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Chip Theft in Casinos - Unmasking the Deceptive Tactics of Rail Thieves

Gambling is a fun social activity for many adults and a career for a few smart (or lucky) players, but there are dangers associated with any pursuit that involves money, and it’s worth knowing what might happen at every level of gaming. In this article, we’ll examine a classic form of theft that targets gamblers in the casino industry, and while this type of crime remains rare, it’s entirely possible to fall victim without a little prior knowledge or understanding.

Somewhere in the past - perhaps in the 1960s or 1970s - there was a beautiful girl wandering a brick-and-mortar casino, wearing a revealing outfit with perfect make-up and hair, attracting lots of attention from players and staff alike. In her hands was a glass of orange juice as she moved from table to table, smiling and laughing with players, tapping stacks of players’ chips with her glass while wishing them luck; with this simple bit of schtick, she stole hundreds of chips from distracted players.

Strategies Used for Casino Chip Pilfering

One perk of a live casino online is that chip stealing and this kind of manipulation are impossible. How many times she did this before someone became suspicious is not known, but she was apparently a well-known and popular character long before casino security arrested her for stealing chips. As you’ve probably guessed, the glass was her method, and her choice of drink was no accident. The orange juice was straight, with no vodka or alcohol, so she could act as if she’d been drinking yet be perfectly sober and calculating in her actions.

She had practiced her move to the point where she could expertly lower her glass even onto poorly stacked chips and, thanks to a sticky substance on the bottom, steal a chip from the top without disturbing the rest of the stack. She could make the steal so quickly and so naturally that no one suspected a thing, but it wasn’t her skill or cleverness that fooled so many people for so long; it was her charm.

And I don’t mean “her charms”; yes, she was attractive, and that certainly helped, but charisma and personality, and ease of communication are qualities common in popular or attractive people, regardless of their looks. This hustler was welcome at any table; she would light up the mood and make people feel good, and her fee for this was a few hundred-dollar chips, which no one seemed to miss until security woke up to her casino scam or a player decided to beef.

An excellent portrayal of this type of hustler is the character “Ginger” in Martin Scorcese’s “Casino”. Ginger was running scams on multiple levels, from stealing chips to bleeding high-rollers, and while some grifters tried to steal just enough to go unnoticed, Scorcese’s character grabbed anything that wasn’t nailed down and, when challenged, made a scene no one would ever forget!

For our purpose, the orange juice thief is a more useful example; a subtler criminal and an excellent illustration of physical theft combined with psychological manipulation, two dangers that could target players in multiple guises. Rail thieves deliberately pilfer chips from other players under many circumstances. Some (most) are rank opportunists, while others are adept at positioning or engineering opportunities where they can easily pal high-value chips.

The term “rail thief” comes from the craps rail, where players lay their stacks in a horizontal groove separated by carved dividers. This setup makes it a lot easier to access a neighbor's bankroll by either reaching under one’s own arm to “grab and go” or seemingly blatant but effective strategies like setting your chips in the same rail and “accidentally” sliding a smaller stack against a player's much larger number of identical (value) chips and adopting a few of those chips when the stacks are separated.

Let’s stop here and consider whether you might fall for that.

How Rail Thieves Manipulate Their Mark and Steal Chips?

You’ve been playing for an hour or more, you have a healthy rail full of chips, and a player squeezes in to join the game, setting their own chips beside yours, but those chips slide against your own. How many chips belong to that player, and how many belong to you? Are you completely aware of how much you had? A rail thief is betting you don’t, and if you have dozens of black chips, it might be easy to adopt one or two of your chips in this scenario.

Most people would tell me they’d never fall for this because they always know how many chips they have or always bookend their stacks with a marker, but whenever I walk around a casino, I see many, many players drinking and laughing and cheering and simply not monitoring how much they have in front of them. And what if that rail thief is attractive, charming, friendly and seemingly without guile? Would it even become an argument or a discussion, or would you accept their apology and believe (or assume) how many chips they said they had?

Con artists of every kind create situations they can manipulate, and while this one is extremely rare (the greatest concern is vigilant casino staff), it’s good to consider “what would I do” or “how would I resolve such a situation”.

There’s more to consider: what if a player squeezed into a busy craps game and bought in for a thousand dollars, asking for five blacks and the balance in greens, blues and reds. He or she takes their chips and slides them into the slot on the rail, accidentally marrying them with your row of blacks. Surely this is an easy situation to resolve since you (and the dealers and the other players) saw exactly what they had, but this is what elevates a common thief to a clever con artist.

In this situation, the thief doesn’t need to convince anyone how much they had since that is easy to recall or confirm, so a momentary problem is easily and quickly resolved, and the targeted player loses hundreds of dollars to a seemingly clumsy new arrival. An experienced thief might not even engage with their victim, simply drop their chips onto the slot and “correct “ the situation themselves by separating their stack along with some of their victim's chips. If the player beefs (complains), then the scammer can easily play the victim to turn the tables on an innocent player defending their stack.

By now, you should be asking how this theft would work since the scammer’s stack would increase after the extra chips have been taken, but here’s what makes this strategy so clever - the rail thief steals two black chips from their own stack as they move it from the table to the rail and dumps those palmed chips expertly in a pocket, a bag or even a glass of orange juice.*

* The OJ was not just used to stop people from seeing chips stuck to the bottom of a glass; some thieves would drop palmed chips into a glass and let them settle at the bottom with a napkin wrapped around the base to hide any contact with the edge of the glass!

Final Thoughts

In short, true scammers work hard to create or take advantages that most often go unnoticed, yet allow a scammer to take something that isn’t theirs. It might not seem like a lot, but some grifters can keep the lights on with something as simple as a few stolen $100 chips.

It’s true that if you suspected this activity and watched it happen, you would recognize every little deception (except perhaps the palming of chips, which in a few hands can look like magic), but hustlers who operate scams like this tend to fade any heat by choosing their spots carefully and timing their scams with the benefit of experience.

In most cases, no one knows anything ever happened, or anything went missing.

There’s more to discuss on the methods of rail thieves, but our goal today is to understand just how clever a good rail thief might be, and while the vast majority simply have sticky fingers and are easily spotted, smarter thieves are less likely to get caught because their theft (missing chips) is equally unlikely to be suspected.

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