Q. Have you heard about the Russian slot hack where they could predict the next spin? They won money at casinos around the world. If random number generators are truly random, how is that even possible? You can’t predict random.
A. The phrase I’ve often used in describing random number generators is, “as random as humans can program a computer to be.” Nothing we do is truly random, and a physics-loving friend has said to me, “Nothing in the universe above quantum level is random, and even there, we’re not sure.”
RNGs can come close enough that results appear random. If you were given a file with millions of results, it would be extraordinarily difficult to discern a pattern. Payback percentages show us what we’d expect to see given random results.
The numbers generated are calculated very rapidly and continuously, even when the machine is not in use. Entry points to the algorithm used may vary. There can be different entry points for the calculation if you hit bet max on the button panel, touch the screen, use the repeat bet button or any other ways to make the bet. Those are additional randomizing factors — they help the RNG come closer and closer to randomness.
The Russians who figured out how to cheat certain slots had a head start. Casino gambling was banned in most of Russia in 2009 and thousands of slot machines were sold off. A team in St. Petersburg got hold of Aristocrat Mark VI slot machines, dismantled them and basically reverse-engineered the RNGs to crack the algorithm.
They then had operatives in casinos that had these older-model games to use their phones to record and transmit video of spins back to St. Petersburg. When the St. Peterburg team had enough information — about two dozen spins would do — they would use the algorithm to calculate when a big winning spin would come.
The operative then would receive a message to play. The phone would buzz, and the player would hit the button. A quarter-second delay was built into the timing of the message because tests had shown it would take that long after feeling the buzz for the player to hit the button.
Four operatives who worked the scam in Missouri and Illinois were arrested on federal charges of conspiracy to commit fraud.
Slot manufacturers are extremely security-conscious in designing their games. No doubt steps will be taken to make it even more difficult to crack the code, but in the absence of pure randomness, a team of clever engineers who have access to the machines can be tough to stop.
Q. I was playing Three Card Poker and could see the dealer’s hole card on every hand. If he had a low card, I made sure I bet on every hand, but wasn’t sure how much a high card should change my strategy.
A. Basic strategy for Three Card Poker is to bet with Queen-6-4 or better and fold with less. When you know the dealer has a Jack or lower, that makes a qualifying hand of Queen or better less likely. It’s to your advantage to bet regardless of your own cards when the dealer has Jack or lower — your strategy was correct.
With higher cards, better hands are more likely and your cutoff point or betting or folding rises. At WizardOfOdds.com Michael Shackelford says the optimal strategy is to bet with Queen-9-2 or better if the dealer shows a Queen, King-9-2 vs. King or Ace-9-2 vs. Ace.