|Pictured is Steve Forte receiving a Special Fellowship Award from Jason England at the 42nd Annual Academy of Magical Arts Awards Show on April 11th in Hollywood, California.
Prior to receiving the award the legal case Forte was involved in was resolved when all charges against him were dropped.
What follows is an exclusive interview with Jason England, who served as an expert witness in the case and agreed, for the first time, to answer the most sensitive questions and lay out the facts of the case. (6/7/10: Photo by Hal Scheie).
Steve Forte: Awarded Special Fellowship As The Borgata Case Is Dismissed
The Academy of Magical Arts Inc., more commonly known as the world famous Magic Castle, awarded this year’s 2009 Special Fellowship to gambling expert Steve Forte “in recognition of his remarkable talent and expertise at gaming artifice.” This award also acknowledged his books and videos as the “finest studies of their kind.”
The Special Fellowship was created primarily to honor non-magicians who contribute to the art in some way. Steve is particularly deserving of this award due to his outstanding contribution to the field of gambling-related sleight of hand and the impact he has had on sleight of hand enthusiasts everywhere. It was also appropriate that the award point to his “generous sharing of his skills and knowledge.” For anyone who knows Steve, or who has met him, they will all tell you the same thing: He’s one of the most gracious, generous people you will ever meet and has always been giving of his time to anyone with an interest in the field.
This year’s event was held at the Avalon Theater in Hollywood, CA. In a short acceptance speech I’m told that Steve acknowledged the many wonderful friendships he has made in the magic world. Other recipients to receive this prestigious honor include Orson Welles, Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson to name a few.
As some of you might anticipate, news of Steve’s award sparked several inquires about the status of the New Jersey cheating case and his alleged involvement. Surprisingly, the case has been over for some time and Steve was cleared of all charges, but the details were never widely circulated. Back in September 2009, the Press of Atlantic City reported that Superior Court Judge Michael Donio sentenced three defendants to suspended sentences after they plead guilty to single counts of attempted theft by deception for an amount greater than $500 while all charges were dismissed against the fourth defendant, Steve Forte, back in July. It’s interesting how the press was all over this case in 2007 with Steve taking most of the heat due to his reputation as an expert only to have the charges dismissed with little or nothing reported about the resolution.
I called Steve to offer my congratulations for the award and asked him if he wanted to talk about the case now that it was behind him, but he refused. Simply stating: “Meir, it’s not my place to comment on the case; besides, the dismissal speaks for itself.”
I also talked with Jason England, a highly respected card technician and game protection expert. Jason was brought on as one of several expert witnesses for the defense (a list that included several prominent names from gaming and law enforcement) and he was the only defense expert to review the discovery. This was required before he submitted an expert opinion regarding an informant’s statement. As it turned out the attorneys viewed Jason’s certification as “too strong” to be included in a pre-trial motion, so it was saved for trial which never came to pass. Jason agreed to answer a few questions.
MagicTimes: Jason, thanks for answering some questions.
Jason England: Just let me say at the onset that Steve asked me to leave it alone, but I feel strongly that some things need to be said for the record so he agreed under one condition: that I not mention the names of anyone involved.
MagicTimes: Okay, can you tell us what the case was all about?
England: It’s actually easier to tell you what this case was not about. It was not about the casino industry or any casino games, it had nothing to do with cardrooms, the WSOP or any other tournament for that matter. In fact, regardless of what you may have heard, this case had nothing to do with poker!
This was a personal matter between the principal defendant and a police informant. According to this defendant, and witness corroboration that was to be presented at trial, the informant had cheated him on several occasions, bragged about it, and then invited the defendant back to AC to gamble in his suite at the Borgata. This is what the case is all about.
In June 2007 this defendant flew to A.C. from the West Coast. Three other men joined him including Steve who drove up to A.C. from Boston where he was visiting his sister. While in another hotel room with three of the defendants–not the informant’s suite–the authorities knocked down the door, raided the room, put guns to everyone’s heads and made the arrests. It was a setup!
MagicTimes: But what about the game?
England: There never was a game. It’s probably the biggest misconception in this entire case for a variety of reasons, but the truth is that there was no game, not a single card was ever dealt, nor a single die ever cast.
