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Gaming Guru

Arnold M. Knightly
 

Casino security: With arrest, a career dangles

13 August 2007

In the big money world of casino security, Steve Forte played like a high roller.

Harrah's Entertainment, the world's largest gaming company, bought copies of his books and videos to give to employees.

Forte's Web site boasts of consulting work with gaming companies and law enforcement agencies around the world that would have made him privy to the gambling industry's most sensitive secrets.

"The rest of us are small change compared to him," said Bill Zender, a gaming consultant for Last Resort Consulting and a longtime friend of Forte. "There is nobody out there in the industry right now that you can put on the same level."

But Forte's reputation took a heavy hit with his June 7 arrest in Atlantic City for allegedly conspiring to scam high-stakes poker games in a private room at the Borgata.

The arrest sent shock waves from the New Jersey to Nevada and shook the close-knit casino security consulting industry.

"It completely destroys whatever consulting career he had," said Richard Marcus, self-proclaimed former casino cheat struggling to start a consulting business. "For Steve himself, it is terrible."

Forte did not respond to requests for an interview, but friends say he maintains his innocence.

A closer look at Forte's past reveals this is not his first run-in with the law in New Jersey -- or Nevada.

He was convicted in the Garden State of a "gambling-related third-degree felony" in 1990, a regulatory filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission from nine years ago shows.

Forte was a director and shareholder of the gaming technology manufacturer Casinovations Inc. (now VendingData Corp.) in 1998.

His 1990 conviction, and a 1982 guilty plea of misdemeanor trespassing at Harrah's in Reno "arising from a gambling-related charge," led to the Nevada Gaming Control Board requiring Forte's removal from the company.

Forte was arrested on Dec. 3, 1982, at Harrah's by agents representing the Gaming Control Board.

He was initially charged with two felony counts, a fraudulent act and conspiracy to commit a fraudulent act, before pleading guilty to the lesser charge.

"It's a risk-based proposition to hire people who are known cheaters," said Jerry Markling, enforcement chief for the Nevada Gaming Commission and the state's Gaming Control Board. "You probably gain knowledge of how they have done things and what to look for. But they (casinos) have to ask themselves, 'Are the risks worth it?' "

The 51-year-old Forte was arrested in June by New Jersey State Police in a private hotel room with three other men: Joseph T. Ingargiola, 50, of Playa del Rey, Calif., Stephen Phillips, 52, of Las Vegas, and James C. Harrison, 41, of Duluth, Minn.

The four were arrested in possession of high-tech cheating equipment, including small video cameras, earpiece radio receivers and computer equipment.

All were charged with attempted theft by deception, computer criminal activity, use of cheating devices and conspiracy.

The arrests were not made public until July 25. The delay sparked rumors across the Internet that the arrests were related to a scam involving the $5,000 buy-in Borgata Poker Summer Open running at the time.

Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the New Jersey attorney general's office, however, denied that the arrests had any connection to the tournament.

"They were targeting private poker games and not casino sanctioned, or sponsored, games," he said.

Aseltine said information was leaked to the media about the incident, leading to an announcement of the arrests.

Normal procedure would be to hold any announcement until after a grand jury indictment.

Zender, a former Nevada Gaming control agent and former Aladdin casino manager, said news of the arrests surprised him because Forte is not motivated by greed.

"I'm hoping this is a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Zender, who has known Forte for 29 years. "He has nothing to gain from doing this. Absolutely nothing."

Forte's Web site describes the services and products his company, International Gaming Specialists, offers, including a four-part video series "designed to help protect all those that play in private games from card and dice cheaters."

The Web site says International Gaming Specialists has consulted for casinos around the world, including MGM Mirage, Harrah's Entertainment, Station Casinos and the Golden Nugget.

Forte's arrest has casinos looking at their records, examining the extent of those consulting relationships.

"Virtually everybody in the industry has used him," Harrah's Entertainment spokesman Alberto Lopez said.

He said the gaming company also paid for employees to attend Forte's seminars.

However, he was not involved in the planning, design or implementation of any security or anti-cheating procedures at Harrah's.

"He's never been in to touch the equipment or tell us how to operate our equipment," Lopez said. "He has not been allowed into secure areas."

Officials for other gaming companies claim direct contact with Forte over the years was minimal to nonexistent.

"The only involvement Station Casinos has on record is a gaming protection class more than 20 years ago," said Lori Nelson, the gaming company's spokeswoman.

The Web site also says Forte worked with the local district attorney's office, district judges and former Clark County Sheriff John Moran's anti-cheat squad.

Clark County District Attorney David Roger said he is unfamiliar with Forte and that his office does not hold anti-cheating seminars. He said there is also no record of Forte being a paid consultant, according to records going back seven years.

The arrest is a big blow to the consulting industry, which has a long history of struggling to gain acceptance with large gaming companies.

Jeff Voyles, an adjunct gaming professor at William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said it has always been hard for consultants with questionable pasts to get a job.

"This is a huge blow to the industry in regards to hiring anybody with a sketchy past," said Voyles, who lectures on game protection and surveillance. "It's confirmed to the casinos what they have been saying for years, which is, 'We don't want to take the risk with these consultants and end up with a similar incident.' "

Voyles said he uses Forte's book, "Casino Game Protection," as a classroom text.

The $200 book is considered the industry bible, said Willy Allison, president of the World Game Protection Conference.

Forte was the opening speaker at the first World Game Protection Conference in 2006, lecturing with Voyles, and was largely responsible for the conference's initial success, Allison said.

The annual conference gathers gaming industry security personnel and casino executives.

Allison said Forte drew 60 people to the initial conference who may not have attended otherwise.

Forte's latest book, titled "Poker Protection: Cheating ... and the World of Poker," was released in January.

Aseltine said there was no time frame for when the charges will be presented to a grand jury for indictments and that the investigation is on going.

He added that he could not discuss the scope of the investigation or say whether it extends to other jurisdictions.

Zender said he hopes that when all the details come out his friend will be exonerated.

"I'm hoping he comes out of this fairly whole," Zender said. "He doesn't have larceny in his heart."