Most people dedicate their lives to seeking happiness, some of whom believe this desired happiness will bring them material wealth. For some men, this means a lifetime of commitment and hard work; for some, it comes as scratch lottery tickets or contests entry. But fewer still devoted their lives to a specific calling.
These individuals dream of becoming rich with a very specific method: by visiting casinos and trying to beat the house edge, especially when playing slot machines. It’s only a few that succeed – the odds are against them, and most are inevitably caught with changing technology and topnotch security measures. Nevertheless, two people left a mark on the history of casino cheats; two names that remain legends till today: Tommy Glenn Carmichael and Dennis Nikrasch.
So, which brilliant slot machine cheat wears the crown? We’ll let you know.
TOMMY GLENN CARMICHAEL: THE INFAMOUS INVENTOR
THE EARLY YEARS
Carmichael was born on July the 5th, 1950 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was a wise kid, trying to figure out how things worked. History technology developed rapidly at that point, and it was something that appealed to him from an early age. Carmichael tried to learn something, break it apart, see what it was, and tinker with it. His early interest led him to open a repair shop for TVs and other devices, but soon afterwards, rival companies appeared, and his popularity didn’t last.
Fast forward to a day in 1980, a high school friend stopped for a visit, bringing Carmichael a surprise in his car’s trunk: a slot machine with a top-bottom joint. The slot machine was up Carmichael’s alley — interesting modern technology that could be isolated and researched. So the top-down joint? It was a tool to use to achieve something important.
The top-bottom joint was the best buddy of the slot hacker, a gadget that could be used to win slots. It consisted of two parts working together to “fool” the hopper, the mechanism that frees payout from a winning combination.
The bottom part was a short piece of guitar string, and the top was a nine-shaped metal plate. First, the bottom piece was placed into the machine’s bottom left corner, diverting energy from the circuit board and redirecting around the machine. The top piece was inserted into the coin slot, completing the electrical circuit, hot wiring the hopper’s motor, and activating payout.
The set-up was incredibly straightforward: simply recreate the kind of circuit that resulted in a true winning combination, and you would get the payoff without wasting time waiting for a random winning turn. It was so effortless it was almost comical.
THE LURE OF VEGAS
Carmichael didn’t take long to isolate the system and gain a thorough understanding of how it operated, and the top-bottom joint. After that, it didn’t take much to get him to see how far his little hobby would take him — none, in fact. With a failing company, community service for two drug trafficking charges, and a third failed marriage, Carmichael had nothing to lose.
So off he went with his trusty top-bottom joint to Vegas and flew from casino to casino, earning thousands as he went. Luckily, Carmichael, it started in 1980. Technology was changing, but he could more than keep up with it. And it’d be many years before casinos began introducing security measures and installing cameras, so Carmichael could just walk in and take advantage of casinos as he pleased.
Carmichael lived the dream, but as time passed, casinos and police slowly caught this pattern of cheating methods. After five years of breezing through big wins, the police caught him in the act with the top-bottom joint in his pocket. Of course, he wanted to talk his way out of it, saying it was his car’s tool. Officers didn’t believe it. The outcome? Five-year jail term.
FINDING HIS CALLING
Ten years of slot machine cheating, five years in prison. Carmichael had much time thoroughly considering the life choices he had made and contemplating the decisions he had before him. Many people will see common sense in trying to change your life. The chance of being caught isn’t worth it.
Yet that’s not what jail taught him for Carmichael. He knew the interest of leaving. He wasn’t dumb. No, he saw another, superior solution in his mind: get better at what you are doing. If you can gain knowledge and improve, you can avoid the same mistakes that landed you in trouble.
And that’s what he did.
He met a guy named Michael Balsamo in prison and decided to get together until they were both released. They’d build a squad, a more advanced program to trick casinos, a way to go down the same path, but without being captured.