The indictment consisted of a single charge: attempted theft by deception. There was no charge of cheating, possession of cheating equipment, or conspiracy. The legal definition of attempted theft by deception can also encompass the planning stages of a crime; you don’t have to be “in progress,” so to speak.
MagicTimes: Are you saying the arrests were made based on what the police believed to be the planning stages of a crime?
England: Yes, that was the position of the authorities.
MagicTimes: But why would the police make arrests before there was even a game?
England: That’s a good question and one we’ll probably never really know the answer to. The defense believed that the police made the arrests because they knew that one or more defendants were leaving and they wanted to cast the largest net possible. Though this is not the place to expound on this, I’ll just say that this information came from a government source and could have caused all kinds of problems for the prosecution.
MagicTimes: If there never was a game, how could there be a victim?
England: Well, in the strictest sense, there was no victim. The indictment referenced a single person with the initials J.H., alleging that he was to be the target in a future game.
MagicTimes: Can you tell us who J.H. is?
England: I could, but it isn’t important for the sake of this interview. I can tell you that he was previously an acquaintance of the principal defendant, and that they met and talked after the arrests (a fact not known to the authorities). Another interesting thing regarding J.H. is that over a period of approximately 26 months, the New Jersey authorities never met with this person. Not once! According to the discovery, the police had a single, short phone conversation early in the investigation and that was it.
MagicTimes: Can you tell us anything about the informant?
England: Only that he is a convicted con man who was sentenced to 15 years for bilking investors in a stock scam some years back. His claims regarding this case were preposterous and in many cases technically and literally impossible. All of these claims were shown to be ridiculous in my certification to the attorneys.
MagicTimes: And this was the state’s star witness?
England: Yes, he was the star witness and only witness, and the D.A. obviously knew that he was a serious liability because they never even had him appear before the Grand Jury. Instead, they had a detective read parts of his statement. Based on what I read and learned about the informant during my review of the discovery, the attorneys would have destroyed this guy on the stand. Aside from being a loose wire and the only person to ever talk with J.H., what the defense had on this informant including witnesses who had agreed to come forward and testify against him would have had to be very damaging to the prosecution.
That’s not all. When interviewed by the authorities about Steve’s alleged involvement the informant stated, “I don’t know Steve Forte. I never met him and I don’t know what he’s doing here.”
MagicTimes: The police informant never even met Steve?
England: That’s correct. Steve never met or talked with this guy, nor was he ever present in the informant’s suite.
MagicTimes: Then how could New Jersey have a case against him?
England: I don’t believe they ever did. In my view, though brutally unfair, this case found legs for one reason and one reason only: Steve’s reputation. He dominated most comments, articles and blogs. In many instances there wasn’t even a discussion about the facts of the case or the other defendants. It was like the actual case was secondary.
MagicTimes: Okay, many of the newspaper and internet articles reported the case as a high-tech scam with hidden cameras and computer programs. Was this accurate?
England: Not really. There were two miniature cameras confiscated from inside an air-conditioning vent in the suite were the game was alleged to take place later that day, but they were cheap, nanny-cam cameras. They can be purchased by anyone, anywhere and there was nothing high-tech about them at all. Some early reports stated that the cameras were to be used to peek the player’s hand from behind, but this is not true. The cameras did not have the positional or technical capacity to do so and proof of what I’m saying would have been presented at trial.
MagicTimes What about computer programs?
England: Three personal laptop computers were confiscated, none of which belonged to Steve. One of these computers contained a few commercially available programs for playing various games. They were not proprietary programs, nor were they designed to have anything to do with cheating.
MagicTimes: Weren’t there also references to marked cards?
England: The authorities alleged that part of the plan included using a card marking system that consisted of cutting into the backs of the cards with a knife and filling the cuts with a daub which would disappear shortly thereafter. The system they described was technically impossible, and I’m not sure how they arrived at their conclusions.
MagicTimes: Most of the news articles reported that the case was about poker, yet there was no mention of poker in the indictments. Why?
