On a recent July evening, gamblers at the Nooksack River Casino
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heard an odd thing: A casino employee begging for somebody to win.
The game was "Whirlwind of Cash." It's a plastic tube filled with floating money that people are supposed to snatch out of the air. A raffle to determine who steps into the tube had been going on, unsuccessfully, for at least 15 minutes, but everyone who signed up seemed to have left. "Jim Thomas!" yelled the frustrated operator, adding, "I'd almost settle for somebody with those initials."
Next it's George, as in, "Is there any George?" A few more nonhits and gamblers were treated to this pathetic entreaty: "Please make some noise, somebody!"
The Sack (as some locals call it) is a bit of a drive out into the country, about 25 minutes from Bellingham down some gnarly tribal roads to the town of Deming. Lights shoot up from utter darkness like a crashed UFO in a B movie. Seeing as Deming had a population of 210 in the year 2000, according to the U.S. Census, there weren't many local players there that night. There weren't many players at all. The mini-baccarat table was shut down due to lack of interest. A dealer explained that it often operates during the day, when Canadians visit.
Slot machines occupy a majority of the floor space, and a few people were planted in front of them wearing the bemused mugs of terminal gambling addicts. They were monitored by a multiplicity of cameras and the ceiling-mounted sculptures of salmon. At the table-games area, mostly young dealers in salmon-colored uniforms slipped cards to mostly old, sometimes tattooed and leathery, players. The felt was worn and faded. A dealer accidentally knocked a chip into the hand of a player, who made a play at keeping it.
The Sack doesn't look like it could afford to lose $90,000. Yet according to federal indictments, that's what happened over four nights of play in October 2005, when the casino was descended on by the largest card-cheating ring ever prosecuted by the federal government—a megacorp of chicanery that, prosecutors say, employed more than two dozen people and stole as much as $20 million from nearly 20 gaming establishments targeted across North America. Among the cogs in this wheel of corruption, according to the government, was 26-year-old Jacob Nickels, son of Seattle's mayor. And the method of choice was one of the simplest tricks in existence: the false shuffle, aka the shank shuffle, aka the sky shuffle—or at any rate, a funny shuffle known to teenage magicians round the world.
Starting with a sleight of hand that netted $525 from the Sycuan Resort and Casino in Cajon, Calif., in 2002, erstwhile card dealer Phuong Quoc Truong built a coast-to-coast bilking business, according to indictments unsealed this past May (two in Washington and one in Southern California). Through the power of talk, money, and threats, Truong and his minions persuaded dealers from California to Connecticut to Canada to leave a substantial chunk of cards unmixed, the government charges. Based on previous games, the players could then predict the order of cards and raise their bets at the opportune moment.
Truong's ring, which prosecutors called the Tran Organization after one of its senior members, was inventive and relentless. In 2005, when the Resorts East Chicago Hotel and Casino in Indiana used automatic shuffling machines, cutting crooked dealers out of the action, one of them turned around and found a way to knock the machines out of commission, says Willy Allison, a 20-year casino-surveillance vet. "That's how cheeky these guys were," says Allison, who now runs the yearly Vegas-based World Game Protection conference and says he heard the story from a "confidential, reliable source." A spokesperson for Resorts East did not return repeated calls for comment.
That little trick at Resorts East appears to have allowed the cheaters to reap what the indictment says was $868,000 in 90 minutes—their biggest single-night haul in the States.
But as it grew, the Tran Organization developed striking vulnerabilities.
"Any of these scams can be successful short-term," says Jeff Murphy, who tracked the group as part of the Oregon Surveillance Network, a first-alert system for many casinos. "But if you try to make a living off of them, you're going to fall."
One of the organization's seminal blunders came in the summer of 2005, when some of Truong's underlings traveled to the tiny town of Deming to knock off the Sack. There, the cheaters allegedly befriended a pit boss who just happened to be the son of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. For a $5,000 bribe paid in three installments, a Washington indictment charges, Jacob Nickels, then 24, introduced the Tran operatives to two dealers who worked under him. One of the men, Levi Mayfield, has since pleaded guilty to conspiracy.
