By TONY WALL
HERALD INVESTIGATION - An Asian slot Machine syndicate accused of using standover tactics to protect its turf at Sky City has become bigger and more organised as the casino enforces new regulations outlawing group play.
The Wu syndicate - one of a number believed to be operating at the casino - is recruiting Chinese workers and paying them a weekly wage to play the pokies.
When workers are spotted by management and banned - in the past two months 20 people have been barred - the syndicate simply recruits replacements through Chinese newspapers.
The syndicate head, Zhang Ping Wu, no longer goes inside the casino himself but has poached a former Sky City noodle bar chef to manage the operation for him. The former chef, known as Jacky, hands out the cash, organises the workers and uses a cellphone to record how much they have won and lost.
Rival gamblers and syndicate members still complain that the Wu syndicate is using threats to scare them off. One man, whom the Weekend Herald later identified as a Melbourne-based syndicate head, said a member of the Wu group had threatened to "make trouble" if he did not stay away.
The Herald watched on Thursday as a woman, believed to be a syndicate player, won a new convertible Volvo worth $115,000. Afterwards she went to an apartment building across the road where Wu syndicate members are believed to be housed as part of their employment package.
She denied being a syndicate player, saying she was visiting from overseas. But the Herald saw her talking to the former noodle chef inside the casino. Yesterday she sold the Volvo to a Parnell car yard.
The Wu syndicate pays its workers - mainly Chinese students - $240 a week plus a 6 per cent commission on jackpots. Those who win cars receive $4000 of the proceeds.
The syndicate's strategy is to occupy as many slot machines connected to a jackpot for as long as possible, wait until the jackpot is close to the point where it must be struck, then pump thousands of dollars into the machines and bet maximum credits. This increases the chance of winning the jackpot.
Mr Wu has bragged of winning $150,000 and two cars in two years.
Last year Sky City went to the Casino Control Authority seeking powers to crack down on syndicates. Syndicated play, which is now prohibited in all New Zealand casinos, has been defined as three or more players acting in concert to affect the opportunity of other people to take part in jackpots.
Sky City's general manager of group operations, David Kennedy, said the casino was "maintaining a strong vigilance programme" on syndicated play - identifying offenders, warning them and serving them with trespass notices if they reoffended.
In the past two months 40 people had been warned and about 20 barred. Mr Kennedy said he was not aware that the Wu syndicate had hired a former company chef, "but we would treat him in the same way - we would ban him if we believe he is involved".
Mr Kennedy said that as the casino continued to identify and ban people, the syndicates would die out. "I think it's got a short lifespan if we do our job properly."
He said Mr Wu might be able to keep hiring new staff to replace barred syndicate members, "but ultimately he's got to get sick of it".
Mr Wu and some members of his family have been formally warned, and are no longer seen inside the casino. It is understood the syndicate manager quit his chef's job when a rival syndicate offered him more to run its operation, and then Mr Wu poached him with an even bigger offer.
Mr Wu has advertised in Chinese newspapers for "honest and reliable" workers aged 20 to 35. The Herald arranged for a Chinese speaker to call the number provided.
The caller was told she would be paid $240 a week, plus a 6 per cent commission on any jackpots she won. Mr Wu would provide her with accommodation over the road from the casino with other workers. She was told she would be trained in-side the casino over a couple of days.
The Herald also watched this week as the syndicate played the "Golden Sails" $20,000 jackpot next to the casino's security desk. It seems that individual punters have caught on to the syndicate's system, as they were using similar tactics.
Managers filed by constantly, taking a close look at proceedings, but no one was accused of syndicated play.
The jackpot was eventually won by a middle-aged Pakeha woman who shouted with delight. The entire floor applauded her win.
Who is Zhang Ping Wu?
Mr Wu came to New Zealand from China in 2000 and since then has had a running battle with Sky City over his rights to enter its Auckland casino.
After he allegedly threatened a staff member in 2001 the casino banned him, but he won a High Court injunction allowing him back.
Sky City took the case to the Court of Appeal and won, with the court last year handing down a landmark ruling allowing casinos to ban anyone for whatever reason as long as that does not breach human rights legislation.
But having won the case, Sky City reached an out-of-court settlement with Mr Wu allowing him back into the casino.
Mr Wu is understood to control his family's syndicate, which also involves his wife, father and sister. He drives a four-wheel-drive his father won on the pokies and claims to have won two other cars and $150,000 over two years.
He lives in an apartment in Wellesley St near the casino and is understood to own property in downtown Auckland.
After the Weekend Herald exposed his activities last August he initially denied being a syndicate head, but then used the article in advertising, offering to show other Chinese gamblers "how to beat the casino" for a fee of $5000.
He now openly advertises for staff for his syndicate in Chinese newspapers.
Since Sky City began enforcing regulations aimed at stopping syndicated play, Mr Wu and his family have stayed away. He pays a former Sky City noodle chef to run the operation for him.
By TONY WALL