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Hot chips will be hard to cash

Gambling chips stolen from Bellagio in a brazen armed robbery Tuesday morning might total $1.5 million, but the man who stole them will have a tough time cashing in.

David Schwartz, director of gaming research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said it would be extremely difficult for anyone to swap those chips for money — especially the $25,000 chips, which are rarely given out and are closely monitored by casinos.

"I can’t think of any way you could," Schwartz said. "It’s not like they’re currency that you can use anywhere. If you steal so many chips, in such a big, dramatic way, there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny at the casino, and that makes it very difficult to cash in."

The robbery occurred at 3:50 a.m. Tuesday when a man parked his late-model black sport motorcycle at the north valet entrance of the Bellagio, Las Vegas police said.

The man entered the casino wearing a white, full-face motorcycle helmet and a leather jacket. He approached a nearby craps table and demanded money, which he received, and left the casino.

The man went west on Flamingo Road on the motorcycle, police said.

No one was hurt, and no shots were fired, Lt. Clint Nichols said. The man did not take money from casino patrons and was in the casino for only two to three minutes.

"He parked, walked in, committed the robbery and left," he said.

Security officers did not try to stop the man, who was carrying a handgun, Nichols said.

A casino employee had dialed 911 even before the man had left the casino, he said.

"They had a full staff, and they were on it quick," he said.

Nichols said the man took chips from $25,000 to $100 in value, which he stuffed in a backpack before jogging out the door. Nichols agreed that the chips will be difficult to cash in because of industry safeguards, which he said he could not disclose.

Schwartz said every casino has different safeguards, and for good reason:

"If they didn’t, people would try to find creative ways around them," he said.

Some casinos have gambling chips with radio-frequency identification technology. When scanned with a casino chip reader, it can tell the casino exactly where the chip came from, he said.

It’s unclear whether Bellagio uses the technology, but it’s a useful tool in preventing fraud, he said.

"It would be the equivalent of stealing a gift card," he said. "It doesn’t have any value. It looks good, but they know it’s been stolen."

The suspect, described as a white man about 5 feet 10 inches tall and 220 pounds, is suspected of robbing the Suncoast last week in a similar manner.

About 12:30 a.m. Dec. 8 , a man wearing a full-face motorcycle helmet held up the cashier cage in the poker room of the Suncoast, taking $20,000, Nichols said.

Although the man committed the robberies alone, Nichols said it’s common for criminals to have a "layoff guy" to alert them when there is a large amount of money coming into a casino.

Police are reviewing surveillance footage from the robberies but said the photos reveal little about the man’s identity.

Nichols said $1.5 million was large for a casino robbery but not the largest he’s seen in the past three years.

Casino robberies are infrequent but not rare, he said. In 2009, there were nine casino robberies in the Las Vegas police jurisdiction. Tuesday’s robbery makes 10 for 2010, he said.

"We’re not seeing an epidemic or anything," he said.

Anyone with information about the robberies is asked to call the Robbery Section at 828-3521. To remain anonymous, call CrimeStoppers at 385-5555.

Contact reporter Mike Blasky at mblasky@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0283.

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