To raid the Sack, the Tran group allegedly used an individual named George Lee, who, according to a source involved in the investigation, was already suspected of helping execute a massive 2003 takedown of the Emerald Queen Casino, then located on a riverboat near Tacoma. Although authorities interviewed for this story wouldn't deviate much from the text of the indictments—which do not disclose how they caught up with the Tran group—it's very possible they recognized Lee at the Nooksack from videotapes at the Queen. "Mr. Lee was a person of interest," is all that J. Tate London, the federal prosecutor in charge of the case in Seattle, will say.
Nooksack showed the organization as overextended and overconfident, and suggested its next base of operations would be prison. Indeed, by August 2006, Truong himself was allegedly offering bribes to undercover federal agents.
But by then Truong and his crew had enjoyed a remarkable run of success, proving that in a world of cross-border, high-tech crime, a simple card trick can still be one of the most lucrative scams.
If Nickels did indeed take part in a record-setting criminal conspiracy, his Bellingham lifestyle didn't exactly show it. His last recorded address in the city was a four-bedroom house in the Alabama Hill neighborhood, a common landing ground for Western Washington University grads (and dropouts).
The design of Nickels' old pad appears to be influenced by the Jäger fumes emanating from the university. On a recent visit, liquor and beer bottles weighed down the kitchen and living-room tables. A large sofa faced a big TV tuned to The Simpsons, while Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta aimed guns in a wall poster from Pulp Fiction. In a side bedroom, one housemate—a nighttime card dealer—lay prostrate under a blanket mound, a fan trained on his slumbering body. From a lower room emanated the constant click-click-click of somebody manipulating poker chips.
"It's a four-dealer house," says Adam Mauhar, 24, who wears a Corona T-shirt while smoking a cigarette on the stoop. Mauhar says he took a break from Western to become a card slinger at the Sack, a job he says pays about $25,000. "It's one of the better jobs you can do if you don't have a degree, alongside construction, I guess."
He enrolled in a blackjack class, and that's where he says he met Nickels, who was living in the Alabama Hill house. They worked together and eventually became housemates. As a pit boss overseeing as many as six table games at a time, Nickels ranked higher than his housemates, but Mauhar says he didn't throw his weight around. "He never looked for drama," Mauhar says. "He tried to be friendly with everyone."
It was the same at the casino. "He had a rapport with the dealers," says Mauhar. "He was actually a very good pit boss. He was very well organized; he got shit done. I think he could've been table-games manager after a while."
Last year, Mauhar says Nickels even got him into Bumbershoot for free on his dad's mayoral pass.
Nickels, in other words, seemed to have that political gift, evoking positive responses from everyone—and loyalty. This reporter was able to walk into Bellingham's Quarterback sports bar and in five minutes find somebody who wanted to play character witness. "He's a great kid," said Jeff Reardon, a 36-year-old barber who says he met Nickels during back-to-back trips to Nooksack. "I'd have done the exact same thing [at his age]."
Mauhar is one of the few professed friends of Nickels who was willing to speak on the record. Messages from Seattle Weekly to buddies, former workmates, and old classmates went unreturned. A longtime friend who lived with Nickels in the Bellingham house declined to take a call from this reporter, and early the next day, a message from Nickels appeared on the friend's MySpace page: "Nicely done sir, I knew you would be able to handle those douchebags." Nickels did not respond to an interview request, and his attorney wouldn't comment on the case.
The conspiracy charge is quite a whopper compared to his previous record, which is marred only by a speeding ticket. A standard sentence for what Nickels is facing is 10 to 16 months' imprisonment, according to London. Nickels pleaded not guilty in June. His trial date is Sept. 17.
According to court records, Nickels is now living at his parents' house in West Seattle. His bond agreement forbids him from drinking, gambling, or going near casinos. He is working at a Starbucks, a spokesperson for the company confirms.
The threat level posed by casino cheats varies according to their sophistication. At the bottom end are crime-bent employees, such as dealers who try to steal high-value chips. "Usually what they do is palm chips, and they act like they're stretching and drop them down their shirt [sleeve]. Or they'll yawn and stick it in their mouths," says Romi Miyamoto, a former casino shift supervisor and the owner of the Seattle Gaming Academy, a dealer-training school in the Greenwood neighborhood. It's a bold maneuver—given that a chip is about the germiest thing in a casino besides the toilet seat—and one with a poor track record. Surveillance operators and supervisors who monitor the number of chips can usually pick up on such attempts at concealment.