England: No. As I mentioned earlier, the case had nothing to do with Poker. Three games were listed in the actual indictment: Chess, Backgammon, and Chinese Poker. Chinese Poker isn’t Poker in the traditional, American sense. There are no antes or blinds, no vying for the pot, no raising or bluffing, etc. It’s called Chinese Poker simply because it uses traditional poker hand rankings in a partitioned, comparison format. The game is generally known as “Good, Better and Best,” depending on the locale.
MagicTimes: Then why did virtually every report I read point to poker?
England: It seems the poker connection started with statements from the D.A.’s office. They apparently just didn’t know any better. Naturally, when it was picked up by the various media outlets, poker became the focus simply because it was the only game everyone understood. All of the news outlets jumped on the poker bandwagon until the actual indictments came down. Once they were made public and the actual games at issue were cited, many people were left scratching their heads and the case began to lose its credibility. From that point on, many found it difficult to believe anything that was reported.
MagicTimes: I’m still not sure what the specific allegations were against Steve?
England: Neither am I. The details are not clear, but it appears that had this case gone to trial the prosecution would have tried to prove that Steve helped in some way.
MagicTimes: How would they do that?
England: I don’t know. There was no charge of conspiracy and the state’s own “star witness” described a plan that required three people and then described the roles of these people, yet never even hinted at a role for Steve.
There was one odd moment during the grand jury testimony when one of the detectives, after acknowledging and complimenting Steve’s extraordinary career, stated that his book, Poker Protection, provided a “blueprint” to what this case was all about. I have no idea what they were thinking here. Poker Protection is clearly a book designed to help people prevent poker cheating and it’s in no way written to the fidelity required to orchestrate a scam. But then this same detective is on record, giving testimony to a grand jury, stating that Steve worked for the C.I.A.
MagicTimes: Working for the C.I.A.?
England: Apparently, when he’s not watching his sons play lacrosse or showing me cool card moves, he’s a master spy. Kidding aside, many aspects of this case would be comical if the potential consequences weren’t so serious.
MagicTimes: Okay then, here’s the question that comes up over and over again: What was Steve doing there?
England: That’s a question you’ll have to ask him. I’ve always felt that Steve should publically respond to this question, but he doesn’t see it the same way and doesn’t feel the need to apologize or explain his actions to anyone. What I can tell you is that he was prepared to take the stand and answer that question for a jury. Had that come to pass the jury would have listened and believed him, because the facts in the case supported everything he had to say.
MagicTimes: I’d heard a rumor that he might have been there doing research for a movie or a new book.
England: That rumor is untrue, though it certainly could be true. He’s generally regarded as the most aggressive researcher on the planet when it comes to this field and his knowledge didn’t come from routine visits to the library.
MagicTimes: How about those who will say that he got away with something?
England: Got away with what? With all the hype and threats by the authorities and a multi-state investigation that lasted just under three years, do you think for a second that the authorities would’ve dismissed the charges against him had they had in their possession a single piece of incontrovertible evidence against him? Do you think that the authorities dismissed the charges out of the goodness of their hearts?
MagicTimes: Just to be clear, Steve was never involved in any plea bargain?
England: None. Early in the case Steve was offered a deal that would have had him testify against the others in exchange for no jail time. He immediately rejected the offer and pressed his attorney to move to trial as quickly as possible. There was no plea bargain of any kind. All charges were dismissed. Period.
MagicTimes: Let me just back up a bit, what happened after the arrests, how did Steve respond?
England: He hired the best law firm in New Jersey (Jacobs and Barbone) and he was the only defendant to initiate any pre-trial motions. The first was a motion to dismiss based on long delays which forced the D.A.’s hand. In my opinion this was a brilliant move on the part of his attorney, Stephen Funk, as it forced the D. A. to come back with a very weak one count indictment. The second motion attacked a number of other issues and although the court ruled against these motions — as was expected – they laid the groundwork for future appeals. One issue of particular interest asked the question: How could the authorities grade a crime based on dollar amounts in a gambling contest that never took place?
MagicTimes: How close did the case get to going to trial?
England: It’s hard to say. The prosecution seemed to be stalling at several points during the pre-trial period and may have never had any intention of going to trial; I’m not sure. I know that Steve was ready for trial, that he had submitted a list of experts, and that he was actively working on trial strategy with his attorney.
