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The Bellagio Gets Robbed - But the House Doesn't Feel a Thing

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When a gunman stole $1.5 million in chips, he probably didn't expect them to become worthless the second he walked out the door.

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At 3:50am this morning, a man in a full-face motorcycle helmet walked up to a craps table at the Bellagio (MGM) hotel-casino in Las Vegas, pulled a gun, and made off with approximately $1.5 million in chips, ranging in value from $100 to $25,000.



(SEE: Arrest Made in Bellagio Robbery)

However, while the chips were worth seven-figures at 3:50am, at 3:51am they weren't worth a thing -- and any potential financial damage to the Bellagio is exactly none.

Lt. Clint Nichols of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department told reporters at a press conference that, "The industry has some safeguards in place that make [redeeming stolen chips] extremely difficult."

Actually, converting a stolen chip into cash is far more than extremely difficult, it is, in fact, nothing short of impossible.

John Kendall, president of CHIPCO International, a gaming chip manufacturer with over 100,000,000 chips in use worldwide, says he was "stunned" when he heard about this morning's theft.
"I have spoken to the people at the Bellagio, whom I know well," Kendall tells Minyanville. "And those chips became worthless the moment they left the casino. This guy obviously just did not understand the dynamics of the industry he was attacking."

For starters, immediately after the robbery, every chip in the house was permanently replaced with a "secondary set" which, according to Kendall, would total around a million at a casino the size of the Bellagio. These so-called secondaries utilize an entirely different design scheme, rendering all previous ones obsolete.

But, even if they hadn't been replaced, the chips still lose their value as soon as they're deactivated.

Kendall explains that, in 2005, the Wynn Las Vegas (WYNN) was the first casino to begin using chips embedded with RFID tags, electronic devices that assign a unique identification code, or "license plate," to each one. Today, RFID technology is in use across the entire industry. While individual casinos are loath to discuss details of their security operations, it's safe to say that players from the Venetian (LVS) to the Fremont (BYD) have RFID-tagged chips stacked in front of them.

"RFID can void the stolen chips, like a registration that's no longer valid," Kendall says. "When we manufacture RFID-embedded chips and send them to a casino, they're not worth anything until they register the codes. Until then, they're nothing but freight."

Generally, chips with a face-value of $100 or higher are inlaid with RFID, but Kendall says a $25 RFID chip is not unheard of.

"A casino can buy an RFID gaming chip for $2.50, so you could theoretically go lower, but no one's stealing $5 chips," Kendall says.

"The brain of RFID is a regular silicon chip from one of many different companies -- Texas Instruments (TXN), Intel (INTC), AMD (AMD)," Kendall says. "Each casino chip has a coil antenna inside it, tuned to a certain frequency like a radio in your car. A transceiver sends out a signal, which harmonizes with the capacitor, and can tell exactly where it is. It's a passive device, so the police can't track them down, but whoever took them might as well bury them. He may try to fence them to somebody at a discount, but they're now sort of like a disabled cell phone. The Bellagio doesn't even have the same chips on the table anymore at this point."

RFID technology is not only used for security purposes -- it has also turned the tracking of customer behavior, once the purview of pit bosses and floor managers, into a science.

"With RFID, casinos know how long someone's been playing, what their average bet is, what games they like to play, what kind of drinks they like," Kendall says. "It really has a lot of benefits to the casino, some more subtle than others -- for example, RFID can tell if a dealer has mispaid a player that's won."

RFID technology is in use off the casino floor, as well. The Treasure Island hotel and casino uses RFID-enabled spouts at its bars, to track the amount and types of liquors the bartenders pour.

According to Capton, the maker of the Beverage Tracker system, "whenever a bartender pours a drink, the tipping of the bottle turns on both the tag and the measuring device, allowing the spout to measure the volume of liquor poured (in ounces) before the employee tips the bottle back up. The tag then transmits that information to [an] antenna, attached to the ceiling above the bar."

"Nobody beats the house in Las Vegas" as the old saw goes, whether it's in the bar or at the craps table.

As John Kendall says, "The casino business has decades of practice on how to stay ahead of people trying to cheat them."


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