Against All Odds: The Gang That Stole $7m From 19 Casinos Without Them Even Noticing

  • The Tran Organization stole close to $7m from 19 casinos in the US from 2002 to 2007
  • They started with a mini-baccarat scam before moving on to blackjack with higher stakes
  • The leader, Phuong Truong, and members of the gang were caught and arrested in 2007
Money and casino chips
In 2002, Phuong Truong and his wife, Van Tran, started targeting casinos using dealers to perform false shuffles on mini-baccarat and blackjack tables. [Image:]

Sleight of hand

The gambling world is full of mysterious, terrifying, and wonderful stories, from bizarre bad beats to hair-raising heists, murders, and even ghosts. But when it comes to casino heists, the tale of the Tran Organization – who stole more than $7m from 19 casinos across the US – springs to mind.

It began in 2002 at San Diego’s Sycuan Casino when a card handler performed a false shuffle. This is when a dealer appears to shuffle a deck of cards but then actually keeps a significant portion of the cards in the order they’ve been dealt. If the card handler is good enough, no one will notice the difference.

The FBI was alerted to the event but put it down as an isolated incident

The reason? So players at the table will know in what order the cards will come out – if they are watching them closely – and will know how to place a bet. While the Sycuan dealer was eventually caught and fired, she helped a number of people at her table win a few hundred dollars. The FBI was alerted to the event but put it down as an isolated incident.

Unbeknownst to them, though, the dealer wasn’t just stealing, she was gathering vital information. Pete Casey, special agent for the FBI in San Diego, said: “She was researching it, definitely. Figuring out what [were] the best angles to hold her hands, reviewing the different protocols within her own casino.”

And who was she gathering the information for? Phuong “Pai Gow John” Truong, a former casino employee and one-half of the Tran Organization.

Averaging $50,000

After learning what he needed, Truong moved his wife Van Tran and 15 members of her family near the Cache Creek Casino outside Sacramento, California.

It was here that Truong and his wife decided to make their move. With several dealers willing to go in on the heist with them, they had a rotating team playing mini-baccarat day and night. In each round, they were able to pull out around $20,000.

Playing mini-baccarat also suited their method. Unlike other casino games, those playing mini-baccarat could write down what cards had been dealt. Adding a false shuffle to the mix meant they could easily make note of what cards were going to come next.

In March 2003, the Tran Organization stole $158,000. And because they felt that they would never get caught, they eventually spread out, recruiting dealers up the West Coast, into Canada, and through the Midwest.

a lot of casinos didn’t realize what was happening to them in real-time.”

By the time the casinos realized what had happened, those involved were gone. FBI Special Agent Casey said: “A lot of the casinos didn’t realize what was happening to them in real-time. They figured it out, maybe two, three weeks after they had left.”

In 2005, when the Tran Organization arrived at Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut, the people working for them had grown to over 40 people. Every 10 minutes, the heist was averaging $50,000.

Moving to blackjack

Increasing the stakes of their system, the Tran Organization turned from mini-baccarat to blackjack. However, as they were unable to write down the cards drawn, the team employed the use of high-tech to do the same job.

Using microphones, a person would track the order of the cards while relaying the information back into the microphone. To get away with any suspicion, the person tracking the cards would be smoking a cigarette and use a special signaling system to indicate when the gambler should place a bet.

Footage ultimately captured by authorities showed the system in action.

The person listening on the other end would remain outside the casino with a special computer. This computer would read out when, and in which order, the cards would appear after the dealer had done the false shuffle. A tracker located in the casino would then receive this information before signaling to the player.

“Take a puff with one finger on [the cigarette], it says to make a bet. Take a puff with two fingers on the cigarette, that means to double down,” said Casey.

By bringing in a larger amount of money in a shorter space of time with blackjack, the Tran Organization saw its earnings rise to $868,000 in October 2005 at the Resorts East in Chicago.

The house always wins

Despite the money they were bringing in, Truong ultimately lost out because of one thing that many people fall victim to: greed. When he started shortchanging his dealers to better his profits, they were suddenly much more happy to talk to the FBI. Eventually, Truong and his team were put under surveillance by the federal agency.

In June 2006, agents for the Mississippi Gaming Commission went undercover to meet with Truong. Truong believed he was meeting with dealers to work with him and fell into the trap of telling them everything. In an undercover video, Truong said he only needed two guys in the casino with him to make thousands of dollars.

some of the team were heading back to where it all started: the Sycuan Casino

The final piece of evidence that investigators needed was capturing the scam on video. This happened weeks later when they received a tip-off claiming that Truong and some of the team were heading back to where it all started: the Sycuan Casino.

It was Willy Tran who made the final hit, walking out of the casino 20 minutes after starting play with $20,000. With the final piece of evidence caught on camera, the authorities moved in. By 2007, Truong and 46 members of the organization were arrested for racketeering, theft, and money laundering. Truong pled guilty, was sentenced to 70 months in prison, and had to pay back millions to the government.

Phuong “Pai Gow John” Truong (pictured left) headed the Tran Organization, while Willy Tran (pictured right) led the final heist.

“They hit close to 19 casinos. They took in, what we could prove, around $7m,” said Casey, adding that in the end, the house always wins.

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