IN EARLY JUNE 2014, accountants at the Lumiere Place Casino in St. Louis noticed that several of their slot machines had—just for a couple of days—gone haywire. The government-approved software that powers such machines gives the house a fixed mathematical edge, so that casinos can be certain of how much they’ll earn over the long haul—say, 7.129 cents for every dollar played. But on June 2 and 3, a number of Lumiere’s machines had spit out far more money than they’d consumed, despite not awarding any major jackpots, an aberration known in industry parlance as a negative hold. Since code isn’t prone to sudden fits of madness, the only plausible explanation was that someone was cheating.
Casino security pulled up the surveillance tapes and eventually spotted the culprit, a black-haired man in his thirties who wore a Polo zip-up and carried a square brown purse. Unlike most slots cheats, he didn’t appear to tinker with any of the machines he targeted, all of which were older models manufactured by Aristocrat Leisure of Australia. Instead he’d simply play, pushing the buttons on a game like Star Drifter or Pelican Pete while furtively holding his iPhone close to the screen.
He’d walk away after a few minutes, then return a bit later to give the game a second chance. That’s when he’d get lucky. The man would parlay a $20 to $60 investment into as much as $1,300 before cashing out and moving on to another machine, where he’d start the cycle anew. Over the course of two days, his winnings tallied just over $21,000. The only odd thing about his behavior during his streaks was the way he’d hover his finger above the Spin button for long stretches before finally jabbing it in haste; typical slots players don’t pause between spins like that.
On June 9, Lumiere Place shared its findings with the Missouri Gaming Commission, which in turn issued a statewide alert. Several casinos soon discovered that they had been cheated the same way, though often by different men than the one who’d bilked Lumiere Place. In each instance, the perpetrator held a cell phone close to an Aristocrat Mark VI model slot machine shortly before a run of good fortune.
By examining rental-car records, Missouri authorities identified the Lumiere Place scammer as Murat Bliev, a 37-year-old Russian national. Bliev had flown back to Moscow on June 6, but the St. Petersburg–based organization he worked for, which employs dozens of operatives to manipulate slot machines around the world, quickly sent him back to the United States to join another cheating crew. The decision to redeploy Bliev to the US would prove to be a rare misstep for a venture that’s quietly making millions by cracking some of the gaming industry’s most treasured algorithms.
From Russia With Cheats
Russia has been a hotbed of slots-related malfeasance since 2009, when the country outlawed virtually all gambling. (Vladimir Putin, who was prime minister at the time, reportedly believed the move would reduce the power of Georgian organized crime.) The ban forced thousands of casinos to sell their slot machines at steep discounts to whatever customers they could find. Some of those cut-rate slots wound up in the hands of counterfeiters eager to learn how to load new games onto old circuit boards. Others apparently went to Murat Bliev’s bosses in St. Petersburg, who were keen to probe the machines’ source code for vulnerabilities.
By early 2011, casinos throughout central and eastern Europe were logging incidents in which slots made by the Austrian company Novomatic paid out improbably large sums. Novomatic’s engineers could find no evidence that the machines in question had been tampered with, leading them to theorize that the cheaters had figured out how to predict the slots’ behavior. “Through targeted and prolonged observation of the individual game sequences as well as possibly recording individual games, it might be possible to allegedly identify a kind of ‘pattern’ in the game results,” the company admitted in a February 2011 notice to its customers.