Real-Life 'Ocean's 11': How Agents Foiled a $7 Million Casino Scheme
What finally brought down the Tran Organization?
May 25, 2012 — -- Casino heists make for great movies, but in real life they usually end up considerably less glamorous.
Take the botched attempt earlier this week when two thieves attempted to steal $155,000 from a dealer at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. After spraying the dealer with mace and grabbing the chips, one of the two alleged bandits was literally knocked out of his wig and sunglasses by casino security, quickly foiling the robbery.
There is an exception, however: a group known as the Tran Organization. Based out of San Diego, the group stole more than $7 million from 19 casinos across the country using techniques even Hollywood hadn't thought of.
It started simply enough. In 2002, a dealer at San Diego's Sycuan Casino was caught performing what is known as a false shuffle. The false shuffle is an old sleight-of-hand trick in which a dealer appears to wash and shuffle a deck of cards. In reality, the dealer actually protects a large portion of the cards and keeps them in the order in which they were dealt. That way, players at the table who were watching and tracking the order the cards came out will know exactly how to bet when that deck, or slug, of cards comes back into play.
"No one is the wiser if you don't know what you're looking for," Pete Casey, special agent for the FBI in San Diego, told "20/20" co-anchor Chris Cuomo.
According to Casey, the lead agent on the case, the dealer was caught helping several people win a few hundred dollars at the table. She was fired, and the situation was brought to the FBI's attention and chalked up as an isolated incident. What Casey didn't realize at the time was that the dealer was doing more than just stealing, she was gathering intelligence.
"She was researching it, definitely. Figuring out what [were] the best angles to hold her hands, reviewing the different protocols within her own casino," Casey said.
According to Casey, the woman was actually working for an unlikely criminal mastermind -- Phuong "Pai Gow John" Truong.
Truong, a former casino employee, was known as little more than an avid gambler and drifter in the local Vietnamese community. But Truong was ready to go big time. According to Casey, Truong devised a plan: recruit dealers from various casinos willing to learn how to conduct and perform a false shuffle during a card game, and to cash in after that.
After the dealer was fired from Sycuan, Truong took what the group learned and moved with his wife, Van Tran, and about 15 members of her family north to the Cache Creek Casino outside Sacramento, Calif.
With a handful of dealers willing to go in on it with them, Truong had teams rotating on mini-baccarat tables day and night at Cache Creek. The game suited their method because in mini-baccarat a player is allowed to write down what cards have been dealt. Typically, it makes no difference when the cards are properly shuffled, but on a false shuffle the player has it all spelled out for them.
"They had it set up like a business, where they had a day shift, night shift and graveyard. They were pulling out $20,000-a-round of cheating," Casey said.
The crew stole $158,000 in the month of March 2003. That kind of money told the Tran Organization one thing.
"That means they were on it. They felt they knew exactly what they were doing, and they can never get caught," Casey said.
They spread out, sending teams to recruit dealers and scam casinos up the West Coast, into Canada and down through the Midwest.