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The House Always Wins … Unless

Twenty years ago, ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ seduced audiences with the perfect heist: the robbing of several Las Vegas casinos. How accurate was the movie’s depiction of casino security? And how has the safeguarding of Sin City changed over the past two decades?

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

There are a lot of great lines in Ocean’s Eleven, but the one I keep coming back to—the one I’ve never been able to shake after all these years—is Danny Ocean’s devil-on-your-shoulder speech that sets everything in motion. Rusty Ryan (played by Brad Pitt) needs a reason they should attempt to knock over three casinos. It’s a good question that leads to a great answer.

Maybe Danny rushed it, but he hit on something that still resonates. Casinos are cathedrals of excess—gaudy monstrosities, as Reuben Tishkoff might say—built on the hard-earned and easily-forfeited dollars of its patrons. The House always wins in the end. But what if, as Danny suggests, the perfect hand comes along and you’re smart enough to realize it—and better still, take advantage of a system that’s otherwise rigged to take advantage of you.

It’s the central allure of heist movies in general and Ocean’s, specifically: What if we pull a job and get away with it?

Who among us hasn’t wondered that very thing when strolling past a bank or bellying up to a blackjack table? I’m a grown(ish) man and I have regular conversations with my friends about pulling one last job and getting our crew together. It’s the fantasy that makes Ocean’s such an endearing and rewatchable film—even if Reuben made some really good points about how difficult it would be to execute such a caper.

“I know more about casino security than any man alive,” Reuben explains, silk robe open and chest hair on full display. “I invented it, and it cannot be beaten. They got cameras, they got watchers, they got locks, they got timers, they got vaults. They got enough armed personnel to occupy Paris!”

OK, that last part, as Reuben stipulates, is a bad example. But the man’s assessment isn’t wrong. Not to mention, as he concludes, even if you get past all the security measures and somehow make it out of the casino alive with the money, “you’re still in the middle of the goddamn dessert.”

Knocking over a casino—let alone three—is no easy task despite the appeal of the idea. Happily for us, Danny and Rusty ignore Reuben’s cautionary tales and even conscript him into their crimes, thereby setting up one hell of a heist movie (and several others that would follow as the franchise expanded).

It’s been 20 years since Ocean’s Eleven first hit theaters. It still holds up as an ensemble thief comedy, though two decades later we still have to suspend our disbelief in order to buy that Danny and the gang could execute such a complicated caper in the first place. Pulling an actual job like that back then wouldn’t have been possible for a whole host of reasons—and it would be even more difficult today, given the advancement of the very preventive measures Reuben wisely warned about.

Which doesn’t mean it hasn’t been tried.

It’s been tried.

In commemoration of the film’s 20th anniversary, I reached out to press handlers for the Bellagio and Caesars Palace and asked them to put me in touch with their in-house security experts. Not surprisingly, they ignored me and politely declined, respectively.

Instead, I spoke with a handful of security experts who previously worked for mega casinos but are now independent contractors. We discussed what Ocean’s Eleven gets right, what it gets hilariously wrong, and how casino security has evolved over the past 20 years.

In the movie, the plan calls for the crew to hit Terry Benedict’s casinos by breaking into his vault—a monumental undertaking made easier once Danny and Rusty lift the blueprints from an office with the help of a sympathetic security guard. Beyond the obviously unlikely scenario in which plans of that sort are gathering dust in an easily opened filing cabinet, vaults and count rooms aren’t generally targeted by outside outfits for a number of reasons. The first is an issue of access. In the film, various members of the gang stroll off the casino floor, through a door, and into what’s called the back of the house.

“As far as having cameras and locks and vaults and all that stuff, that’s all accurate as far as access controls,” Chuck Barry told me. These days he runs his own casino security firm, but he previously served as a high-level casino security executive for the Tropicana, Harrah’s, and Hilton corporations. “There is no direct access to count rooms from anywhere in the casino.”

