A healthy argument can be made that there is only one thing worse than losing money in both a land-based and an online casino site: Winning money and then, for what appears to be no good reason, having the windfall taken away. As has recently become clear, casinos are not obligated to make good on a win if it can be proven that a gaming-machine paid out more than it was supposed to – whether through the action of a player or a glitch on the part of the machine
This lesson was learned the hard way by Katrina Bookman who appeared to win nearly $43 million – and has the selfie to prove it – after a slot machine’s screen advised her that she hit a massive jackpot at Resorts World Casino in the New York City borough of Queens. Not surprisingly, seeing the machine blasting out a promise for that kind of money caused her whole body to turn numb with excitement. It was nothing short of life-changing!
The next day, after what was surely the kind of sleepless night that every gambler prays for, Bookman went to Resorts World to figures out exactly how many millions she would be bringing home and how the money would be parceled out. As she told WABC News in New York, a casino employee met with her and had less than great news. “I said [to him], ‘So, what did I win?’” Bookman recalled. “He said, ‘You didn’t win nothing.’”
Bad grammar aside, that is not 100-percent accurate. The casino said that the machine malfunctioned, that it would never pay out that kind of money and that she is entitled to a grand total of $2.25. Bookman hired an attorney and is willing to settle for the $6,500 maximum amount that the machine legitimately pays out. The casino is unenthusiastic about making that accommodation.
Like most gamblers, though, she has a sporty side. It became evident in how she believes things ought to shake out. “I should win the max,” she said. “And I feel like I should treat [the casino employee who broke the bad news] to a steak dinner” – once the money is in hand.
Bookman is not alone in feeling gypped. Players in Iowa, Washington and Oregon were dealt similarly bad hands when machines malfunctioned and overpaid. In all of those cases the casinos fought hard to hold onto their money. In at least one instance, the gambling den found support from a courtroom judge who declared that payments did not need to be made.
Cynthia Obie was in a grayer area than Bookman. She got stiffed due to human malfunction after a slot machine at National Harbor Casino in Maryland, offered her a nice score. While the exact sum that she won has not been disclosed, it is thought to be in the high five figures. As is standard for a large cash-out like that, Obie was required to supply picture ID and a social security number. Somewhere along the line, the wrong number was written down. Those erroneous digits belonged to a deadbeat parent who owed a boatload of child support.
Obie was told that she would not receive her money and that the casino is legally forbidden from paying jackpots to parents who owe child support. Just one problem: Obie was not that parent. The social security number was incorrect and misidentifying her. As she told the media, “I’m like, ‘No, all my daughters are grown. I’ve never paid child support.’ I’m, like, ‘This can’t be right.’”
MGM representatives said that they could do nothing to remedy the situation. It was made clear that Obie would need to work things out directly with Maryland’s gambling commission. But how the heck was she supposed to do that?
Fortunately, MGM was mistaken a second time. She did not need to go to the gambling commission. Soon after the SNAFU hit the media, things got miraculously sorted out and Obie received her money. But she was luckier than many – and had an easier situation to resolve.
On the upside, though, Obie and the others did not end up handcuffed and behind bars at Clark County Detention Center in downtown Las Vegas. Such was the outcome for John Kane, a piano virtuoso whose gambling-machine saga begs a question: What happens if you find a dream flaw in a gaming machine – in this case, a video poker machine – that can be easily exploited and result in massive winnings at will? Is it the casino’s responsibility to keep its machines from being vulnerable? Or is it the player’s responsibility to not exploit a flaw with the potential to generate millions of dollars?
It began with a glitch buried in the software of a video poker machine called Game King. For years, it had gone unnoticed (at least by authorities; it’s impossible to say how many people had discovered the flaw and taken advantage of it without detection). According to a story first reported in Wired magazine, Kane, a prolific gambler, stumbled across a trick – a complex series of buttons pressed in precisely the right way – that could fool the Game King machine into paying out jackpots 50 times higher than the amount of money wagered.
That realization led to a simple strategy: Play for the lowest stakes, take the losses at the small denominations and, when a jackpot hits, trick the machine into paying out at the highest rate possible. For Kane and his friend Andre Nestor, it was a license to print money. The trick seemed to work on all Game Kings at all casinos. They capitalized on it mightily and hoped that the play would last forever. Indeed, Wired estimates that Nestor took $61,000 out of Wynn Las Vegas in a single day.
Arguably, all the men had to do was play it cool, log lots of small wins at many different casinos around the world, take a minimal number of losses for camouflage purposes and nobody would ever be the wiser. But this apparent scheme turned into a case of too-much-too-soon. In a matter of days the wins became large enough to look suspect. Casino bosses shut the players down and sent the machines to be fixed. Ultimately, both men were arrested and charged with conspiracy and violations of the computer fraud and abuse act.
No serious jail time was served – thanks to Nestor and Kane both refusing to flip on the other one, strong cases against them could not be made – but Nestor was made to give up his winnings and had been pursued by the IRS for back taxes. Kane’s outcome is unclear. But there is a case to be made that finding a glitch in a machine is not cheating and that exploiting it is what most any gambler would do.
As put by Kane’s attorney during the many hearings that followed the uncovering of their profitable ploy, “All these guys did is simply push a sequence of buttons that they were legally entitled to push.”
But prosecutors and casino attorneys did not agree. And as gamblers know all too well, the house always wins.
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ABOUT MICHAEL KAPLAN
With four books (and more on the way) plus hundreds articles, Michael Kaplan is one of the most experienced writer in gambling related subjects.
He have covered big stories including famous gamblers such as Phil Ivey and Phil Hellmuth for publications including Wired, Playboy, Cigar Aficionado, New York Post and New York Times. Based in New York, where he regularly writes for the Post.