Friday, February 7, 2020

The Edison of the Slot Machines

From the Paris Review:

Michael LaPointe’s monthly column, Dice Roll, focuses on the art of the gamble, one famous gambler at a time.
Tommy saw the solution in a dream. “I’m seeing myself from behind,” he recalled, “and I have [the tool] in my hand.” All through 1990, he’d been searching for a way to cheat the latest slot machines.

He needed a new tool, something to replace the clumsy old instrument that had landed him in the penitentiary. Night and day in his Vegas apartment, he toiled on a Fortune One video poker machine. But no matter what he tried, some riddle in the guts of the unit would thwart him.

Then, in the recess of sleep, the solution appeared in all its brilliant simplicity: a flexible piece of metal, wedged at the top, and some piano wire. “I woke up,” he told the History Channel, “actually got out of bed, and went and built it.” Tommy had found his answer: The Monkey Paw.
When a friend dropped by Ace TV Sales and Service in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1980, Tommy Glenn Carmichael was just an unremarkable repairman who moonlighted as a pool hustler. He had minor drug convictions and some juvenile mischief on his criminal record, but nothing about the thirty-year-old suggested that he’d one day stand among the most inventive cheats in gambling history.

Carmichael’s friend had brought along some toys to tinker with: a Bally’s slot machine and a cheating device called the top-bottom joint. Of how his multi-million-dollar criminal enterprise got started that day, Carmichael simply said, “We got to playing around.”

Triggering a payout with a top-bottom joint was a crude operation. A piece of guitar string comprised the “bottom” part of the tool. It went into the left corner of the machine, up against the circuitboard, and sent low-wattage electricity coursing through the unit. The “top” part was a piece of metal curved like the number nine. When inserted into the coin slot, it completed a circuit powerful enough to hot-wire the hopper, where the coins are kept.


Sensing his destiny, Carmichael closed his repair shop and moved to Las Vegas, eager to put the top-bottom joint to work. After his first attempt, he walked off with about thirty-five bucks in nickels—chump change compared to what would come, but enough to confirm that he was onto something big. “You are thinking you are going to have yachts and cars,” he later told the Associated Press. “You know, the American Dream.”

That dream fell apart on Independence Day, 1985. After a few years of success with the top-bottom joint, Carmichael was playing slots at a Denny’s near the Strip when police slammed him against the wall and discovered the device. He was arrested, convicted, and sent to the penitentiary.
But he wasn’t scared straight. He knew he’d found his calling. Once he was out, Tommy vowed to reinvent himself as the slot machine wizard of Las Vegas.
When Carmichael was arrested in 1985, slots had come a long way from their nickel-plated, side-handled origins. German mechanics in San Francisco invented the first slots in the early 1870s, but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that the Liberty Bell machine set the standard, with its three reels of spinning lucky charms: bells, horseshoes, hearts.

Although slots gained popularity during Prohibition, their conquest of casino floors was slow. Compared to the skilled, high-stakes action of table games like poker and blackjack, slots were nothing but a pull of the lever of chance and the payoffs were relatively small. The machines were relegated to the periphery of the casino floor, and pejoratively associated with bored wives killing time while their husbands bet the farm. One Atlantic City casino vice president said the machines suffered from “the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome”: they couldn’t get no respect.

That began to change in 1963, when Bally Manufacturing introduced the Money Honey, widely considered the first modern slot machine. The Money Honey came with front-light electricity and sound effects, giving the play some sizzle. But more crucially, it contained a 2,500-coin hopper. Prior to the Money Honey, if the gambler hit a jackpot, they had to wait for a member of casino staff to verify the win and pay them in cash. As casino operator Warren Butcher said, “This didn’t just slow up play, it kind of suggested closure, an end to the game … it tempted the customer to cease play and walk out the door with his winnings.”

With a 2,500-coin hopper, however, odds increased that the gambler would keep playing their winnings back into the machine. Play became continuous, endless. The Money Honey set the industry on an illustrious track that would, some forty years later, lead one Canadian company to market adult diapers specifically to slot-machine addicts who refused to staunch the flow of play. In 1981, slots out-earned table games at Las Vegas casinos, and the same happened in Atlantic City in 1984.
Each phase of the slot machine’s evolution inspired commensurate innovation among cheaters. It began with plugged nickels and coins on strings. At one point, you could pour laundry detergent into the slot in lieu of money (how someone discovered this is anybody’s guess), or jam the gears by giving the arms an awkward tug at just the right moment. Then came a succession of more sophisticated tools like the shim, which could manipulate Mills and Buckley machines, and Jenny’s Shaker, which enabled you to move the reels around....

HT: MetaFilter