There’s a moment in Ocean’s 13, the most fun but also most nonsensical of the Oceans movies, where a slot machine* is programmed to pay out when a certain order of buttons are pushed by Danny Ocean Aka George Clooney Aka Batman With Nipples.
In the film, it seems like one more ridiculous step in a heist that also requires an earthquake be set off, a magnetron be hidden in a mobile phone and for Matt Damon to don a fake nose for no other reason than…actually there is no other reason.
In reality, the hacked machine is not only a plausible scam, it’s actually happened on multiple occasions.
In the early nineties, dozens of slot machines were reprogrammed by Ronald Dale Harris, an employee of the Nevada Gaming Commission whose job it was to make sure such machines were fair. And by fair I mean designed to screw players out of their money and make casinos rich.
Rather than having to push a certain combination of buttons, Harris set up the machines so that when a certain combination of coins was entered, the next spin would pay out. For example, insert three quarters, wait, two dimes, wait, one more quarter.
Harris was only caught when he tried a similar scam in Atlantic City and was caught because no one, not even the cheats, are allowed to have a good time in Atlantic City.
Another hacker, Dennis Nikrasch, pick up an old slot machine on eBay and figured out how to alter the chip inside to pay off a jackpot on command. He picked up a pile of blank chips on the black market, reprogrammed them and then swapped them into machines across Vegas. Incredibly, he achieved this live on the casino floor, swapping in the new chips for old right under the noses of casino security like some kind of a neon lit Indiana Jones swapping a bag of dirt for a gold idol.
John Kane and Andre Nesto took it a step further, figuring out a perfectly legal way to win. A software bug in The Game King machines allowed players to play two games at one, increasing the odds of winning on one game while increasing the amount bet on another. The men discovered a glitch in the machine that allowed them to combine the two games, playing a high payout game with a high chance of winning.
They won $400,000 and, despite being arrested, walked away with the lot because, as their lawyer pointed out: “All these guys did is simply push a sequence of buttons that they were legally entitled to push.”
When slot machines first became popular, the hacks were simple: a coin on a piece of string that could be pulled back out of the machine or a guitar string hook that would trigger the coin mechanism.
As the machines became more sophisticated, so did the devices: Light wands that could set off the digital sensors and top-bottom joints that could power the coin release by bypassing the internal electrical system.
In the last few years, a new device has been hitting slot machines. Bill Validator Devices look like regular one buck notes but, in reality, have two hidden prongs that tell the slot machine that every note being insert is a hundred. Casinos are busy retro-fitting their machines to stop the device but it’s only time before hackers build a better mousetrap.
Who knows, maybe the next big slot machine hack will require an earthquake machine and a phone sized magnetron.
But that still doesn’t explain Matt Damon’s nose.
*To my Australian readers, I know I have sold out my antipodean roots by using the Yankee phrase “slot machine” over the down under approved “poker machine.” But the Americans have more guns so they win.
Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, author, entertainer and collector of scams.