In 2009, a couple of addicted gamblers in Las Vegas discovered what every slot player dreams of: a way to beat the system.
As Wired magazine reported on Oct. 7, Vegas resident John Kane stumbled upon a programming flaw in the ubiquitous Game King video poker machines while playing at the Fremont Casino. The flaw enabled gamblers in the know to transform a $500 jackpot into a $10,000 hit — and to do it time after time, on any Game King machine in the country.
"The new Game King code had one feature that wasn't in the brochure," wrote Kevin Poulsen in Wired, "a series of subtle errors in program number G0001640 that evaded laboratory testing and source code review."
Kane summoned longtime gambling buddy Andre Nestor to Vegas, where the two refined, perfected and ruthlessly exploited their discovery.
It was clear that the programming flaw was unknown to either the manufacturer or the hundreds of casinos that used IGT multi-denominational Game Kings. Kane and Nestor had a gold mine on their hands.
They could have gone on a cross-country odyssey, taking in Vegas, Reno, Black Hawk, Cripple Creek, Albuquerque, Iowa, Mississippi, Atlantic City and every other casino hotbed in the country. Stay for a couple of days, make $20,000 or so, and move on. After a few months, they might have cleared a million apiece.
But they got greedy, quarreled and went their separate ways. Convinced he was untouchable, Kane sat down at a machine in the Fremont and triggered eight separate jackpots in a couple of hours, winning close to $50,000.
Casino bosses busted him, confiscated the dough, and analyzed his play. Game over.
It's a sobering tale. Even if you figure out how to beat the house, you'll likely beat yourself.
But a love of gambling may be encoded in our DNA. Just by being born, we beat odds of 100 million to 1 or so, so why not buy a Powerball ticket?
That's fine — but Powerball, and similar government-operated gaming enterprises, are not customer-friendly. Last Friday, the Colorado Lottery's progressive jackpot stood at $4.5 million, yours if you manage to match all six numbers. Odds of doing so: 1 in 5,245,786. Match five numbers, and you get the princely sum of $442. Odds of hitting five: 1 in 24,287.
That's a sucker's game. You're drawn by greed (OMG, $4.5 million!) and fearful anticipation (You have to be in to win!). In reality, you might match three numbers ($3, 1 in 37 odds), or four ($45, 1 in 556).
You're rewarded by daydreams: What will I do with my millions?
Answer: You will do nothing, because you're not going to win. But if you want to have fun gambling, and maybe win a few bucks, head to Cripple Creek.
State-sponsored games are basically disguised taxes, but privately owned casinos can only survive by giving their customers a chance to win. Instead of offering a single gigantic payoff, casinos offer many smaller ones. The odds favor the house, but the house's edge isn't as great as you might think.
Video poker is a simple game. The machine deals you a hand, you hold or discard as seems appropriate, the machine deals anew, and your payout is determined by your final hand. It's poker — comforting, depersonalized and quick.
Information supplied by Colorado's Division of Gaming shows that slot-machine payback percentages for quarter games in Cripple Creek during fiscal year 2013-2014 were 95.06 percent, the best in Colorado. With careful play on certain Deuces Wild games, you can add a few points to that number, bringing the payback ratio to almost 100 percent.
You'll still lose, but slowly. Casino operators understand that players crave three things: jackpots, fun and "time on device" (TOD). Machines are programmed to give you multiple small hits, keeping you in a state of pleasurable anticipation. The more TOD, the better the chances of hitting a big one. And once you hit a jackpot, you're hooked.
I've hit a few. The first was $1,260 on a progressive video poker machine 15 years ago. I spent most of it on a gorgeous silver-and-turquoise belt buckle I wear almost every day. Since then, I've hit dozens and won tens of thousands. And where are the winnings?
In Cripple Creek and my wife's Audi TT ... but I had fun!