MagicTimes: Okay, the other defendants eventually entered into pleas; how did that all come about?
England: One of the defendants was dealing with serious health issues and almost missed a mandatory court appearance. Seeing no end in sight to the delays at that time, he pressed his attorney for a deal and accepted one to testify against the principle defendant in exchange for no jail time. At the same time, a second defendant accepted the same deal. The position of these men was that they did nothing wrong and only wanted to move on with their lives without the risk and expense of a trial. Also, they couldn’t testify to anything that the authorities didn’t already know so these deals were made with the blessings of the principal defendant. I believe it was 2-3 months later when the D. A. offered him a similar deal with no jail time which he also accepted to avoid the expense and risks associated with a trial. Remarkably, this came after the state first offered him 7 years, then 3-5 years, then 1 year, and then 180 days. The principal defendant not only refused every one of these offers, but during one court appearance he actually sparred with the Judge over the other deals stating that he didn’t care who testified against him because he didn’t do anything wrong! During all of this, Steve stood his ground and refused to take a deal or testify against anyone.
MagicTimes: That’s amazing.
England: It is. Especially when you think back to all the hype and threats of being charged with 1st degree felonies, which carry mandatory 10-year sentences, only to see the case end with suspended sentences and no probation for three defendants, and a dismissal for Steve. It just goes to show you how blown out of proportion things can get. But it’s also a classic case of the legal system grinding its wheels and wearing down defendants over time — although it didn’t wear down Steve.
In the end all three defendants in this case stood up before the judge and exculpated Steve. Combine that with the lack of a single, incriminating statement from the prosecution’s star witness–who claimed to know everything–and the dismissal against Steve shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
MagicTimes: This whole ordeal had to be a costly, emotionally draining experience for Steve?
England: I’m sure it would have to be a nightmare for anyone, but Steve was always 100% confident that it was just a matter of time before he was vindicated, and he believes to this day had the other defendants hung in there and called New Jersey’s bluff (my words), the whole case would have been dismissed. He also had plenty of support from family, friends, casino associates, players, and even some folks from law enforcement. Most who viewed the story objectively realized that something wasn’t right.
You know how you always hear about the so-called “stand-up guy,” well here it was playing out in real life. Steve got heat for his friendship with the principal defendant but he stood up for the guy — I’ve seen some of the emails to prove it. He was offered a deal with no jail time and he said NO. He was looking at 5–10 years and never agreed to testify against anyone under any circumstances. The fact is he was prepared to go all the way and I think the prosecution realized it. Although I can’t tip the details, I believe that some of the evidence I reviewed would have completely exonerated Steve at trial. Either the authorities overlooked it, didn’t know any better, or they always knew that they had no case against Steve. I’m not really sure.
MagicTimes: Just a few more questions, can we go back to poker for a second? What about the allegations of tapping into hole-card cameras used at a televised Borgata tournament?
England: You can thank George Knapp, investigative reporter for Channel 8, Las Vegas, for that absurdity. He aired a piece about the arrests on or about the last day of the 2007 World Series of Poker. Obviously his timing was designed to be as sensational as possible. In his story (and that’s precisely what it was), Knapp claimed that “according to his sources” authorities believed the men were tapping into hole-card cameras used in a poker tournament at the Borgata. But the Borgata officials publically stated that there was no poker tournament at the time of the arrests, and that neither prior or future tournaments were scheduled to be televised! Knapp had to backpedal and publically acknowledge his “mistake.”
MagicTimes: What about a lawsuit?
England: Against Knapp?
England: All I will say is that Steve hired a civil attorney and the possibility of a lawsuit against Knapp and Channel 8 was seriously discussed but Steve’s criminal attorney advised against it until the criminal case was over. But you only have one year to file such a lawsuit, and with Knapp eventually retracting his original statement and the case dragging on for months, the possibility of a lawsuit lost its steam.
I suspect that Knapp would have had some explaining to do had the lawsuit gone forward. Think about it. If Knapp’s “sources” were in law enforcement he would have known what was going on; if they were in the poker world he would have known that there was no tournament at that time. Clearly, Knapp never made an effort to confirm any part of his story. Steve has always believed that he fabricated it, and he still has the emails from Knapp that support his contention. As an interesting aside, just a short time ago the governor of Nevada was threatening to file a lawsuit against George Knapp for fabricated statements.