Instead, authorized personnel wishing to enter those areas have to go through a series of what Barry and other experts call “man traps”—doors that lock or unlock in sequence not unlike what you’d find at certain commercial banks. And even then, by Nevada state law, only certain people are cleared to enter sensitive areas like the count room and the surveillance room—despite what Benedict has us believe when he escorts Saul Bloom/Lyman Zerga from one high-security area to another.

“You can’t, in some jurisdictions, even have an executive walk into those areas without certain clearances,” Barry said. “In some jurisdictions, let’s say a casino manager and even the property president aren’t allowed into the surveillance room. The surveillance rooms are also access controlled by a variety of means and most of them are multiple access control procedures. You can’t get into any place sensitive from the casino floor.”

Not that would-be thieves would even try something like that, especially these days. Why try cracking a physical vault when computers exist?

“They went after the casino by going after their vault,” Douglas Florence said of the Ocean’s crew. He spent three decades as a casino security executive for the Mirage, Rio, Hard Rock, Virgin, and M resorts. “Today, when people attack casinos they go by technology, typically. Everything is electronic.”

That last part might be the biggest leap in logic that the movie asks the viewer to make. Before the gang can infiltrate the casino vault on fight night, they first have to knock out the power—a maneuver Basher pulls off with an electronic device that creates a diversion and results in what he calls a few moments of “blind, broke, and bedlam.” But in Las Vegas, where the power bills are outrageously expensive, they need to keep the lights on to make money.

“In the movie, they have the ability to blow up some power towers and they lost all the power in the casinos,” Barry said. “That doesn’t happen. All of the casinos have uninterrupted power supplies, which if they lose power, the UPS system [uninterrupted power supply] ... kicks in immediately. And usually the uninterrupted power supply lasts for a short period of time until the massive generators kick on that each of the properties have. The generators are large enough to supply power to most of the facility, hotel and casino, and then those generators run indefinitely until power is restored by the local power company. You can’t just blow up a power tower and lose power to six or seven places on the Strip.”

But while all of that seems like fairly obvious obstacles, perhaps the biggest impediment to the success of Ocean’s Eleven pulling off the heist in real life would be the gang itself. They might be thick as thieves, but getting a group rate gets you only so far.

It could have been Ocean’s Ten. But while they’re putting the team together, Danny and Rusty stop off at a bar for a drink and the latter’s silence speaks volumes and convinces the former that they’re still a man short.

And that’s how Bobby Caldwell’s kid Linus makes the cut and ends up trading on his own name instead of his dad’s. Of course, adding another guy to the mix means one more mouth that can potentially reveal what went down and how.

“Motorcycle gangs have a famous saying: three men can keep a secret if two of them are dead,” Bill Marcisz, president of Strategic Security Management Consulting, put it colorfully. “You want to have a tight-knit unit, people who have worked together for years and trust each other. The folks who are not professionals, they’re the ones who get caught. They start talking about what they did. They can’t help themselves. They have to brag about it. And that information in the criminal world becomes a card they can play, they can trade that.”

True enough. The size of the operations is what eventually helped bring down some of the biggest crews in Vegas heist history.

According to Florence, slot machines account for around three-quarters of the money that casinos make. Decades ago, before the days of Ocean’s Eleven, that meant physical coins being placed into the machines. The sheer volume and bulk made targeting slots less likely and profitable. But these days, slot machines operate on a system that’s referred to as ticket-in, ticket-out: A player feeds money into the machine, then when it’s time to cash out the machine spits out a paper ticket that the player can redeem for cash at the cashier’s window or at an automated teller. That’s since created a game of one-upsmanship in which thieves invent ways to beat the paper system, which leads to the machine makers patching whatever loophole was exploited, which leads to the thieves updating their methods. And back and forth they go.

“For the people who go after the slots,” Florence said, “they do it through counterfeiting.”

Florence recalled a team of Latin American counterfeiters that hit the Mirage while he was still working there, along with three other casinos. Florence remembered getting a call from the count room early one morning and learning that the casino had taken in about $9,000 of counterfeit bills on a couple of machines. He instructed his team to pull up the slots in question on the security cameras. Then they waited. Before long, they were tracking four people who were feeding bogus $100 bills into the machines, then they’d cash out and get real money back.