Eventually both men left jail. We spoke, and both knew that the past five years had done several things for the computer gaming industry—new technologies, including microprocessors and tighter casino security protocols. The top-bottom joint was obsolete and useless. Yet these shifts unfazed Carmichael. In reality, they gave him a welcome challenge to flow his imagination.
Carmichael created another tool, Monkey Paw, after purchasing and testing a new computer. When the payout chute was mounted, the system activated a micro switch in the computer and the machines would release a payout — up to $1,000 an hour. That’s when Carmichael knew he was invincible, unbeatable — with every twist and turn he knew he ‘d use his talent to innovate in beating casinos.
THE BIG MOMENT
When gaming technology changed, Carmichael needed to step up his game. He went straight to source this time. As an interested client, he went to an International Game Technology showroom and checked an upgraded slot machine inside. He asked an IGT engineer detailed questions and got a lot of detailed answers, finally purchasing one of the machines. Days later, the light wand was born. The device simply shone a light that blinded the machine’s sensor, causing the hopper to pay out without “knowing” it.
Carmichael was ambitious. With through development of slot machines, he will alter his own creations. Moreover, there was an entrepreneurial side of things going on – Carmichael not only used the device for himself, but he even sold it in the underground world of casino cheats, taking in tens of thousands. With through IGT’s effort to better their machines, Carmichael was ready to counteract their behavior with another unit.
Finally, the activity grew. Carmichael collaborated with Balsamo with another thief, Ramon David Pereira, and the three formed a team with other supporters. Some acted as security guards; others blocked cameras. We raked in $5 million a day, visiting Atlantic City casinos to win more.
Where ALL UNRAVELED
And what got him in trouble? Things actually went well — too well. Carmichael’s tragic flaw was his ego. He was cocky. He truly believed he could continue this lifestyle he had created for himself, inventing more and more devices to fool casinos, cruising, winning thousands every day, spending money lavishly, but his winnings were too big to go unnoticed. Officers were on him, they couldn’t catch him.
Carmichael and his team finally visited a casino with newly mounted cameras, and the “blockers” struggled to hide their activity from sight. After a few subsequent arrests and releases, wiretap and informant evidence piled up. Carmichael said farewell to his slots, with a record of two convictions in Nevada for slot theft and one in New Jersey. He obtained a federal indictment in 2000 as a technological developer and manufacturer of software in a national project. He was permanently barred from going into a casino.
While later Carmichael believed he had created an anti-cheating system that would protect against all other devices, the Nevada Gaming Commission expressed skepticism, suspecting the technology could be turned into another cheating system.
Notwithstanding his stealing days, Carmichael’s reputation persists. The police will remember the scheme as something that was impossible to spot, and fellow slot cheaters still look at him as a legend with unrivaled ability to invent new tools without limits.
DENNIS NIKRASCH: THE GRAND ORCHESTRATOR
THE EARLY YEARS
Unlike other people who ultimately pulled off major scams, Dennis Nikrasch, born Dennis McAndrew, didn’t get into the casino robbery industry right away. No – Nikrasch started dabbling in smaller crimes and, like many others, found a way to put his natural talents to work.
For Nikrasch, his thief career started in Chicago with a harmless job: he became a locksmith. A skilled locksmith opened his eyes to untapped opportunities. With his deep knowledge of locksmith devices, he was able to pick almost any lock. Briefly, he was free to break into what people loved most: items like houses , cars, and private safes were all his for taking.
But his criminal activity didn’t stop there – his list of “accomplishments” grew, and he gained self-reputation. His talents quickly attracted the attention of an influential Chicago crime family, who hired him to commit crimes on their behalf in return for safety. His crimes were estimated to be in the hundreds, breaking into homes and stealing cars until 1961, when the act caught him. With the impressive portfolio of Nikrasch, police had no trouble linking him to some other burglaries, and he was sentenced for ten years behind bars.