Then there are the crooked players, who can range from drop-dead dumb to pretty damn sophisticated, according to Miyamoto. The former might try something like slipping additional chips into a pre-existing bet when the cards turn his way, or counting cards to predict the odds of a future hand (which is not illegal but can result in being barred from the casino). More gifted cheats could employ something more 007ish, such as marking cards with an invisible ink that only they can see, thanks to a special set of glasses. Miyamoto says the "ink pad" can be hair soaked in ink; the cheaters can rewet their fingers with a casual touch to their heads.
There are also schemes involving collusion between players and employees. The false shuffle falls into this category, and it terrifies casinos because it can go undetected, even when it's not done all that well. That's because to the ceiling cameras it looks like a regular shuffle. "If you're not looking for it specifically, you'll never find it," says Bill Zender, a former Nevada gaming agent who now runs the Vegas-based Last Resort Consulting. The Tran group is said to have hauled off more than $1 million during its visit to the Emerald Queen, and yet, "I look back at some of the videotapes, found some of the dealers who are doing it, and they're doing a very poor job of it. But they're still getting it on," says Zender, who was brought in by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tacoma to examine the Queen case. "It does take some skill level, but nothing serious."
Security consultant Allison blames the shuffle's recent success on a decline in casino-security proficiency. "Over the last 10 years, [casinos] have been constantly reducing supervision," he says. "Now the guys on the floor are 'hosts.' They're there to rate people and market to people and assess whether a player's a player and if the casino should be comping them. So they've lost the aspect of really supervising the games," he says. "Nobody pays any attention to the shuffle."
There's also the problem of determining that the dealer intentionally messed with the cards (and didn't just make a mistake), as well as proving collusion. "Who's involved? Is it everyone at the table, or did six people just go, 'Let's follow the lucky guy?'" says Allison. "You start thinking everybody's guilty. But you can't prove it, all the way up the line." The difficulty of detection may be why the Tran Organization was allegedly able to infiltrate even the high-security bubble of Vegas, where, prosecutors say, they tackled the Palace Station casino.
Allison rates the false shuffle, as rudimentary as it is, as the second-most-profitable cheat to hit casinos in recent years. (It's right after "card mucking," in which players obtain or counterfeit a casino's cards and swap them in and out of play.) When exploited by a single player, the false shuffle provides consistent results and high returns. In a group situation involving a table of keyed-in players, as the Tran Organization is said to have arranged, the tactic yields total destruction. When they know the outcome of the hand, they all can bet the maximum limit and extract a mammoth payload.
But such a feat takes a team. After allegedly testing out a false shuffle on the employers at the Sycuan casino, Truong and an associate were arrested and fired, a California indictment says. So they took their show on the road, rounding up fellow cheaters as they traveled.
"Most of the time these things start with bribes, and that's how these started out. Palm Springs started out with bribes. They actually didn't get hit, because the dealers went and spoke with casino management," says the Oregon Surveillance Network's Murphy, now a director of table-games operations at Seven Feathers casino in Southern Oregon. "Foxwoods [in Connecticut] started out with a $500 bribe. Then, yeah, you do have the threats for your safety and your family." (One of the indictments does ascribe threats and intimidation to the Tran group but doesn't give specifics.)
The recruitment of casino insiders can take many forms. Allison interviewed one flipped dealer in his casino in Australia and recalls that "it sounded to me like Amway. She was approached at a bar after work, shown how to do it. I think they offered her a BMW right up front as a sign-on, and then there was a percentage of the profit of the scam each time she did it," he says. "But then she was also offered money for every dealer that she could recruit."
People expect the progeny of major politicians to pursue careers worthy of their parents' station in life. It's an unfair expectation, but nevertheless, it exists. Nickels at first seemed to bear such lofty goals. He had an innate political intuitiveness, especially when it came to matters affecting his West Seattle neighborhood. Cathy Allen, a local Democratic political consultant, recalls grilling veggie burgers with a teenage Jake at Greg Nickels' annual fund-raising barbecues.
