A Russian mastermind behind an international slots-hacking operation that bilked casinos across the globe for hundreds of millions of dollars gave an interview this week, in which he revealed just how he and his team pulled off such a sophisticated scam for so many years.
St. Petersburg-based “Alex” spoke to Wired journalist Brendan Koerner on condition that his last name would not be revealed, and that he could ignore questions about his personal life that he deemed too invasive.
Alex’s identity may remain largely a secret but his deeds are widely known, having been covered in the media since at least 2014. That was the year two operatives were arrested in a sting at the Lumiere Palace Casino in St. Louis, Missouri, and spilled the beans to US authorities about whom they were working for.
Alex was able to confirm operational details to Wired about what his agents shared with investigators.
His crew had figured out how to reverse-engineer pseudorandom number generators (PRNGs), which deploy the algorithms that govern “randomness” of slot machine reels. With this method, the team could know when a machine’s odds were most likely to deliver maximum payouts.
The way it worked, Alex had his agents roam the world’s casino floors looking for slots that he had cracked. They’d use their phones to surreptitiously relay video of the machines back to a boiler room in St. Petersburg.
Alex and his team would then analyze the footage to determine the exact moment when the balance of odds were tipped in the players’ favor, sending a vibration to the agents’ phone a split second before he should spin the reels. Alex told Wired that a team of four field agents could make about $250,000 a week for the operation.
Alex was able to provide corroborating evidence of his claims to Wired in the form of emails, mathematical proofs, and audio recordings. But what do we really know about this shadowy figure?
According to Alex himself, he is a mathematician who studied at a top Russian university and the FSB academy, which trains members of the Russian secret service. (FSB is considered the successor agency to the KGB.)
He claims he first discovered the joys of PRNGs when a Russian casino asked him to reverse engineer its slot machines to increase the house advantage. As a mathematician, he said, he admired the “beauty” of PRNGs, which harness the unpredictability of radioactive decay to simulate randomness.
Casino Floor Robin Hood
In 2008, the Russian government effectively banned casinos across the country, except for in a few far flung special economic zones, which allowed Alex to buy up and study a raft of casino equipment.
His operation has been on the make for eight years, he says, although he points out that his operational plans were not illegal in Russia, nor in many other countries where he deployed his agents. But in the US, which offered the biggest payday, his method was considered illegal cheating.
But as Alex saw it, he was something of a Robin Hood.
“Gaming manufacturers claim they provide ‘entertainment,’ but we all know the nature of this ‘entertainment’ a little too well,” he said.
“All they and I are really doing is moving money. Their job is to help casinos take money from the people. My job is to help myself and the people take money from the casinos. Just a little counterweight to the global gambling system, where the house always wins.”
But Alex also revealed he is ready to jack it in, and has approached slots manufacturer Aristocrat Leisure, promising to reveal his secrets and bolster the security of their technology. For a price.
So far Aristocrat and other major slot makers have failed to bite.