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CASINO ANSWER MAN

by John Grochowski

John Grochowski is a blackjack expert and a well-known and respected casino gambling columnist. His syndicated casino gambling column appears in the Denver Post, Casino City Times, and other newspapers and web sites. Grochowski has written six books on gambling including the "Answer Man" series of books (www.casinoanswerman.com). He offers one-minute gambling tips on radio station WLS-AM (890) and podcasts are available at http://www.wlsam.com/sectional.asp?id=38069Send your question to Grochowski at casinoanswerman@casinoanswerman.com.

Q. Have you heard about the Russian slot hack where they could predict the next spin? They won money at casinos around the world. If random number generators are truly random, how is that even possible? You can't predict random.

A. The phrase I've often used in describing random number generators is, "as random as humans can program a computer to be." Nothing we do is truly random, and a physics-loving friend has said to me, "Nothing in the universe above quantum level is random, and even there, we're not sure."

RNGs can come close enough that results appear random. If you were given a file with millions of results, it would be extraordinarily difficult to discern a pattern. Payback percentages show us what we'd expect to see given random results.

The numbers generated are calculated very rapidly and continuously, even when the machine is not in use. Entry points to the algorithm used may vary. There can be different entry points for the calculation if you hit bet max on the button panel, touch the screen, use the repeat bet button or any other ways to make the bet. Those are additional randomizing factors - they help the RNG come closer and closer to randomness.

The Russians who figured out how to cheat certain slots had a head start. Casino gambling was banned in most of Russia in 2009, and thousands of slot machines were sold off. A team in St. Petersburg got hold of Aristocrat Mark VI slot machines and basically reverse-engineered the RNGs to crack the algorithm.

They then had operatives in casinos that had these older-model games to use their phones to record and transmit video of spins back to St. Petersburg. When the St. Petersburg team had enough information - about two dozen spins would do - they would use the algorithm to calculate when a big winning spin would come.

The operative then would receive a message to play. The phone would buzz and the player would hit the button. A quarter-second delay was built into the timing of the message because tests had shown it would take that long after feeling the buzz for the player to hit the button.

Four operatives who worked the scam in Missouri and Illinois were arrested on federal charges of conspiracy to commit fraud.

Slot manufacturers are extremely security conscious in designing their games. No doubt steps will be taken to make it even more difficult to crack the code, but in the absence of pure randomness, a team of clever engineers who have access to the machines can be tough to stop.


Q. A few years ago, I was playing a virtual craps game where the dice were vibrated to simulate a roll. The die was at an angle and I was not paid for the bet. I objected to the other players, and they said "ignore it," "It happened yesterday," and the attendant "wouldn't pay it." A casino suit came by and I mentioned it to him, and he pretty much repeated what the players had told me, and I was out of luck, but he asked for my card.

A few minutes later he came back, gave me $20 and apologized. I told him the $20 was much more than I lost, but it was OK. The other players were not happy. That experience made me aware to be very observant on payoffs, and pursue it.

A. The above is an excerpt from a much longer email in which the player also describes a payout error on an electronic baccarat game. It came in response to a column I wrote several weeks ago in which a player thought there was a payoff mistake on a fully automated blackjack table.

Payoff mistakes at such games are rare, just as they are on slots or video poker games, but that doesn't mean there can't be glitches. If you think a game has taken your money on a hand, roll or spin you've won, hit the call button to signal an attendant immediately before making another bet.

On a multiplayer electronic game, the others aren't going to stop to wait for an attendant to settle your dispute. The game is going to move on. Make a note - whether with pen or paper or on your phone - of the exact time you made the bet, the size of the bet and the outcome of the play, whether that consists of your hand and the dealer's, the roll of the dice or the spin of the wheel.

You may never encounter a payoff mistake. I never have. But if you do and want to raise the dispute, take the necessary steps to make it easier to track down and verify the outcome.

Q. I was talking with a deputy assistant GM or some such, and he was asking for suggestions about what I'd like to see in casinos. I said they should have more promotions targeted at table players. Everything's about slots. Maybe have a night where blackjacks pay 2-1 for qualified players. He seemed interested and said we should talk again. I found him next time I was in the casino, and he said his boss said they couldn't do that. I asked if they could do anything else, and he said they were working on it. That was several months ago, and nothing. Are we that low on the totem pole?

A. You might have a couple of different things at work here. One is that the specific suggestion you made, 2-1 pays on blackjacks, gives basic strategy players an edge without counting cards. In the 1990s, the Alton Belle casino in Illinois publicized 2-1 blackjacks and found its tables filled with advantage players making max bets. They ended the promotion quickly, but a few years later tried it again with the same result.

In some circles, casino managers learn that story as a cautionary tale.

The other factor is that, yes, blackjack players are pretty low on the totem pole. Attracting slot play is always a casino priority. Tougher table rules with even six-deck games having dealers hit soft 17 - not to mention the abomination of 6-5 pays on blackjacks - tell me casinos aren't much interested in attracting educated blackjack players.

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