"I can remember talking to the kid when he was, like, 16 and, I mean, holding his own, talking about who we should be supporting in West Seattle," Allen says. "At every political fund-raiser, he was always like a definite, terrific political campaign manager in the making." Had the younger Nickels come into her office back then, Allen says, she would have been "the first person to hire him."
Nickels attended Garfield High School, where he favored crew cuts and Eddie Bauer gear. He appears in his 1999 yearbook as a member of the school's bowling team, but the book doesn't list him in any other organizations. His face appears amid a page of alphabetically arranged portraits of his classmates, many of whom adorned their photos with thuggish quotations such as, "It's my world and I won't stop and if you stand in my way your [sic] bound to get dropped" and "Two faces get you punched in both of your mouths." For his own quotation, Nickels chose the rather regrettable motto, "You can get farther with an idea and a gun than with an idea alone," a slight alteration of a quote attributed to Al Capone.
Nevertheless, it was only ideas he found himself studying as a Western student. He chose a PPE major—philosophy, political science, and economics—that is modeled after a well-known Oxford major. Students embarking down the PPE path generally have their eye on one well-paying white-collar job or another. "Public administration would be one obvious area," says Philip Montague, a professor emeritus who now teaches part time in Western's philosophy department. "There's a strong ethics component," he adds, "but obviously it doesn't seem to have worked for a couple of students." Montague says he would've taught Nickels, though he can't recall him.
Nickels first attended Western in 1999, and, according to the university registrar, was last enrolled in the summer of 2006.
At the end of 2003, he took a dealing job at the Sack. If nothing else, it fit with his apparent interest in anything sporting. Nickels' MySpace page is wallpapered with photos of local players, while his handle, Jigga8481, appears as a frequent commenter on the U.S.S. Mariner, a blog devoted to the Seattle Mariners. Jigga8481 also appears on a site devoted to online poker. Nickels enjoyed casino card playing, according to his old housemate Mauhar, and made and lost large amounts.
At Nooksack, Nickels proved to be a quick learner. He was promoted to "dual rate" after only six months—meaning he dealt half the time and worked as pit boss for the other half.
In the wake of the indictments, the obvious question was whether Nickels' quick rise to management indicates the tribe was trying to curry favor with Seattle's mayor. But there's no evidence that the Nooksack had any business with Nickels Sr. And the suspicion may overstate the importance of the younger Nickels' position.
"I can teach you how to be a [pit boss] in probably two hours," says the Gaming Academy's Miyamoto. The qualifications include watching dealers shuffle, being handy at making out schedules, and looking good in a suit. There's also a willingness to take home a smaller paycheck. Pit bosses often make less than half of what dealers gather through tips, says Miyamoto, especially at smaller casinos. In some cases, he says, "pits are the lowest men on the totem pole just because of the pay."
There's the added ignominy of working at the Sack, which is apparently among the dregs of Washington casino work. Employees are constantly reminded of where they could be working by the huge, blinking sign of the nearby Silver Reef casino, operated by the Lummi Nation. The Reef, unlike the Sack, has a hotel, steak house, spa for pedicures, a security guard at the door who checks IDs and stamps hands (this young-looking reporter got into the Nooksack without any questioning), and recently, an appearance by Davy Jones, formerly of the Monkees.
Mauhar claims that pay and tips at the Sack are half that of the Reef.
By 2005, the cheaters had perverted the false shuffle into a grotesquery. The indictment alleges that a dealer at Foxwoods didn't shuffle a stack of 103 cards. Even the surveillance workers manning the eyes in the sky would have had a hard time missing that massive chunk of undisturbed cards. The dealer was later fired.
Then another dealer at the Barona Valley Ranch Resort and Casino in San Diego stole the record by not shuffling a 376-card brick, according to the government.
