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This Slot Master Is No Two-Bit Cheat

Oklahoma man designed tools to bilk millions from machines in casinos nationwide. Then his luck ran out.

August 17, 2003|Adam Goldman | Associated Press Writer

TULSA, Okla. — In the back of a strip mall workshop a slot machine sits on two green milk crates like a patient on an operating table, its electronic innards exposed.

Standing in front of the machine is Tommy Glenn Carmichael, 53, who boasts a unique and lucrative talent:

"Give me a slot machine and I'll beat it."

Carmichael is no two-bit slot cheat. Authorities have anointed him one of the best, a master inventor who conspired with an elite group of thieves to steal millions from casinos.

For almost two decades, Carmichael designed tools -- the kickstand, the monkey paw, the light wand -- that enabled him to bilk slot machines across the United States and Caribbean.

Along the way, he fooled casino security as easily as he duped the machines. He was as elusive as triple sevens.

"A legend," convicted slot cheat Jerry Criner calls Carmichael. "He's the greatest mind as far as developing cheating tools."

Police don't dispute the superlative.

*

It's 1980. Carmichael, 30, is sitting in his Tulsa television repair shop called Ace TV Sales and Service when in walks his old friend, Ray Ming, then living in Las Vegas. Ming had something to show Carmichael.

In his car's trunk, Ming had a Bally's slot machine and a "top-bottom joint" -- the Cadillac of cheating tools 20 years ago.

"We got to playing around," Carmichael said. "I could see where it was pretty easy to do."

Carmichael had discovered his knack for cheating.

He immediately decided to close the repair shop. The lure of Las Vegas proved irresistible for Carmichael, a native of Tulsa whose thick brown hairstyle recalls a youthful Johnny Cash. He and his fourth wife left for Sin City.

He first bilked a 5-cent machine at a casino near the Las Vegas Strip, strolling out proudly with pockets bulging with $35 in nickels.

"You are thinking you are going to have yachts and cars," he said. "You know, the American Dream."

*

The Denny's Restaurant just west of the Strip was practically empty at 3 a.m. on July 4, 1985.

After drinking a cup of coffee, Carmichael began playing a slot machine. Moments later police slammed him against a wall and searched him.

Inside his pocket was the top-bottom joint. He claimed it was used to start his car.

At 35, Carmichael's rap sheet now included his first cheating blemish to go along with two small-time drug convictions and some juvenile mischief. He was sentenced to five years.

"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."

Carmichael got better.

"I was playing a dinosaur," Carmichael said, referring to the top-bottom joint, which worked by short-circuiting machines. "Everybody knew about it. It limited where you could play." Behind bars, Carmichael also met Mike Balsamo, who would help form a slot-cheat gang. They agreed to find each other after their release.

But when freedom came in May 1987 -- the same year he divorced for the last time -- Carmichael found a technical revolution sweeping the industry.

Beginning in the early 1980s, the leading manufacturers, Bally and International Game Technology, rolled out new high-tech slot and video poker machines that used microprocessors and random number generator software. The old hybrid machines relied on a combination of electricity and physics.

"It went from a machine to a computer game," said Frank Legato, an industry expert who writes for gambling trade publications.

The new machines that played catchy tunes and offered megajackpots also made it harder to cheat. People who attached quarters to strings or used slugs found their techniques outdated.

"They had to get more sophisticated," said Mark Robinson, former manager of the Nevada Gaming Control Board's Electronic Services Division.

In 1990, Carmichael returned to Las Vegas and bought IGT's Fortune One video poker machine.

For six months, he toiled over a device -- known as the slider or monkey paw -- trying to compromise the machine.

The slider -- constructed of spring steel and guitar wire -- essentially snaked its way into the machine through the payout chute and tripped a microswitch.

That fooled the hopper, the bucket holding the quarters, into spitting out its payload.

"It was a smart idea," fellow cheat Balsamo said.

Carmichael's approach was simple, he said: "Figure out how a machine counts money and then work your way into the machine."

*

The slider enabled Carmichael to bank about $1,000 an hour.

"The casinos were so asleep," Carmichael said. "I lived a nice lifestyle. You'd stop and move to the next machine. You could leave a whole room empty."

But the slider's effectiveness didn't last long, running its profitable course by about 1991. Improved slot technology doomed it.

"You can only ride a horse so far," Carmichael shrugged.

He went to the Las Vegas showroom of IGT, which dominated the industry. Posing as a customer, he inspected the inside of a machine, and an IGT engineer answered his technical questions.

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