John Kane was on a hell of a winning streak. On July 3, 2009, he walked alone into the high-limit room at the Silverton Casino in Las Vegas and sat down at a video poker machine called the Game King. Six minutes later the purple light on the top of the machine flashed, signaling a $4,300 jackpot. Kane waited while the slot attendant verified the win and presented the IRS paperwork—a procedure required for any win of $1,200 or greater—then, 11 minutes later, ding ding ding!, a $2,800 win. A $4,150 jackpot rolled in a few minutes after that.
All the while, the casino's director of surveillance, Charles Williams, was peering down at Kane through a camera hidden in a ceiling dome. Tall, with a high brow and an aquiline nose, the 50-year-old Kane had the patrician bearing of a man better suited to playing a Mozart piano concerto than listening to the chirping of a slot machine. Even his play was refined: the way he rested his long fingers on the buttons and swept them in a graceful legato, smoothly selecting good cards, discarding bad ones, accepting jackpot after jackpot with the vaguely put-upon air of a creditor finally collecting an overdue debt.
Williams could see that Kane was wielding none of the array of cheating devices that casinos had confiscated from grifters over the years. He wasn't jamming a light wand in the machine's hopper or zapping the Game King with an electromagnetic pulse. He was simply pressing the buttons. But he was winning far too much, too fast, to be relying on luck alone.
At 12:34 pm, the Game King lit up with its seventh jackpot in an hour and a half, a $10,400 payout. Now Williams knew something was wrong: The cards dealt on the screen were the exact same four deuces and four of clubs that yielded Kane's previous jackpot. The odds against that were astronomical. Williams called over the executive in charge of the Silverton's slots, and they reviewed the surveillance tape together.
The evidence was mounting that Kane had found something unthinkable: the kind of thing gamblers dream of, casinos dread, and Nevada regulators have an entire auditing regime to prevent. He'd found a bug in the most popular video slot in Las Vegas.
As they watched the replay for clues, Kane chalked up an eighth jackpot worth $8,200, and Williams decided not to wait any longer. He contacted the Silverton's head of security, a formidable character with slicked-back silver hair and a black suit, and positioned him outside the slot area. His orders: Make sure John Kane doesn't leave the casino.
Kane had discovered the glitch in the Game King three months earlier on the other end of town, at the unpretentious Fremont Hotel and Casino in downtown's Glitter Gulch. He was overdue for a lucky break. Since the Game King had gotten its hooks in him years earlier he'd lost between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands annually. At his previous haunt, the locals-friendly Boulder Station, he blew half a million dollars in 2006 alone—a pace that earned him enough Player's Club points to pay for his own Game King to play at his home on the outskirts of Vegas, along with technicians to service it. (The machine was just for fun—it didn't pay jackpots.) “He's played more than anyone else in the United States,” says his lawyer, Andrew Leavitt. “I'm not exaggerating or embellishing. It's an addiction.”
To understand video poker addiction, you have to start with the deceptively simple appeal of the game. You put some money in the machine, place a bet of one to five credits, and the computer deals you a poker hand. Select the cards you want to keep, slap the Draw button, and the machine replaces the discards. Your final hand determines the payout.
When the first video poker machine hit casinos in the 1970s, it was a phenomenal success—gamblers loved that they could make decisions that affected the outcome instead of just pulling a handle and watching the reels spin. The patent holder started a company called International Game Technology that debuted on the Nasdaq in 1981.
IGT's key insight was to tap into the vast flexibility offered by computerized gambling. In 1996, the company perfected its formula with the Game King Multi-Game, which allowed players to choose from several variations on video poker. Casinos snatched up the Game King, and IGT sold them regular firmware upgrades that added still more games to the menu. On September 25, 2002, the company released its fifth major revision—Game King 5.0. Its marketing material was triumphal: “Full of new enhancements, including state-of-the-art video graphics and enhanced stereo sound, the Game King 5.0 Multi-Game suite is sure to rule over your entire casino floor with unprecedented magnificence!” But the new Game King code had one feature that wasn't in the brochure—a series of subtle errors in program number G0001640 that evaded laboratory testing and source code review.
The bug survived like a cockroach for the next seven years. It passed into new revisions, one after another, ultimately infecting 99 different programs installed in thousands of IGT machines around the world. As far as anyone knows, it went completely undetected until late April 2009, when John Kane was playing at a row of four low-limit Game Kings outside the entrance to a Chinese fast food joint at the Fremont, smoke swirling around him and '90s pop music raining down from the casino sound system.
He'd been switching between game variations and racking up a modest payout. But when he hit the Cash Out button to take his money to another machine, the candle lit at the top of the Game King and the screen locked up with a jackpot worth more than $1,000. Kane hadn't even played a new hand, so he knew there was a mistake. He told a casino attendant about the error, but the worker thought he was joking and gave him the money anyway.
At that point, Kane could have forgotten the whole thing. Instead, he called a friend and embarked on the biggest gamble of his life.