Such chutzpah allowed the cheaters to rake in progressively larger sums—an alleged $427,820 from L'Auberge Hotel and Casino in Louisiana and, six days later, the nearly million-dollar night that followed the short-circuiting of the shuffling machines in Indiana. But it also kept them visible: They grew a tail of more than 10 federal, state, tribal, and foreign authorities. The FBI began amassing a paper pile on them that would soon total at least 7,145 pages of documents. By the time two alleged California cheaters, 26-year-old George Lee and 49-year-old Tien Duc Vu, flew out to Seattle to visit the Nooksack in September 2005, an alert with identifying info on the Tran people had been broadcast to area casinos.
And yet the Sack job was quiet. "I was pretty new, so I had no idea what was going on at the mini-bac table," says Mauhar. Another dealer who worked at the Sack at the same time as Nickels and did not want to be identified says the "only form of cheating I noticed or heard about was card counting, and they were usually spotted right away because it's pretty obvious."
London, the prosecutor working the Tran case, won't say how Vu or Lee made the acquaintance of Nickels and the dealers. "Suffice it to say that Tien Duc Vu and George Lee traveled to the Nooksack casino, [and] they played there and befriended the three." The first to join the cheaters, according to London, was Nickels.
"It's not uncommon at all" in collusion schemes for cheaters to go to the management first, says Miyamoto, the gaming-school owner. "Because if you know that your immediate boss standing right behind you is in on it with you, it's so much easier to operate."
For his involvement, says London, Nickels took $5,000. In taking the alleged wad, Nickels also accepted the obligation to solicit a couple of his dealers and pay them a similar amount. Prosecutors say he chose 24-year-old Levi Mayfield, who attended Western with Nickels, received a business degree, and lived in Bellingham on a street below Nickels' hilltop abode. Nickels is also said to have shoulder-tapped 23-year-old Kasey James McKillip, who apparently applied to Western—his name is "in the system," says a staffer in the registrar's office—but who has no record of attending classes.
Mayfield learned the false shuffle from Lee in a Bellingham motel, according to the indictment, and he then taught it to McKillip. The operation went live on Oct. 7 and lasted until Oct. 28, which is when Lee and Duc Vu were barred from the casino. Nickels' dealers left at that time and were later served with summonses asking them to appear in court. The pit boss himself continued working at the casino until late last year.
The federal indictment does not explain why Nickels remained employed at the casino for so long after the dealers were busted. "They might've found out later on," consultant Bill Zender speculates. "[Let's say] we get rid of the two dealers involved because we know they false-shuffled it, right? So now all of a sudden we start doing credit-card checks on all these guys, bank checks, and all of a sudden we find out that they transferred some funds to this kid at the same time [they did to the dealers]. That would lead me to want to fire him, you know what I'm saying?"
The indictment doesn't say whether Nickels left the job voluntarily or not. But his departure came days after the Washington State Gambling Commission sent out agents to interview him on Oct. 12, 2006. "I just got up one morning to get a drink of water, and there was, like, agents in our living room," says Mauhar. "I was, like, 'What the hell is going on?'" The agents were conversing with Nickels "pretty cordially," and when Nickels told him it was nothing and to go back to bed, Mauhar did.
The Tran Organization, meanwhile, was piling one stupid mistake atop another.
In June 2006, the alleged card cheats lost $50,000 at the Isle of Capri Casino in Louisiana after a false shuffle went wrong. Truong and an associate offered a $500 bribe to a floor supervisor at the Imperial Palace Casino in Biloxi, Miss. The supervisor turned out to be an undercover agent. In August, Truong offered another agent posing as an Imperial dealer a $3,000 bribe. (All of this is according to the indictments.)
Truong and his helpers were doomed. All they'd accumulated is now subject to forfeiture, including three properties; at least four bank accounts; a 2003 Cadillac Escalade belonging to Lee; and a 2001 Porsche 911 Carrera, a 2007 Toyota Tacoma truck, a 2002 Dodge Ram van, and a Rolex Presidential watch belonging to Truong.
Truong's out of jail and awaiting an Aug. 30 court hearing. His pretrial agreement states that he and his wife still manage a restaurant in San Diego, where he once owned a Mercedes-Benz worth $101,530 with California plates reading PGJOHN, an homage to his honorific, Pai Gow John.
Other believers in the false-shuffle scam will probably take his place, though. "This isn't the first time or the last time—especially with the success rate they had—that it will be seen," says Murphy.