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Every gaming machine addict or enthusiast dreams of hitting a jackpot, the bigger the better! The flashing lights signalling that huge payout is a massive draw in casinos the world over, and the reason why slot machines take up so much space. Now imagine if your dream became a reality and you could repeat it again and again and again?
That’s exactly what happened to John Kane who discovered a bug in his favorite video poker slot and took it for millions!
In the beginning
The amazing story begins back in April 2009 when Kane – a virtuoso pianist with a penchant for Game King video poker – stumbled upon a very serious hole in the machine’s programming. There was a bug which had gone undetected for seven years, according to the Wired.com piece on this remarkable tale!
By Nevada standards, The Fremont Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas’ Glitter Gulch is an unassuming place, offering topless dancers and cheap drinks, but it did have exactly what John Kane looked for in a casino – four Game King machines in a row! And for some strange reason, on this day it decided to reward him with a $1000 jackpot.
The only catch being, Kane hadn’t actually won, there had been a glitch. Kane knew the machine inside-out, having installed one in his Nevada home years previously, so he reported the glitch which had rewarded him to the supervisor, but the supervisor just laughed, thinking Kane was joking!
Machines don’t pay out unless you hit the correct sequence. Kane’s video poker hand wasn’t a winner , he had merely hit the Cash Out button to take his more modest winnings to a new machine, but the jackpot candle at the top of the Game King lit up anyway. The $1000 was his to keep, and now Kane knew that there was a serious flaw hidden somewhere inside the machine’s code.
Old school techniques
Now, unlike playing on an online poker site or online casino site like casino.com, these money-making machines are not controlled via the internet, so every piece of code resides in circuit boards which are manually produced, inserted, and checked. Kane wasn’t a programming expert, so he turned to the age-old method of trial and error. If he could discover the flaw, he could win at will!
This turning point in Kane’s life was to lead to some very serious money – and some very serious consequences. He enlisted the help of Andre Nestor, a friend from the good old days when the gaming addicts would play the machines together, desperate for that elusive, life-changing big win.
Nestor was a superstitious guy, a younger man who was haunted by the gambler’s nightmare of not playing the numbers his dreams had told him to, thus missing out on a Pennsylvania lottery jackpot some 15 years earlier.
Hitting the big time
Between them, they worked out the first part of the Game King machine’s bug – you could lose at the lowest levels ( 1 cent) for a long time, but when you finally hit a huge hand, you could suddenly switch to 50 cent play, and the machine would pay out on the much bigger sum!
Jackpot! Lose small, win big!
You had complete control,” said Nestor. 'You could win $500,000 in one day.'
It wasn’t easy to replicate this bug-control plan, but the two men soon developed a winning sequence, and the money started to roll in.
The Double-up and the Missing Link
As with most slots, you can gamble your winnings and take a chance of double-or-nothing and similar options. Now, if you had just cracked a machines fatal flaw and were winning big, would you be satisfied with that or want to double your money?
For Kane and Nestor it was a no-brainer. The DoubleUp feature was free money, and the pair netted more than $100,000 from the Fremont casino alone, but naturally there were eyes on the pair by now!
Casinos track wins and losses in all parts of their domain – after all, they have to make a living too! Spotting that the winning pair of gamblers always used the DoubleUp feature, the casino simply disabled that option, and the Kane Nestor combo started to hit a loss.
Now they knew the DoubleUp option was needed to win anything – nothing happened when it was switched off. And even better for the bad boys, their trial-and-error approach had shown that they could actually replay the same winning hand over-and-over-and-over again!
No honour among thieves
Of course, greed is a terrible thing when it comes to gamblers and money – too much is never enough! Kane and Nestor were soon arguing over the financial split from their ill-gotten gains.
Kane wanted more than half as it was his initial plan and ‘work’ which had brought them their riches. Nestor claimed that he had solved the DoubleUp segment of the puzzle, and therefore they were level. What to do?
Split and hit
Relationships end, and often have serious consequences, and so it was here with Kane and Nestor.
Kane kept his ‘show’ in Vegas, pulling in a haul from the GameKings of more than $500,000 according to the FBI records. His four 9’s on one of the bug-ridden slots in Vegas’ Wynn Casino was paying out for days at a time, eventually netting him $225,240. Nestor, on the other hand, returned to his native Pennsylvania where his own winning streak seemed to have no end.