Even before the phone rang in his suburban Pittsburgh home, Andre Nestor had a gut feeling that everything was about to change for him. Superstitious and prone to hunches, he'd felt it coming for days: April 30, 2009, would be exactly 15 years since Nestor ignored an urge to play a set of numbers that came up in the Pennsylvania lottery Big 4.
That was the story of his life—always playing the right numbers at the wrong time. Games of chance had been courting and betraying Nestor since he was old enough to gamble. In 2001 he'd moved to Las Vegas to be closer to the action, answering phones for a bank during the day and wagering his meager paycheck at night. That's when he met John Kane in an AOL chatroom for Vegas locals. Though Nestor was 13 years younger than Kane and perpetually flirting with poverty, they developed an intense addicts' friendship.
Nestor's records show he lost about $20,000 a year for six years before he gave up, said good-bye to Kane, and moved back to the sleepy Pittsburgh suburb of Swissvale, Pennsylvania, in 2007. For about two years he had a stable life, living off public assistance, gambling infrequently, and playing the occasional lottery ticket. Then Kane called to tell him about a bug he'd found in video poker. Nestor drove to the airport that night and camped there until the next available flight to Las Vegas.
Kane picked him up at the curb at McCarran airport. After a quick breakfast, they drove to the Fremont, took adjacent seats at two Game Kings, and went to work. Kane had some idea of how the glitch operated but hadn't been able to reliably reproduce it. Working together, the two men began trying different combinations of play, game types, and bet levels, sounding out the bug like bats in the dark.
It turned out the Game King's endless versatility was also its fatal flaw. In addition to different game variants, the machine lets you choose the base level of your wagers: At the low-limit Fremont machines, you could select six different denomination levels, from 1 cent to 50 cents a credit.
The key to the glitch was that under just the right circumstances, you could switch denomination levels retroactively. That meant you could play at 1 cent per credit for hours, losing pocket change, until you finally got a good hand—like four aces or a royal flush. Then you could change to 50 cents a credit and fool the machine into re-awarding your payout at the new, higher denomination.
Performing that trick consistently wasn't easy—it involved a complicated misdirection that left the Game King's internal variables in a state of confusion. But after seven hours rooted to their seats, Kane and Nestor boiled it down to a step-by-step recipe that would work every time.
Nestor and Kane each rang up a few jackpots, then broke for a celebratory dinner, at which they planned their next move. They would have to expand beyond the Fremont before the casino noticed how much they were winning. Fortunately, Game Kings are ubiquitous in Vegas, installed everywhere from the corner 7-Eleven to the toniest luxury casino. They mapped out their campaign and then headed back to Kane's home for the night.
Kane lived in a spacious house at the far northeast edge of town. His Game King was in the foyer. A spare bedroom down the hall was devoted entirely to a model train set, an elaborate, detailed miniature with tracks snaking and climbing through model towns, up hills, across bridges, and through tunnels, every detail perfect. The home's centerpiece was the living room with its three Steinway grand pianos. Kane is a virtuoso pianist; in the early 1980s he was a leading dance accompanist in the Chicago area, and even today he sells recordings under the vanity label Keynote Records. He left the professional music world only after failing to advance in the prestigious Van Cliburn International Piano Competition. Now he ran a management consulting practice that claimed one-third of the Fortune 100 as clients.
Kane's business was lucrative, so he was accustomed to handling money. But now that they were on the verge of a windfall, he was worried about Nestor; he could see his younger friend returning every cent to the casinos at the roulette tables or blowing it all on frivolities. “If you had a million dollars, what 10 things would you do?” Kane asked him. He wanted Nestor to make a list and really think through his priorities.
Nestor started a list, but it would prove unnecessary. After another day at the Fremont, they branched out. To their surprise, the button sequence didn't work. Over the following days, they explored the Hilton, the Cannery, then the Stratosphere, Terrible's, the Hard Rock, the Tropicana, the Luxor, and five other casinos, drawing the same dismal results everywhere. For some reason, the Game King glitch was only present at the Fremont.
At the end of a frustrating week, Nestor headed to the airport for his return flight with just $8,000 in winnings. As a final insult, he lost $700 in a video poker machine while waiting for his plane.
Kane decided to wring what he could from the four Fremont machines. He learned to speed up the process by using the Game King's Double Up feature, which gave players a chance to double their winnings or lose everything. Respectable payouts that might once have satisfied Kane were garbage now. After five weeks using the new strategy, Kane had pocketed more than $100,000 from the Fremont.
Unsurprisingly, the Fremont noticed. In modern casinos, every slot machine in the house is wired to a central server, where statistical deviations stick out like a fifth ace. The four machines under the Chinese food sign shot to the top of the Fremont's “loser list” of underperforming games: They'd gone from providing the casino a reliable $14,500 a month to costing it $75,000 in May alone.
On May 25, a slot manager approached Kane after one of his wins and announced that he was disabling the Double Up feature on all of the Game Kings—he was aware that Kane used the option copiously, and he figured it must have something to do with his run of luck.