Nickels and Crimes: The man who beat Las Vegas

Nickels and Crimes


The Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca once famously said: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” 2,000 years later – his words still ring true.

If you’re planning on spending some time enjoying a little action at either a real world or an online casino, it is always best to be well prepared.

This week, we are looking at Tommy Carmichael: if you see him playing a slot machine, don’t bother trying it after him. It’s probably empty.

Tommy’s Toys

All it takes is a chance encounter to change the direction of your life. In 1980, Tommy Glenn Carmichael was working at the Ace TV Sales and Service Shop in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

His career as a television repair man was flatlining and the prospects weren’t great. In walks his old friend Ray Ming and Tommy’s life changes forever.

Ray Ming had been living in Las Vegas. In the boot of his car were two things: a Bally slot machine and a ‘top-bottom joint’.

Nickels and Crimes 1The ‘top-bottom-joint’ was a curled section of steel that worked in tandem with a thinner – ‘guitar string’ – piece of wire, to cheat slot machines in Las Vegas casinos.

To use the device, you would insert the thin wire into the bottom of the machine and draw a small charge from the machine’s internal electrics. You would then complete a circuit by inserting the top wire into the coin slot. The machine couldn’t help itself – it would start paying out coins.

Carmichael was impressed by his friend’s demonstration and shut up the repair shop forever. Aged just 30, he left for Sin City with his fourth wife. The television repair days were history – a 20 year career as a professional cheat was about to begin.

Nickels and Crimes

In Las Vegas, Carmichael cracked his first slot: a five-cent machine off the strip. He pocketed £35 in nickels. “I could see where it was pretty easy to do. You are thinking you are going to have yachts and cars. You know, the American Dream,” he said.

Five years later, he would be in prison.

At 3am, Carmichael tried to crack a slot in the Denny’s Restaurant just west of the Strip. Police burst in and found the top-bottom joint in his pocket.

Carmichael had some previous and the new conviction was enough to send him to prison. He was sentenced to five years but served only two.

“In the penitentiary there’s not a whole lot to think about,” Carmichael said. “You think about what you did and the mistakes and how to correct them. You either get straight or get better.”

“I was playing a dinosaur,” Carmichael said, referring to the top-bottom joint. “Everybody knew about it. It limited where you could play.”

On his release, Carmichael realized the slots industry had changed. The old machines – that were driven by mechanics and electricity – were being replaced by high-tech games that used computer software and microprocessors. Simply short-circuiting the machine would no longer work.

“Give me a slot machine and I’ll beat it”

Nickels and Crimes 2Undeterred, Carmichael bought himself a brand new video poker machine and spent six months forensically probing its innards. His solution: the slider aka the monkey paw.

The device was made of spring steel and guitar wire and was worked into the machine where it triggered the hopper and tricked it into spitting out its contents. The device earned its owned up to $1,000 every hour.

“Figure out how a machine counts money and then work your way into the machine” explained Carmichael. “The casinos were so asleep. I lived a nice lifestyle. You’d stop and move to the next machine. You could leave a whole room empty,” he said.

By 1991, slots manufacturers had remedied the security flaw. It was time to wave goodbye to the monkey paw. “You can only ride a horse so far,” said Carmichael.

The Light Wand

Carmichael’s most infamous invention was the light wand. Posing as a customer, he made a cheeky visit to the showrooms of game manufacturer IGT. An engineer unwittingly opened up a machine and answered all Carmichael’s questions.

The light wand was consisted of a camera battery and a tiny light bulb. When it was inserted into the machine, the bulb would ‘blind’ the sensor inside and cause it to pay out coins. Simple and very effective.

Carmichael was on a roll. Not only was he taking up to $10,000 a day out of the machines, he was selling his device on to other cheats as well. He played every day at casinos in Atlantic City, Colorado, Louisiana and all over.

He would take cheating trips with his topless dancer girlfriend and, in 1995, he took seven cruises in six months, scamming casinos in Nassau, Aruba, St Thomas, as well as on the cruise ships.

He drove a Jaguar JX6, had two houses, a pawn shop, and paid his taxes. His ‘average’ appearance and flawless technique helped him dodge the police for years. “Our adventure would have made Ocean’s Eleven seem boring,” said Carmichael’s 34-year-old girlfriend.

Luck Runs Out…

In the end, a combination of arrests, informants, and federal wiretaps put an end to Carmichael’s adventures. “The conversations were devastating,” Las Vegas FBI agent Jerry W. Hanford said. “We couldn’t have scripted them any better.”

On September 7, 2001, Carmichael was sentenced to time served – 326 days – and given three years probation. He also lost both his homes and received a banning order from any casino.

These days, he is poacher turned gamekeeper and develops anti-cheating devices. He is listed as a ‘substantial threat to the gaming industry’ by the Nevada Gaming Board.

In the online world, things are different and playing online slots is very secure. Random number generators use complicated algorithms to continually generate new numbers. These numbers can have more than 200,000 digits. Even Carmichael would struggle to crack these. However, the main advantage of the online slot is that the average payout is around the 97% mark. With land-based slots, the average payout is closer to 85%.

Of course, if all this has put you in the mood for a little bit of action on the slots, look no further. The fun starts here.

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