Crowbars, strobe lights, monkey paws, and magnets…those are just a few of the may “toys” that have been used over the years by cheats hoping to rob “one-armed bandits.” The innovative methods that have been employed to steal from slot machines could fill a large volume. Gathered here are some of the more interesting, sometimes successful, and ultimately criminal ways in which slot cheating has advanced from petty theft to grand larceny. Consider these tales cautionary. The bad guys always get caught eventually.
The Good Old Days
Back when machines still had “slots” for coins and tokens, cheats used relatively simple ploys to get something for nothing. There was “fishing”—a method of triggering free play by pulling a coin attached to a string in and out of the slot. Some entrepreneurs filled the holes of steel washers to make “plugged coins” that would fool the machines.
Early in the 20th century, coat hangers could be bent and used to jam a machine’s payout mechanism so that it would spit out coins. One cheat reportedly made off with more than $200,000 from a number of machines before being apprehended.
But slot makers did not take long to catch on to such tricks. They devised coin mechanisms with one-way catches and “coin comparators” among other security devices to catch fakes. Casinos pitched in to, increasing security and surveillance. But of course such countermeasures only challenged criminal minds to come up with more sophisticated ways of relieving slot machines of their coins.
One of history’s most infamous slot cheats was Tommy Glenn Carmichael, inventor of the “monkey paw.” It was his specially engineered version of the bent coat-hanger, a tool he could use to trip an electronic slot machine’s payout switch or add credits at will. After getting caught and serving time in prison, he took a job as a casino security consultant. Everyone agrees that slot machines are safer today for his “special” expertise.
Toys for Ploys
Among the more advanced tools for cheating slot machines are magnetic devices that are said to slow spinning reels. Available for sale on the Internet, they can be assembled from kits costing less than $100. A more complex apparatus has strobe lights meant to interfere with a machine’s optical sensors. Another generates electronic interference to scramble a slot’s computer signals. Such advanced gadgets cost from $1,500 to over $20,000.
The problem, however, is that even if such toys work as they are supposed to, casino surveillance systems witness a high-tech cheat’s every action. It is almost impossible to escape the “eye in the sky.” Security personnel are trained in what suspicious activities to watch out for. And with real-time access to payout information, any irregular jackpots are spotted almost immediately.
Nevertheless, slot cheats will buy slot machines under false pretenses, take them apart, and reverse-engineer them to come up with even more innovative ploys. They look design flaws and programming errors, any vulnerability they can use to their advantage. In 2009, one cheat took the Silverton and several other Las Vegas casinos for tens of thousands of dollars by creating a device that tricked a machine’s currency mechanism into accepting $1 bills as $100 bills.
Not so long ago, three men posing as high rollers managed to gather 60 unearned jackpots over the course of 14 visits to the Meadows Racetrack and Casino outside Pittsburgh. They had discovered a glitch in a high-limit slot machine that allowed them to “double up” winnings. It required pushing a complex sequence of buttons to force an error in the slot’s programming. The trio exploited this flaw to the tune of $420,000 before getting caught They were arrested on 367 felony counts of theft, computer trespassing, criminal conspiracy, receiving stolen property, lying to police, and other charges.
Most casinos maintain and share a “Black Book” of known cheats. They circulate it among personnel. Of all casino cheats listed in Nevada, about one in four have been identified as slot thieves. They are suspected of being responsible for more than $100 million a year in losses. According to one study, 97% of slot cheats get away with their crimes, at least in the short run. But when they get caught, the penalties are severe. The temporary reward is almost never worth the risk.