Imagine never having to bluff again, and always walking away from each poker game a winner. A Chinese manufacturer has developed a slick new product that can tip off poker players so that without fail, they’ll know when to hold ’em, and when to fold ’em. It’s a customized smartphone with a built-in cheating device that can tell you what everybody has in their hand.
And this devious device is almost as interesting as the story of the geek who tracked it down.
The story appeared on the website for Elie Bursztein, who works on the research team for Google’s anti-abuse department.
He was tipped off about the phone when he read an intriguing post on a forum about poker. Someone claimed they’d been fleeced by a secret device which could remotely read all the cards and determine which player had the best hand — and then, of course, tip off the cheater. The mysterious post was written in Chinese, and even more mysteriously, it disappeared soon after he read it.
Bursztein later said he wondered if the whole thing had been a hallucination. But then he found another reference about a similar sounding device being used in Texas. “A group of guys got away with it for almost a year before one of them spilled the beans to someone, and everyone found out,” he noted. Were the legends really true?
Bursztein began a search for the device, and eventually traced one to a manufacturer in China. He had to see this magical machine, so what else could he do? He wired $1,500 to a stranger — and then waited for his package. He described the whole experience in a talk at the DEF CON hacker convention in Las Vegas.
When the device arrived, and Bursztein sprung into action, analyzing its hardware, software, radio frequency usage. What he discovered he would go on to describe as a way of “Cheating at poker James Bond Style.” If a secret super-agent wanted to cheat at poker, he wouldn’t mess around with just marking the aces. “He would go to the lab to Q and say ‘Hey. Do you have like one of those insane crazy gadgets and then I can cheat and see all the cards?'”
And that’s exactly what this device does.
What he received was a fully-functional smartphone — possibly a Samsung Galaxy — with 8 gigabytes of storage and 1GB of RAM. In addition to its special card-detecting cameras and other built-in poker-cheating hardware, “it is also a decent smartphone that can make phone calls and run all the apps you love,” Bursztein added. It’s manufactured by a very professional operation — an “activation key” was sent separately, and to protect their intellectual property, the manufacturer even disabled the phone’s ADB/debug mode making it harder to reverse-engineer the device.
In fact, the cheating hardware was nearly “invisible” in the user interface. “The hardware used for cheating is controlled by a custom Android app through a custom kernel module. Outside of the dedicated app, there is no way to interact with the cheat hardware,” he wrote on his blog.
The cheating hardware gets activated by an innocent-looking app called “Games.”
The phone could be configured to support many different kinds of card games, or “upgrade options.”
“In total, there are hundreds of supported games, which supports the hypothesis that high-end cheating devices are used not only for poker but any form of gambling that involves cards,” he noted.
It comes with one more very important accessory: a specially-marked deck of cards.
The cards aren’t marked on their front — or on their back — but along their narrow edges. A simple binary code — short blocks and long blocks — indicates both the suit and rank of each card, and device scans for each code, starting from the top of the deck. And the markings only visible to the smartphone’s secret infrared camera.
“After closely inspecting a few decks, it is clear that they use a real Bicycle deck (or any brand you want) and use a dedicated machine to mark them,” Bursztein wrote on his website. The manufacturers even resealed the pack of cards from the bottom, so it looks like the package has never been open.
And there’s more trickery afoot. “The phone housing is made of IR passband plastic: while the side of the phone appears to be solid and opaque, in reality, it allows infrared light to pass through…”
That’s the other secret ingredient. Three LEDs emit infrared light, which lights up those special infrared-ink markings on the edges of the cards, though the infrared light remains invisible and undetectable to the human eye. “The device has a hidden camera embedded on one side,” Bursztein explains on his site, “and its infrared filter has been removed so it can perceive IR light.”
This super-gadget even ships with a special set of vibrators, which can be used to send haptic feedback signaling which player has the best hand. Trigger buzzer one for the player at the first seat, buzzer two for the second player. Another option just sends you the same information hidden in the time-of-day information that’s displayed on your phone’s lock screen.
But wait, there’s more! The manufacturers also offer a version that’s innocently disguised as a Volvo key fob. And if Volvo’s not your thing, they also offer a fake VW key fob. The only problem is it’s so tiny its small battery can only last a half hour, and it uses a surprising amount of power.
There are a few idiosyncrasies to this package. Because it was manufactured in China, the translation wasn’t perfect, and it referred to clubs as “plums.” And there was one more secret feature: Lots of phone home code, which calls back to China.
But nevertheless, “This is the most sophisticated cheating device we have ever seen,” Bursztein told the DEF CON audience. “You have to re-house the normal phone, add a lot of electronics, do a lot of programming.” On his website, he adds that “The complexity and the build quality of these devices, as well as the number of games they support, indicate that there is a very profitable and active black market for gambling cheating devices.”
“The street finds its own uses for things,” as William Gibson once said.
So it seems clear that this device is already out there in the world. Bursztein’s post spurred one commenter to remember some suspicious games of high-stakes games of no-limit Texas hold ’em years ago. Word on the street has it that the cheaters — equipped with an earpiece that whispered every card to them — ultimately walked away with $70,000 in poker chips. Although even before then “People were already suspicious.”
And that’s not the only one who’s seen this mysterious device. “Following the DEF CON talk, anonymous sources told me that these devices are indeed actively used in the US, including Vegas, to rip people off,” Bursztein posted on his site.
He points out that it’s possible to take some counter-measures.
“Phone cameras are somewhat sensitive to IR light, so pointing your phone camera at a poker cheating device will show the huge blast of light,” he noted. And it’s also possible to jam the signal by various means.
But this may be just the tip of the iceberg. When Elie’s post turned up on Hacker News, one commenter pointed out casinos have known about this for nearly three years. The comment linked to an article from Global Gaming Business magazine which warned, “this device could do for cheats what silicon did for the cosmetic surgery business.”
The magazine argued that the solution to cheating technologies is more technology, not less. It suggests modifying the casino-floor cameras also to screen for infrared light.
Another Hacker News reader — who’d hosted poker games on Meetup — finally said he had to stop because cheating seemed to be such a common part of the game. And some people really hated to lose — and resorted to an even older form of technology.
“Soon the higher end games started getting straight up robbed at gunpoint.”
The New Stack is a wholly owned subsidiary of Insight Partners. TNS owner Insight Partners is an investor in the following companies: MADE, Real.