R. Paul Wilson On: Why Slots are a Game of Cat and Mouse for Cheaters and The House
I am often asked what games are impossible to cheat.
Truthfully, it’s a difficult question to answer since, in my experience, any game is vulnerable to attack by cheaters or advantage players and the more certain someone is with regards to game security, the more concerned I am that they are not watching those games as carefully as they should.
Slot machines, for example, take up the majority of floor space in modern high-end casino resorts and are monitored carefully; not only from the floor or the eye in the sky but internally with unusual activity reported automatically.
Yet, these machines have been successfully targeted and the more safeguards they have, the greater the chance something might have been missed or not considered.
Since their introduction, slots have been the arena for several games of cat and mouse between cheaters and the house.
Mechanical Manipulation of Old Slot Machines
Let’s begin at a time where slot machines were just a little more advanced than clockwork.
Early machines had multiple flaws that were gradually exploited and exposed over time. My favourite of these was the ability to pop the arm of a one-arm-bandit after a winning reel.
The arm was drawn downward, cocking the gear to spin the wheels. But before the tension was released, which would randomise the outcome, the arm was slapped, kicking it past the gear, locking the reels in their previous position so when the arm returned to its starting position, the reels registered another (identical) win!
Poorly-made and easily located locks were quickly picked offering access to the internal mechanism where weights might be added, gears filed and any feasible method of influencing an outcome attempted.
As the machines became more secure and mechanical flaws addressed, cheaters found more ingenious ways to beat them.
Using a Bulb to Cheat The Light
One feature introduced to control how many coins were ejected was a light sensor that registered every coin that passed, blocking the light for a split second. This served to make an older method of cheating obsolete but gave rise to another ingenious solution.
A tiny bulb was connected to the end of a piece of thin plastic, shaped to slide into the hopper and contact the sensor that was reading the light and recording how many times a coin passed into the tray.
The payment software worked like this: every time the light was broken, it registered one coin as being paid out. Mechanically, it would keep drawing coins from within and spitting them out until the correct number of coins had been ejected.
To beat this, the secret bulb was positioned in front of the sensor and switched on whenever the machine paid out. This meant the coins were now falling out of the bank and into the tray, but behind the light since the cheater was shining his own device into the sensor!
This meant the machine would keep spitting coins until it tilted.
Expert slot thieves quickly gauged how long to play the light so the machine would only eject a few extra coins whenever the machine paid or cashed out.
This led to machines being retrofitted with a hinged plastic guard that moved in front of the sensor from below so any attempt to apply “the light” blocked the sensor completely – making this scam impossible.
Naturally, the cheaters found another way.
In fact, it probably took all of five minutes to beat the new set-up.
Fixing The Light Cheat Lead to “The Monkey’s Paw”
The casinos’ solution protected machines from cheaters working the light, but it also offered an easier method to manipulate payouts.
While slot machine manufacturers were happily installing the hinged guard into every new machine on the market, this new cheating system was already emptying machines on casino floors!
The Monkey’s Paw was deliciously simple in comparison to the “light”, which needed to be soldered, connected to a battery and looked like what it was – a crooked gaming device.
The “paw” was just a piece of thick, stiff wire that was bent to match the internal shape of the machine so the end of the paw could quickly marry up to the underside of that hinged plastic guard that stopped the light from being used.
Now the cheaters simply pushed up the guard in order to block the sensor as coins were being dropped.
Since the mechanism was a rotating device that carried coins out and over, passing the sensor to be counted, it kept spitting out coins until the requisite number was paid. As with the light, the paw had to be played in and out with care so as not to tilt the machine and signal a problem to security.
In essence, the cheaters made each coin last longer in terms of how long it broke the light from the sensor’s perspective. It seemed as if one coin dropped but actually several were allowed to pass each time the light was broken.
Clearly, the method created to protect slot machines from a secret light source proved to be even more effective if used to block the sensor for longer!
Coins Out – But That Didn’t Stop The Cheaters
Once coin-operated slot machines were gradually phased out, casinos became quieter places (though I occasionally miss the cacophony of tumbling silver dollars) and slot thieves were no longer able to milk devices for excess coins.
With these new coin-less machines, players inserted paper money and received a bar code with their winnings recorded for a cashier or a separate machine to pay out via a networked system.
A few ballsy con artists would play switch games on customers while pretending to help them cash out, secretly swapping a large win or cash-out for a smaller sum on an otherwise identical looking slip of paper.
These guys were quickly identified and arrested since casinos are generally pretty keen to avoid anyone else taking advantage of their customers.
Eventually, cheaters turned their attention to bill readers and payout slips.
The electronic bill readers had a flaw that was identified and exploited thanks to a simple device, built onto a pocket garage door opener.
This device had a thin, flat wire projecting that was slid under a bill as it was inserted into the reader. Each press of the button sent a signal to the reader that caused it to register a hundred-dollar bill for every press of the button!
Cheaters would insert one dollar, hit the button until the machine register nine hundred dollars (more than this would alert management) then walk away while a shill stepped up and took over the machine. They’d play for an hour or more until they burned through some of that phantom money or scored a few legitimate prizes.
The shill would then cash out, take the paper to the cashier and walk away with hundreds of dollars. Thieves would hit several places and machines per night, guaranteeing thousands of dollars for a “night on the town.”
This evolution of cheating methods illustrates the constant cat and mouse game being played between casinos and anyone willing to beat them by any and all means possible.
Complete confidence in any security procedure invites danger since those who break through, under or over walls think very differently from those who build them.
For example, when microchips were incorporated into slot machines, a resourceful casino employee reprogrammed a few and installed them into live machines during routine maintenance.
Needless-to-say, luck ceased to be a factor for that employee’s confederates.
Consider this: at a casino conference several years ago, I watched a company tell their clients that the bill reader scam described above was “impossible” – when I had seen it happen with my own eyes just a few hours before!
The lesson is this:
There’s always a way to defeat a procedure. All it takes is someone with the right perspective (and motivation).