Griffin Investigations

Griffin Books : Keeping a wary eye on cheats and card counters

In these days of widespread electronic surveillance, it may seem as though Big Brother is watching everywhere. When it comes to keeping track of professional gamblers in Las Vegas, however, Griffin Investigations Inc. far outstrips anything that the supreme tyrant of George Orwell's novel "1984" ever devised.

Griffin Investigations was the brainchild of a young private detective named Robert Griffin, who came on the Las Vegas scene in 1963 right after a cataclysmic event struck the gambling world. Mathematician and entrepreneur Ed Thorp had recently published a book, "Beat the Dealer," in which he described a secret strategy, card counting, for gaining an advantage in playing blackjack.

Thorp's method caught on like wildfire among both professional and amateur gamblers alike. Casinos began to pay out big to card counters, even though Thorp's method was difficult to master. Naturally, the gambling houses were frantic to stem the tide of payouts from card-counting blackjack players.

First, the casinos tried hiring their own expert, stage magician and card expert John Scarne. Until that time, Scarne had been considered one of the top gambling experts and had written books of his own on blackjack. Becoming a consultant for Las Vegas casinos may have paid Scarne well, but at the same time he irreparably tarnished his reputation as an advocate for players.

At first, casinos tried changing the rules for blackjack. However, players were so outraged that they began boycotting casinos entirely, causing an even more drastic drop in gambling revenues. Under public pressure, the casinos reverted to the prior set of rules.

Then the casinos engaged Scarne to try to discredit Thorp. Scarne tried to challenge Thorp to a winner-take-all face-off with the intention of proving that Thorp's method didn't work, but Thorp was too smart to agree to Scarne's rules. Scarne's other efforts at disproving Thorp's card-counting method were similarly unsuccessful, so between in 1964 and 1965, Scarne advised casinos to move from single-deck blackjack games to multi-deck games. The cards were dealt from four-deck shoes in the belief that they'd be harder to count that way. At the same time, Scarne started warning players through his newspaper and magazine columns that playing single-deck games were too "dangerous" because card sharps could too easily manipulate hand-dealt games.

The casinos' gamble paid off for a while; because Thorp's original method didn't work as well against multiple decks, as Scarne had surmised. What neither the casinos nor John Scarne counted on, however, was Ed Thorp's amazing ability to calculate probabilities, a skill directly related to blackjack strategy.

In 1966 Ed Thorp brought out a new edition of "Beat the Dealer" in which he unveiled his new Hi-Lo counting system that worked with any number of decks. Both the casinos and Scarne were at a loss as to how to stem the rising tide of gamblers using card-counting strategies to beat the house at blackjack.

Enter Robert A. Griffin.

As the panic about blackjack card counting peaked in 1967, Griffin, then a young private detective, started a company called Griffin Investigations, Inc. His purpose was “to provide surveillance and investigative services to casinos,” a mission that remains to this day, according to the agency's web site.

Before Robert Griffin came along, Las Vegas casinos did their own surveillance and rarely shared data with one another, considering their information on card mechanics, thieves and cheats to be industrial secrets. Now, however, the casinos and John Scarne both faced a common enemy – a growing army of card counters whose idol was Ed Thorp.

Griffin's product was simple, but inspired. He produced a book similar to a police mug shot book, containing photographs and identifications of every card counter who'd ever been barred from a Las Vegas casino. Soon card counters found themselves being ejected from casinos where they hadn't played before, and they finally learned of the existence of what became known as "the Griffin Book."

Unfortunately, the Griffin Book was used to bar not only those who counted cards, but non-professionals who were deemed "associates" of card counters merely because they may have encountered one another in a casino. Many of those tagged in Griffin's "book," which soon became several volumes, began resorting to fake IDs and elaborate disguises in order to play. 

Fear of card counters, coupled with John Scarne's failure to protect his casino clients from losing money, created a huge market for Griffin's services. Nearly every casino subscribed to Griffin's book. What's more, among professional and top-ranked amateurs alike, it became almost a badge of honor to be listed "in the Book."
Griffin Investigations Inc. is now in its 43rd year of providing "surveillance intelligence data" to casinos. What's more, the agency now boasts what it calls GOLD, or Griffin On-Line Database, containing not only current information but more than 40 years of casino investigations.

While Griffin Investigations describes those who count cards in blackjack as equivalent to "scam artists," blackjack players continue to think of card-counting methods as their secret strategy for offsetting the casino’s advantage. It's unlikely these opposing views will ever be reconciled, so that blackjack players who master any of the difficult forms of card counting may also need to master skills to mask their skills from the sharp eyes of Griffin Investigations Inc.