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All good things…
Sometimes the authorities may be slow, but they are generally not stupid! The early summer of easy money was coming to an end for the duo, with Kane’s latest winning streak being watch by the eagle-eyes of the Silverton Casino's director of surveillance, Charles Williams.
After cashing out his latest scoop, Kane was met by casino security as he tried to leave. The game was finally up! As yet, nobody knew how he was doing it, but that didn’t matter – he had to be stopped and the Silverton’s security team did just that, hand-cuffing him to a chair in a back-room.
His $27,000 in cash confiscated, he was soon staring at the face of an armed Gaming Control Board agent and being charged with suspicion of theft. But his friend Nestor was still a free man, living it up in the casinos of Pennsylvania.
…come to an end
Ignoring warnings from his onetime friend and accomplice, John Kane, Nestor continued his wicked ways, also taking close to $500K with his knowledge of the Game King weaknesses. It went on until one fatal day when the casino refused to pay out on his winnings. The Meadows Casino and Racetrack in North Strabane had seen enough – Nestor was now a marked man.
When the State police finally raided his home, it resulted in the biggest gambling scandal the state had seen since legalizing slot machines five years previously. Nestor was charged with a staggering 698 felony counts, had all his winnings taken and was given 10 days in jail to think about what was about to happen.
It’s a federal bust now
What was about to happen took another year, but would scare Nestor and Kane to the core. Their state trials, at jury selection stage, were disrupted by federal officials – they were now under the jurisdiction of the Justice Department. It had been decided that their cases were inter-state crimes, with all the extra possibilities of jail-time that decision brought with it.
What did we do wrong?
As a defence argument, 'What did we do wrong' it was very clever and very simple:
We didn’t tamper with the machines, we simply exploited a flaw in the designer’s programming’. As Nestor proclaimed to the media on his federal bust: “They put a machine on the floor, and if it has programming that doesn't take your money and you win on their machine, they will throw you in jail!”
With conspiracy and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act on the prosecutors table, the assistant US attorney for the District of Nevada Michael Chu stated in court papers that:
To allow customers to access previously played hands of cards at will, would remove the element of chance and obviate the whole purpose of gambling,” adding, “It would certainly be contrary to the rules of poker.”
For 18 months the show rolled on, the arguments on both sides seemingly having equal merit.
The defense claimed that there couldn’t be computer hacking charges levied against the pair: they hadn’t hacked anything, and if the Game King slots allowed Kane and Nestor to do something, then that something was “authorized access” by definition. “All these guys did is simply push a sequence of buttons that they were legally entitled to push,” claimed Leavitt, Kane's attorney.
In the meantime, other non-gambling hacking cases had been made public, the judge in the Game King case drawing parallels and ordering the prosecutors to justify such charges. They couldn’t and didn’t – and the most dangerous of the charges to the duo were dropped.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma
This classic case of ‘game theory’ was likely well-known to both Kane and Nestor, or at least they managed to replicate the best result for both men!
Basically, the prosecutors offered each of them a deal. The first man to agree to testify against the other would get away with five years of probation and no jail time. The other, obviously, would be hit with the full force of the law.
The traditional view is that the prisoner’s dilemma would see one or both of them offer to testify, even though keeping silent is the optimum for them taken as a pair. To their credit, Kane and Nestor either respected and liked each other too much, realized that the criminal code of keeping schtum was paramount, or, most likely, their lawyers had realized what the prosecution ploy was because they had such a poor case!
Freedom comes at a cost
Whatever the reason, the Game King kings both declined the offer and…within a few months they were both free men! The government had finally accepted that they couldn’t really argue their case well enough to secure a conviction – the men really had simply exploited a basic flaw in programming.
And so both men were back on the streets, although quite how much of their winnings they were left with is very unclear. Nestor claimed that he had nothing left and was facing a huge IRS bill on his winnings, some $240,000 being sought, while Kane has kept silent about the whole affair since.
The machine codes, naturally, were analysed, changed and tightened up – although the $1million+ which Kane and Nestor managed to siphon off has doubtless been recouped – and more – by the popular video slot.
For the gambler who has found a bug, perhaps the moral of the story is not ‘don’t exploit it’, but rather ‘don’t be greedy and don’t get caught!’
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