“The guys who hit us, they had 30 grand of cash up in their hotel room,” Florence said. (Staying in the hotel is bold; wonder whether they had a mini bar.) “Counterfeit money, a lot of times they’ll have multiple serial numbers because this was printed money out of Latin America, really high quality. They had 35-40 grand in just a few days from the four properties they were hitting, which were Caesars, the Mirage, and Harrah’s. They were all in close walking distance.”

Florence said the good counterfeiters he tried to thwart were often able to beat the bill validators for one simple reason: casinos are in the habit of wanting to take your money. Ever try to put a crumpled dollar into a soda machine, only to have it spit the money back out? Casinos want to avoid that kind of thing, lest the player get frustrated and walk away with his or her money in his or her pocket instead of in the casino coffers.

The solution? Florence said some casinos will “turn the security down on bill validators” so that they accept more money. That’s a weakness that counterfeiters try to exploit by looking for specific machines that are more likely to accept bills than reject them. In “a larger casino that has 5,000 slot machines,” Florence said, “the likelihood you’re going to find 10 or 20 machines in different areas is pretty good.”

“There’s been scams like that and teams like that,” Barry said. “They do exist.”

One of the most successful teams was known as the Nikrasch group. Led by Dennis Nikrasch, the crew reportedly stole $10 million from Vegas casinos in the late 1970s by rigging slot machines. In 1986, Nikrasch went to prison. He was paroled in 1991 and five years later he and his gang were back at it. By the ’90s, they had updated their methods to target and defeat computerized slot machines. According to Florence, Nikrasch and his accomplices devised a way to hack the motherboard of the slot machines and create artificial jackpots. The program and tool they used was so advanced that the FBI kept the secret to themselves and even refused to share it with Florence and his security team.

“He had the most sophisticated system we’ve ever seen,” said Keith Copher, chief of the Enforcement Division of the Nevada Gaming Control Board, following Nikrasch’s second arrest in 1998. Back then, Copher estimated that casinos lost roughly $40 million a year to slot cheats. The second time around, Nikrasch was sentenced to seven and a half years but was released in 2004. Florence said Nikrasch did some consulting for casinos after getting out of prison again. Nikrash died of unknown causes in 2010.

According to the Las Vegas Sun, at the time of his second arrest, Nikrasch was targeting a $17 million Megabucks slot jackpot so he could move to France. Prior to that, his crew reportedly hit six major casinos a total of 10 times, which netted them millions in cash and cars—which was part of the problem.

And here we return to the size of Danny Ocean’s 11-man crew. Like Danny, Nikrasch worked with a large group. He had as many as a dozen accomplices over the decades they were in operation. In addition to there being a lot of them, they were all good at what they did. But when you win that much money, and cars that expensive, people talk. Worse: you have to use real identification and real names to claim the prizes for tax purposes.

“That is what got them caught,” Florence said. “They got greedy. After you win six Jaguars, what are you going to do?”

Don’t get Barry wrong. He may have spent a professional lifetime trying to thwart the efforts of real-life Danny Oceans, but he enjoyed the film—though he flagged another problem that he thought was just as glaring as Hollywood suggesting a group of motivated thieves could knock out the electricity: Livingston Dell and his Radio Shack shenanigans.

“What they showed in the movie was very simple,” Barry pointed out. “Just get a key, open the door, and you can go in and play with all the electronics of the casino. That doesn’t happen. That doesn’t exist. I’ll never say something can’t happen, but it would have to be a very, very sophisticated way of defeating multiple access control systems. And that doesn’t include your security officers on duty [who are] also on constant patrol.”

Nor does it account for the massive advancements in facial recognition software. That kind of technology was rare in the mid-to-late ’90s. Now it’s deployed in most major casinos for various purposes ranging from identifying and stopping cheaters to identifying and catering to the whims of whales.