MagicTimes: Most of the stuff I read was online.
England: Me too, and interestingly, the one year time period for filing a lawsuit doesn’t work the same way with online statements. Each day a libelous statement is posted or remains in the archives, the one-year period starts all over again.
MagicTimes: How did Steve react to the articles and blogs?
England: He understood the nature of the beast; it was a story that quickly got out of control and there was no way to slow it down. He also understood the harsh criticism, surprise and disappointment expressed by some and once told me, “You can’t blame them given what they’ve been exposed to in the media.”
I also know that he refused to waste one second of his time addressing the remarks of those who didn’t know him, who didn’t know anything about the case, and who were quick to judge because they didn’t have the brains to see through the hype. When it comes to derogatory public statements, he sees the web as a breeding ground for cowards.
Though I generally agree with him, I see some things a bit differently and this is one of the main reasons I agreed to answer some questions for you. Like every other story, there were those who responded responsibly. One noted poker authority, when asked about the case in a public forum responded, “There are two sides to every story.” That’s an intelligent and reasonable response.
But then you have those like the reporter for the Las Vegas newspaper who wrote an article about how Steve’s consulting career was in jeopardy, yet was completely oblivious to the fact that Steve has been retired from the consulting biz since 1997. That’s not a typo. At the time of the arrests Steve had not been a consultant for over a decade! The article also mentioned a 1982 arrest in Reno while Steve was playing blackjack professionally, but took everything out of context and never said that the case was resolved with Steve pleading guilty to a trespass — the equivalent of jay-walking — or that the casino returned all of his money. In the same story it was also reported that he was forced to sell his interest in a shuffle machine company, but conveniently failed to mention that he was a co-owner, the concept for the shuffler was his idea, and that nobody could “force” him to sell if he didn’t want to do so. This article, like many others, were a joke, all written by people who didn’t know Steve and didn’t know the first thing about the case.
MagicTimes: One guy was especially harsh…
England: Let me stop you right there and say a few things about Richard Marcus, obviously the person you refer to. Richard Marcus was way out of line and the extent to which he lied about the case should shock you or anyone else reading this. To any casino, cardroom, organization, conference, magazine, newspaper or website that has ever considered spending 10 seconds with this guy, I ask you to listen very carefully.
Richard Marcus, who currently bills himself as the “world’s greatest casino cheater,” wrote two articles about the case that appeared in at least two legitimate industry magazines. One was in Poker Pro magazine titled, “Dirty Poker – Inside Story of Crooked High-Stakes Game,” the other was in Casino Enterprise Management titled, “The Scam of a Lifetime.” Let me read you a few excerpts from both articles.
“The eight high-rollers could not resist… the game was open to those select players who had both the requisite bankroll at least $500,000 cash and the good sense to keep their mouths shut.”
“the three rotating dealers hired for the game were legit”
“The two crooked players wore special contact lenses that allowed them to see the marks.”
“They played loosely, as they could afford to. They knew that the more hands they played the quicker they’d get their suckers’ money.”
“Within hours, the two cheats were ahead $50,000.”
“bottles of Cristal champagne arrived with the chime of the suite’s majestic doorbell.”
“One player even enjoyed a champagne bubble bath with a pair of lovelies that came to the suite during a break.”
“Then just as one of the scammers was raking in packets of $5,000 and piles of gold-flecked $500 chips, the cops hit the door… sweeping piles of gold-flecked $500 chips and $5,000 packets of cash.”
I could go on and on, but here’s my point. Though some may find the following hard to believe, it’s absolutely the truth. Richard Marcus was also completely oblivious to the facts of the case so what did he do? He fabricated his own story and presented the details of a game that never took place! There were no high-rollers, no $500,000 in cash, no dealers, no contact lenses, no champagne, no lovelies, no gold-flecked $500 chips, no nothing. THERE WAS NO GAME! Nothing but complete, unadulterated lies were presented and published in respected magazines as Marcus tried to pass off these stories as some sort of authoritative “inside report.”
