.

I tell Jameson that the biggest thieves all work in security.

“They’re the worst, because they concoct inside plans, thinking they know all the ins and outs. Bunch of suckers most of them, but there’s a few good guys in their department.”

“A lot of theft stories come from the lost-and-found booth upstairs,” I say. “A few months ago they fired an officer for snatching a pair of Gucci sunglasses a guest had left behind at the buffet. Another time, an officer steals an iPhone. The owner calls it and offers to pay $200 for its return. They meet at Four Queens, and it turns out the owner was the VP of hotel operations.”

This one makes him laugh. “You say you don’t steal, but you go around yanking stories out of people. It’s the same.”

“It’s like found money on that slot machine. That’s all. I’m the one who happens to be passing through at that exact moment.”

Jameson takes an elevator back up to the casino floor, and I grab a seat in the dealers’ lounge. Most of them are focused on an important baseball game between the Yanks and the Red Sox. I start up a conversation with a few dealers I’ve met throughout the years with their backs turned to the game.

“Do dealers steal?” I ask one of the women.

“A few week ago, this dealer goes to take a leak, and a bunch of chips come rolling out of his sleeve. Appears his wife had sewn some kind of pocket inside the cuffs of his shirts. He’d steal a quarter or a hundred chip by swinging his hand real quick across a player’s stack on the dice table and sliding the chip right into one of the pockets. Guess he got away with it for a little while, too, but then he slipped. These people amaze me … not just their ingenuity, but the belief they’ll never get caught.”

“I think they get greedy,” I add. “They get away with a hundred, so they take a shot at a thousand. They get away with a thousand and they aim for more.”

“Morons,” says one of the guys sitting with us. “Like this guy who worked race and sports for seven years. Gets it in his head he’s a baccarat genius. Takes a thousand dollars out of his bank each night on his way to lunch, puts on glasses and a weird hat for disguise, and goes right over to play baccarat. On nights when he wins, he keeps the winnings and pays back the original grand to balance his bank. On nights he loses, he coughs it up out of his own pocket. He did well for a while.” He tells me the man’s name. “Look him up. He’s in the computer. Comps all over the place. Oh, he was making a profit and screwing you guys on comps. At one point he was up 20 grand. Then he started losing and one day took out his whole bank to chase his losses. You hear conflicting reports, but I’ve got a good source says he was bawling like a little girl as security came to drag him away.”

One of the women turns to me. “How often you see security drag people off?”

“Every now and then, but it’s rarely for stealing.”

“If you’re a dealer, it’s the most shocking thing when they catch a cheat or a thief. You get into a zone while you’re dealing 21. Your focus is on your table. The rest of the world zooms out. Suddenly security picks up a guy right in front of you and disappears with him. The first and only time it happened to me, I had an anxiety attack over it. It’s as sudden as death. They’re like grim reapers coming to take someone away.”

Time seems to go twice as fast when dealers are competing for the best story. Too soon it is time for me to leave, and I walk upstairs with the dealers. They part ways, and they flock to their respective tables.

It is an uneventful night in the tradition of most Wednesdays. The floor is quiet. There is an absence of handsome young men and beautiful young women, but their time will come late Thursday or at sunset Friday. Right now there is just the soothing calm of gamblers chasing that elusive ghost that, if momentarily captured, is just as quickly lost.

It is a short stroll back to the office as I keep my eye on another pickpocket: the casino itself.

John Livorni is a pseudonym for a writer and casino employee in Las Vegas.

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