by Steve Bourie Learn more about the author read more »
The first slot machines were invented in the late 1890’s and it probably wasn’t very long after those machines appeared that somebody had the brilliant idea of trying to cheat them. Yes, times may change but, unfortunately, greed is here to stay and there will always be people looking for a fast way to make a buck with a slot machine. Here’s the true story of one of those people who probably had the most ingenious method ever used.
On January 14, 1995 Reid Errol McNeal should have been one of the luckiest men on earth. That Saturday afternoon he went to the keno desk at Bally’s Park Place Casino Resort in Atlantic City and bought $100 worth of keno tickets: 10 tickets at $10 each with eight numbers picked on each card.
Defying odds of 230,000-to-1, McNeal hit for eight-of-eight on one of the tickets. The winning payoff of $100,000 was the highest amount ever won on a keno game in the history of Atlantic City and naturally caused quite a stir in the casino. According to published reports, however, McNeal hardly seemed like the typical winner of a once-in-a-lifetime jackpot. Not only was he unemotional about his big win, he also had no identification on him and he demanded to be paid in cash. Needless to say, officials were a little suspicious, or as one casino executive said, ” this just didn’ t pass the smelltest.”
New Jersey law requires that any jackpot of $35,000 or more be verified by state gaming division officials and when they arrived they were accompanied by a couple of state troopers assigned to their department. The troopers went with McNeal to his hotel room at Bally’s where they found a friend of McNeal’s who identified himself as Ronald Harris. At this point the troopers were simply making an investigation into the oddness of the situation and left Harris in the room while they took McNeal back downstairs for some further questioning. It was then discovered that McNeal’s friend was an employee of the Nevada Gaming Control Board which is responsible for regulating all of the gaming devices in that state.
The troopers returned to the room to speak to Harris but he was gone. They searched the room and, according to state police spokesman John Hagerty, found ” computer equipment, computer chips, notes and books describing changes in Bally’s machine and describing how to possibly scam or beat the machine.”
Police theorized that as a computer technician in Nevada’s Gaming Control Board Harris had access to a highly confidential “source code” which allowed him access to the programming in the keno machine’s random number generator. Harris then used his computers to duplicate the calculations of the random number generator in Bally’ s keno machine and thus, was able to determine the outcome ahead of time.
McNeal was arrested in Atlantic City and Ron Harris was arrested by Nevada authorities at the airport in Las Vegas. Both were charged by New Jersey police with computer fraud and attempted cheating. The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that all charges against McNeal were dropped in return for his agreeing to testify against Harris and according to Keith Furlong, Public Information Officer for New Jersey’s Division of Gaming Enforcement, “Harris pleaded guilty in July 1998 to attempted theft by deception.”
Shortly after his arrest Harris was fired from his $48,000-a-year job with the Gaming Control Board where he had worked for 12 years. Officials there also began their own investigation into his past work for the Board and five months later he was indicted, along with his ex-wife and two friends, on charges of rigging slot machines in three northern Nevada casinos.
As part of his Gaming Control Board duties Harris was responsible for testing slot machines at casinos throughout the state. He and his co-workers would go into casinos and randomly test machines to make sure they only contained computer chips that were previously approved by the state agency.
These computer chips are also known as EPROM’ s (erasable programmable read only memory) and control the payback percentages on slot machines. The key words here are “erasable” and “programmable” because authorities alleged that Harris erased the memory on the chips and substituted his own programming which forced the machines to pay out a jackpot whenever coins were inserted in a certain sequence. For example: if someone inserted 3 coins, followed by 2 coins, then another 2 coins, then 1 coin, then 3 coins, then 5 coins, the machine would automatically pay out the maximum jackpot.
Not wanting to win the jackpots himself, police charged that Harris used his accomplices to collect a $9,000 jackpot at Fitzgeralds in Reno, a $5,000 award at the Crystal Bay Club in North Lake Tahoe and another unspecified amount at the Comstock in Reno. According to a story in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the attorney general’s office later went on to charge him with rigging at least 24 jackpots throughout the state. In September 1997, Harris pleaded guilty to racketeering charges and was sentenced to seven years.
After these problems occurred authorities in both states took precautions to prevent them from happening again. New Jersey now requires that any electronic keno machines used in Atlantic City have a “source code” different from the same machines used in other states. Also, in Nevada the chairman of the state’s Gaming Control Board, Bill Bible, ordered a review of its safeguard measures with an independent firm and now requires staff electronics employees to check each others work.
Obviously, Harris was brilliant with computers but evidently he wasn’t too smart with people. Just imagine how much money he would still be making if his friend had only been carrying some ID with him in Atlantic City!