“I tested one of the first facial recognition systems that came on the market with a vendor,” Barry said about his time with Hilton. “I basically installed it in one of the casino operation surveillance departments I was responsible for and they failed miserably. It wasn’t ready.”

It is now. Marcisz said facial recognition has gotten “a lot better” in the past two decades-plus, though he added “It’s not exactly what you see in the movies. I also like the Bourne Identity movies and you have these guys just sitting there in Langley at the CIA and they’re able to pull up the faces on cameras that happen in things over in France or wherever. That doesn’t exist.”

Maybe not, but the facial recognition software that casinos have at their disposal now sure beats the old analog methods. Back in the day, casinos had physical books with pictures of known cheaters and they’d page through them if they thought someone they wanted to keep out had gotten back in. That was obviously time-consuming and inefficient. Today, even if a would-be thief is wearing a disguise, casino security cameras can identify people in the computer database in real time.

“All the files [are] searchable—age, race, height, whatever we could put in there, card counter, cheater,” Florence said about the facial recognition software he’s used. “We could start sorting bad guys by data. Cameras create metadata.”

What the film does get right, at least in part, is the existence of the in-house technician. According to Florence, inside jobs rather than outside crews account for most of the crimes that casinos experience. He said that when he started working for the Rio in the early ’90s, they “took down 64 employees”—including the then-director of security.

Florence also told me a story about a group of in-house technicians who were running a scam at the Orleans back in 2011 or 2012. It was complicated, but the simplified version went like this: slot machines that are operating on a casino floor are being monitored by a central computer. The in-house techs were able to “clone” the slots so they were still operational while not allowing the central casino system to count the physical money that was actually going into the machines. Then later they would take the real machines off the slot floor for repairs, clean out the money, and replace them without there being a record of any missing money.

In easily digestible terms, Florence said they essentially “created a malfunction.” He estimated that the crew of three or four slot techs skimmed “a couple million out of the place.” What got them caught was the same thing that does in a lot of crews: they started buying houses and cars and people noticed.

Before they set the plan in motion, Danny and Rusty go over the intricate plan with the full crew at Reuben’s house. There’s a lot of moving parts.

“Real smash-and-grab job,” Linus deadpans.

He’s kidding, of course, but as far as real-world heists go, that’s pretty much how it usually goes when outside gangs hit casinos. Most of them tend to be low-tech, in-and-out, straight-forward robberies. [Extremely Reuben voice] Some of the most “successful” heists in Las Vegas history include:

  • In 1993, an armored car driver simply drove away from Circus Circus with about $3 million. She was on the run for 12 years and later turned herself in.
  • In 2000, two men wearing body armor allegedly jumped over the cashier cage counter at the Bellagio and took off with about $160K in cash and chips while a third accomplice served as a lookout. That same year, Treasure Island got hit for about $30K by men using similar methods.
  • In 2010, the “biker bandit” rode up to the Bellagio on a motorcycle, ran up to the craps table with his helmet on and visor closed and a gun in his hand, and demanded chips. Security cameras captured him running off with approximately $1.5 million. He got busted when he tried to sell the chips online at a discount.
  • There was also that time a couple of years ago when a 50-year-old woman had the bright idea to knock over an off-strip casino by ramming her 1972 RV through the front door. You won’t believe this but … it didn’t work.

One year, while Barry was in charge of security at the Flamingo, he said a group of guys from California tried a “takeover robbery.” Basically they ran in with guns, jumped over the cashier counter, took money out of the drawers and ran off. They got arrested pretty quickly too. “The philosophy,” Barry said, “is let them take the money and walk out of the place. Let the cameras catch everything.”

Reuben was right. Between the cameras and the desert, it’s hard to beat Vegas at its own game. The whole real-world operation reminded Marcisz of a different character in another film, Robert De Niro’s exposition in Casino: “The dealers are watching the players, the box men are watching the dealers, the floor men are watching the box men, the pit bosses are watching the floor men, the shift bosses are watching the pit bosses, the casino manager is watching the shift bosses ... and the eye in the sky is watching us all.”

“That,” Marcisz summed up, “is a very sophisticated system.”

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