THE VEGAS Attraction
After serving his sentence, Dennis Nikrasch left prison and had nothing. But after being accustomed to a comfortable standard of life in which he never needed anything, attempting to live by the law wouldn’t happen. Nikrasch was ready for more, a world bigger than neighborhood burglaries, like Tommy Glenn Carmichael: Las Vegas.
He worked after Nikrasch moved to Vegas. He played slots, but with limited results. He began working his locksmith problem-solving skills early. He asked — was there a way to trick the machines?
Naturally, the answer was yes. Dennis was able to look at the keyhole of the computer, make a key that could unlock it, and then use magnets to activate a jackpot. Eight years and $10 million later, he was arrested and sentenced to five years in jail.
FINDING HIS CALLING
Unlike Carmichael, his prison term undeterred Nikrasch. The motivation to make money with little or no work involved was too strong – even irresistible. He served his time and returned to the game. The technology had advanced and its tactics were ineffective. Driven by the same strong motivation, he sought out someone who understood how the new chip technology worked. He managed to contact Eugene Bulgarino, a member of his past crime family. Bulgarino lacked criminal background. He purchased two slot machines, removing them to try different items.
After months of research, Nikrasch figured out how to build a microchip to cause a jackpot if used instead of a standard chip. The next step was to find a way to remove the chip without the attention of casino workers or guests.
Nikrasch and Bulgarino developed a complex program with a whole casino cheat squad. Group leaders would arrive at casinos at various times to avoid being identified with each other, and they rarely talked directly to each other.
Their first effort was in summer 1997 at Harrah’s Hotel and Casino. After that, Dennis arrived, found an suitable slot machine, shut it down, and quickly replaced the coin. Wasting no time, he’d quit the casino entirely. Only then will another accomplice get on the machine, winning the jackpot. This tradition of quitting the casino before the jackpot.
Where it ALL UNRAVELED
Far too often, these success stories and endings belong to the conspirators. Around now, you’d think people who are leaders and start orchestrating extremely criminal acts will have learned from the errors of others. The trick not to get caught can sometimes be to treat your teammates well and win their loyalty – their satisfaction with (or lack of) arrangement is crucial. Nikrasch was good at almost everything, but he made a mistake in this area.
Dennis’ fatal weakness was his arrogance, eventually leading to his downfall. He wasn’t able to be generous for all these plentiful wins. Nikrasch claimed 50-70% of the profits for himself and split the rest among the other team members. While he was the strategist, each time these participants put themselves at considerable risk and their involvement was crucial to each successful operation.
Their criminal acts may have gone undetected for longer, but as it was, Nikrasch’s reluctance to change how wins were divided marked the beginning of the end. While failing to convince Nikrasch to redistribute the winnings, a dissatisfied complice eventually turned him into the FBI.
But with an insider’s help, it took the FBI a while to gather facts. There was no clearly damning evidence as they ran background checks on the squad, nothing. Finally, the FBI got lucky when they caught a meeting in person between Bulgarino and Nikrasch planning. As a result, they set up a wiretap in Nikrasch’s home and captured an incriminating conversation in which both men discussed past crimes in detail and decided to fine-tune their strategy. The wiretap received more than ample detention.
The squad visited six Vegas casinos ten times a year in all, and Nikrasch hoped to hit the $17 million Megabucks jackpot when he was arrested. During his career, he and his team brought millions.
Keith Copher, Nevada Gaming Control Board’s head of enforcement, said after his arrest, “He had the most complex device we’ve ever seen. We don’t know he’s passed it on, so if he’s, he’d better tell us.
He was eventually sentenced to 7.5 years in jail after promising to cooperate with police and justify his tricks, released in 2004 and died of unknown causes in 2010.
Tommy Glenn Carmichael and Dennis Nikrasch both mastered their craft. They were technically smart , creative, and resilient individuals with the drive and experience to conquer the obstacles of slot machine technology at any stage, allegedly stealing millions over their careers, and both won respect from those in their industry.
So what do you think — who deserves the crown as the world’s biggest slots cheater?