BETHLEHEM, Pa. - He could have browsed the volumes at the Moravian Book Shop, or dined al fresco at the historic Hotel Bethlehem. But the out-of-towner was looking to take a chance, so he headed instead to the Sands Casino, a glittery, jittery place rising from the old Bethlehem Steel stacks along the Lehigh River.
For some people, a casino is an ashtray netherworld devoid of sunlight or any sense of time, where the ambient roar of slot machines sounds like a thousand broken carousels. And there’s no place these people would rather be.
Among them, it seems, is this visitor, Jubreal Chahine, a large man of 40 who conveniently lives - or lived - in Las Vegas. Since 1999, he has been arrested at least 14 times on charges of trying to defraud nearly two dozen Nevada gambling establishments, a record that at the very least suggests a dedication to purpose.
But his cases involve no grand heists orchestrated by Rat Pack poseurs, no Julia Roberts in on the game. This isn’t “Ocean’s Eleven” - it’s not even a pond. Chahine is just another casino swindler, Nevada officials say, with several convictions and some time spent in bright prison dayrooms that are ruled by the clock.
“He is a frequent cheater,” Karl Bennison, the chief of enforcement for the Nevada Gaming Control Board, said, employing a descriptive not often bandied about in the world beyond casinos.
The business travails of casinos might not win the sympathy of those who have nearly lost their houses to The House, but cheating remains a central concern. The never-ending cat-and-mouse game between casinos and cheaters now employs devices worthy of the National Security Agency. People still mark cards, only now with invisible ink that can be read with infrared contact lenses.
But Chahine appears to be a sort of traditionalist, Bennison says, favoring the old-school techniques known as “pressing,” “pinching” and “past-posting.”
To “press” a bet is to surreptitiously increase the number of chips you have wagered - or switch out a chip for one of a higher denomination - once you’ve seen your cards, say, in a game of blackjack. To “pinch” a bet is to remove chips - or switch out for one of a lower denomination - when you know that you’re holding a losing hand.
And to “past-post” is to slip your bet into play after the game of chance has concluded - putting a chip on a winning number, for example, after the roulette ball has landed.
George Joseph, the president of Worldwide Casino Consulting and a former magician in Las Vegas, said that these hoary techniques have waned with the advent of all-seeing cameras in casinos, but that they are still in play.
“It’s the simplest of all cheating methods,” Joseph said. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of sleight-of-hand ability. But it does take guts.”
Determining how successful the often-arrested Chahine has been is harder than counting cards.
“The trouble is, you never know the percentage of times he gets away with it,” Bennison said. “If the times he has been caught is a small percentage, he’s pretty successful.”
For all his persistence, Chahine has never achieved the singular notoriety of making the “Excluded Person List,” or “black book,” kept by the Nevada Gaming Control Board. This is a roster of people deemed so undesirable that they have been banned for life from the state’s casinos. They are forever denied, then, the chance to see a slot’s spinning images of fruit at Circus Circus, or to whisper “Baby needs new shoes” before blowing on dice at Mandalay Bay.
The 32 men and one woman on the list include Francis Citro, a convicted racketeer, who famously wore a tuxedo to his hearing. This was the first time he had been invited to join anything, he explained at his hearing. “I just wanted to show the proper respect.”
Chahine did, however, make the gaming control board’s “Most Wanted” list last summer, after disappearing amid a swirl of criminal charges and outstanding warrants for alleged acts that had become his calling card “up and down the Strip,” Bennison said. For example: Switching a green $25 chip for a purple $500 chip in a game of midi baccarat at the New York-New York casino.
After hiding himself for months like a palmed jack of spades, Chahine resurfaced a week ago, 2,500 miles to the east, at the Sands Casino here in Bethlehem.
The Sands, which opened in 2009, is just one example of how this city of 75,000 has refused to be defined by the old steel plant hulking over the river, and took in about $357 million in gambling revenue in its last fiscal year. It has thousands of slot machines, dozens and dozens of gambling tables - and more than 3,000 cameras peering from above. Its surveillance teams can zoom in close enough to read the monogram on a fanny pack.
But guile was not in evidence when Chahine hit the red-carpeted gambling floor. According to Sgt. Robert Caprari, the commander of the Pennsylvania State Police’s gambling enforcement office at the casino, this “most wanted” fugitive from Nevada gave his actual name and date of birth in applying for a player’s card that earned him both “special discounts” and the notice of the casino’s surveillance team.
“The Sands subscribes to a variety of industry-related databases,” Caprari said. “They’re sharp up there.”
The visitor from Las Vegas managed to gamble a little bit before he was arrested by two state police officers, who knew by then that he had also recently drawn attention at two other Pennsylvania casinos: the SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia, and the Parx Casino in Bensalem, which the police say he had left in a hurry the day before, after a dealer accused him of cheating.
Chahine, who was being held on $150,000 bail, could not be reached for comment. He has no lawyer representing him yet for the criminal charges now pending in Pennsylvania, which has its own gaming control board, with its own exclusion list of those it describes as “career or professional offenders, cheats and other individuals whose presence in a licensed facility would be inimical to the interest of the commonwealth.”
A spokesman for the commonwealth’s Gaming Control Board said that Chahine would be eligible for inclusion on the exclusion list, depending on how the chips fell.