As an esthetician, Thi Lien Chu works magic with her hands. As a baccarat player, not so much.
The Vancouver woman's bumbling attempts to beat the house at James Bond's favourite game of chance netted her a fine, community service and a lesson this week on a rarely used part of the Canadian criminal code: cheating at play.
"The sentence that is to be imposed this afternoon must send a message to those in the community who wish to gamble, that cheating will not be tolerated," Judge Steven Merrick told a nearly empty Richmond courtroom.
"There are consequences for that behaviour."
A sleight of hand after bets placed
At 44 years old, with no criminal record, Chu is a familiar figure to the baccarat dealers of Richmond's River Rock Casino. She's also no stranger to B.C. Lottery Corporation surveillance cameras.
She has previously been warned about passing chips to other casino patrons. And in 2011, another suspected episode of cheating saw Chu banned from the province's casinos for a year.
But her behaviour in the early morning hours of Feb. 23, 2014, raised more than a few eyebrows.
Despite its aristocratic reputation, baccarat is a relatively simple game to play.
A dealer issues two hands containing up to three cards: one to the player and one to the bank. The hand worth closest to nine wins. Players place chips on a slot marked 'player', 'bank' or 'tie' depending on who they think can win.
But the betting takes place before the first card is drawn, with the dealer sweeping a hand over the table to cut off late wagers.
Chu arrived at the River Rock minutes before midnight. And on eight occasions in the hours that followed, when a dealer's attention was diverted, she subtly moved chips in favour of the winning hand after betting was stopped.
"The accused (then) made overt gestures with with her hand, clapping the table to try to draw attention to her hand," Crown counsel Shannon Smith told Merrick.
After four of those attempts, dealers questioned Chu about her behaviour. She claimed the late bets were jokes.
But on four other occasions, she cleaned up, collecting a total of $4,550 on the night. Her luck ran out shortly after 5 a.m.
Casinos are legendary for surveillance.
But fears of cheating reached a fever pitch in 2007 when police busted dozens of members of the so-called 'Tran Organization' for targeting casinos across North America, including Ontario's Casino Rama.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, they used sophisticated mechanisms to keep track of cards and bribed dealers to perform 'false shuffles' during games of blackjack and mini-baccarat.
The game more recently made headlines when Atlantic City casino sued former World Series of Poker champion Phillip Ivey, Jr. for allegedly winning $9.6 million U.S. in a card-cheating baccarat scheme.
Chu owns her own nail and hair salon in Coquitlam. She claimed she owed money to "unsavoury people".
"She was under stress financially. She started to gamble. She lost money and she was getting desperate to keep things going," said Chu's lawyer, Pat Angly.
"Several months after this incident, my client was a victim of a home invasion robbery, where people came into her house and tied her up and stole property from the house. And she says that was related to the gambling problem."
Smith noted that there is no evidence of Chu being involved in any gang activity.
A fishy win at small-town derby
The odd circumstances surrounding Chu's case combined with the relatively rare charge of cheating at play saw both Crown and defence lawyers hunting through legal annals to find precedent-setting cases.
"There are very few reported cases, your honour, on sentences," Smith told the judge.
"My friend was able to actually find some cases on this section," Angly said during his arguments. "She did better than I did."
Smith said previous prosecutions include a man charged with having marked decks of cards and another defendant who collected $3,333 by "making false claims against a charitable television bingo."
But perhaps the most notorious case involved an Ontario man who pleaded guilty to cheating in a small town fishing tournament.
"It was described by the judge as a serious, serious error in judgment," Smith said.
"The judge noted that as long as he's living in that area, he was going to be remembered as the fellow who cheated and got caught."
In sentencing Chu, Merrick considered her guilty plea, lack of criminal record and the fact that she has paid back her ill-gotten gains.
He ultimately decided to give her a conditional discharge, provided she complete a year's probation and 35 hours of community service. The B.C. Lottery Corporation has also banned her from the province's casinos until 2019.
The Crown had wanted some type of gambling addiction counseling to be included in the order, but Merrick declined.
Angly told the judge his client believes her experiences — the bans, the arrest, the home invasion — have effectively cured her of her problems.
The proof: "She and three of her girlfriends went to Las Vegas last fall. She went to some shows and had a good time, but never once attempted to gamble."