These articles really put Marcus’s books into perspective for me. When I think back to Dirty Poker, a book that was so full of hype, inaccuracies and contradictions to be staggering, it all makes perfect sense now. Here’s a guy that will obviously stop at nothing to promote himself, and is willing to say or do anything to help his cause.
And Steve’s case is just the tip of the iceberg of what this guy is all about. He has knocked so many people with one lie after another and burned so many bridges, his words and actions were recently addressed at the World Game Protection Conference in Las Vegas in front of hundreds of industry people.
MagicTimes: I get the feeling you don’t like this guy very much. Sorry I brought it up.
England: What’s to like? He took a news story that started with lies and half-truths and took them to all time lows, trying to paint himself as an expert all the while. Perhaps the most repulsive statement I have ever come across attributed to him was following a decision by Casino Enterprise Magazine to ban him from ever writing another article for them. He didn’t like the negative comments hurled at him so he had the audacity to publically make the following statement.
“No one broadcasting their opinions should do so in a way that conveys them as fact.”
Can you believe this guy? It’s funny how people like Richard Marcus have to wake up everyday and knock someone to make themselves feel better, to get attention, or to try and convince everyone how smart they are. I’ve known Steve for several years and I don’t ever recall hearing him pat himself on the back or say a bad word about anyone. Do you know why? He has nothing to prove.
While Steve has been vindicated, Richard Marcus has been proven guilty beyond all reasonable doubt to be an imbecile, a liar, a wannabe, and unquestionably the industry’s number one source of worthless information.
MagicTimes: What’s next for Steve?
England: That’s another question you’ll have to ask him. He’s the kind of guy who always has several projects on the shelf and he always seems to be busy. Despite the New Jersey ordeal he’s still sought out by gamers, companies, and players for his expertise. He regularly talks with consultants. The day after the indictments hit the papers he was on a conference call with a noted gaming company trying to help them with a security system. The last time I visited him he was writing some code and conducting a study for two well-known poker players who may have stumbled on a loophole with the popular poker shuffling machine.
He continues to make progress with the development of a one of a kind gambling website where his hope is to make the research available to friends, associates and “invited guests” which is unfortunate in many ways because whether you’re a fan or not, you will never find the quality or depth of his research anywhere.
MagicTimes: What kind of research are you talking about?
England: I’m talking about things like the finest collection of marked decks and related documentation in the world, all scanned and photographed in high resolution pictures; his 3000 book gambling library including hundreds of rare antiquarian titles along with his files, catalogs, newspapers and related ephemera, all digitized and searchable; the largest collection of gambling moves and surveillance video clips ever assembled; and so much more. He recently released a few drafts of a 400 page, full-color treatise featuring thousands of rare gambling collectibles that chronologically illustrate the history of dice, playing cards, chips, tables & layouts, games, cheating, and gambling literature. Nothing like it has ever been seen before. People are begging for it. But instead of publishing this amazing research, he has decided to have 100 copies professionally bound, numbered and signed as gifts for friends. I know Steve well enough to know that nothing will stop him from pursuing his passions. And if you know him, you know what I mean. The New Jersey case changes nothing.
MagicTimes: I have certainly learned more about the case than I understood previously, yet a lot of this is still puzzling to me.
England: It should be. All I can tell you is that things are not as they appear, and had this case gone to trial it would have become even stranger, I assure you. The authorities would have ended up on trial, the informant would have ended up on trial, the legality of the so-called plan would have ended up on trial. There is a backstory to this case that I won’t go into, a story that appears to be completely unbeknownst to the New Jersey authorities to the best of my knowledge, that would have probably flipped this case upside down and how a jury would have interpreted everything is anybody’s guess.
MagicTimes: Had the case gone to trial, care to speculate?
England: My personal opinion is that there was never a case against Steve, but I also believe that a jury would have acquitted the other defendants. From an outsider looking in, I understand why many would disagree. But from someone who had the opportunity to review the discovery, statements, consensual phone recordings between the principal defendant and the informant, investigative reports, and much more, the case doesn’t look at all like it was reported and I have yet to come across a single source that accurately presented what the story was really all about.
MagicTimes: Thanks Jason…very, very interesting.