Ringleader pleads guilty in $7-million card-club scheme

Times Staff Writer

The leader of a crew that took casinos for about $7 million pleaded guilty Wednesday to racketeering conspiracy charges in what federal authorities have described as one of the largest cheating schemes ever busted.

Phuong Quoc Truong, nicknamed Pai Gow John, ran a sophisticated operation that enlisted shady dealers to rig blackjack and mini-baccarat games and gamblers to place big bets, authorities said.

The San Diego-based ring once won $868,000 in a 90-minute span by executing the “false shuffle,” their trick of choice, according to the three-count indictment handed down last year in federal court in San Diego.

Truong pleaded guilty, along with six others involved in the scheme. Twelve other suspects await trial.


The ring, which included several former dealers from San Diego-area card clubs, targeted 16 casinos across the country.

According to federal prosecutors, the scheme worked like this: A member of the crew, called the card recorder, would track the order of blackjack cards, relaying them with a hidden transmitter to an off-site associate who would enter the sequence into a computer.

The bribed dealers would then perform false shuffles, creating a “slug” of unshuffled cards. The slug would be returned to the shoe, the device that holds the cards being dealt. When the slug cards were dealt in later rounds, the card recorder would signal associates at the table to dramatically increase their bets on hands the recorder knew would probably win. The off-site associate, using a card-tracking computer program, would relay when the odds were the greatest.

“Executing the scheme in this fashion the . . . organization would frequently steal approximately $50,000 in approximately 10 minutes of play,” the indictment states.

Truong admitted in the plea agreement that he and his co-conspirators won up to $7 million from 2002 to 2007. Truong will forfeit two houses in the San Diego area, two properties in Vietnam, a 2001 Porsche Carrera and a Rolex Presidential watch, federal prosecutors said.

Truong appeared to run a disciplined operation. There were regular training sessions to teach dealers how to do false shuffles without getting caught by casino security. Card recorders were drilled to perfect their card-counting skills, and players were trained to learn the cues indicating when they should place large bets.

Sometimes, a card recorder or a dealer would make a mistake, leading to large losses. Members of the ring sometimes lost bets intentionally in order to avoid suspicion, prosecutors said.

Among the casinos targeted were the Trump 29 Casino in Coachella, now known as the Spotlight 29 Casino, and the Sycuan Resort and Casino in El Cajon.

The ring’s biggest win came in the early morning of Oct. 22, 2005, at the Resorts East Chicago Hotel and Casino in Indiana. Truong and two others purchased about $39,000 in gambling chips at a mini-baccarat table, according to the indictment. After 90 minutes and a dealer’s false shuffle, one of Truong’s associates walked out with $906,000.

Truong had been free on a $500,000 bond, with orders from a judge banning him from casinos. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.