The gambling machines of 1887 weren’t the most technologically advanced of apparatuses. Created by the New York company Sittman and Pitt, the first ever slot machines were played in the bars of Brooklyn and contained five reels which were loaded with a total of 50 playing cards.
To win, the player must line up a poker hand on the reel, but there was no automatic payout mechanism, so every win was paid out at the bar. If a player hit a pair of Kings, they’d win a free drink. If they hit a royal flush, they’d win a pack of cigars. Prizes differed from establishment to establishment.
Automatic payout machines followed a couple of years later, but the mechanical machines of the late 19th and early 20th century were exceptionally easy to manipulate and were often found to have been paying out at rates of less than 50% (RTP) (in contrast, slot machines of today very rarely payout less than 90% and are limited by law to 75% and above).
The emergence of the first electromechnical slot in 1964 did plenty to slow that manipulation down, as did the first video slot 12 years later, but it didn’t put a stop to the problem. In fact, in the end, it made things worse.
In the 1980’s, a company called American Coin, who owned 1,000 slot machines in Las Vegas, had to pay a penalty of over $1m after they were found to have altered the programming on their Keno games as not to draw royal flushes, the top paying hand.
In time, as technology improved, the machines became exceptionally easy to manipulate. Before the invention of the first video slot, each mechanical machine had to be opened individually and changed, costing the casino around $1,000. Now, in the 21st century, a programme can be used to alter every machine in the casino in one go.
“With the technology, it takes 20 seconds,” said the executive director for slots at Treasure Island in Las Vegas.
Regulations these days are incredibly tight in Las Vegas, chips need to be approved before use, and any manipulation would be dealt with swiftly and with monumental fines – possibly even a casino closure. But the possibility is very much there.
In Sicily where the machines also appear under a similar kind of network, over the past dozen or so years, the Mafia were found to be controlling the machines – changing the payout rates and altering how much could be won. Similar problems have arisen around the globe from Australia to Macau too.
Online gaming isn’t free from scandals either. In 2007, a New York Times investigation brought down a Canadian online poker operator called AbsolutePoker when they were found to have stolen between $500k and $1m by placing their own player’s in-game and allowing them to check everyone else’s digital cards at the table. In 2013, the games Reel Deal and Hi/Lo Gambler ran by Realistic Games, which were found on big online casinos like Betfred and Nordicbet, were found to be playing at 96% RTP despite being advertised at 100%.
“We accept that Betfred Games has been running two versions of the same game for free and money play respectively and that is simply not acceptable,” said a Betfred statement at the time.
“Based on that we will be refunding all losses on the game from when the game was introduced to Betfred.”
However, the five years that have followed have been completely scandal free, and that is being attributed to the advancement in technological security conducted by the online gambling authorities.
The online gambling industry is currently estimated to be worth $52bn worldwide, and in the UK alone last year the online gambling industry made £4.7bn worth of profit. To keep this huge sector in check, four ‘Independent Testing Bodies’ – eCOGRA, iTech Labs, Gaming Laboratories International and Technology Systems Testing – all recognised by the UK Gambling Commission, provide rolling reports on the legitimacy of online games and casinos.
“Our mission is to provide world-class testing, certification and professional services to the global gaming industry, and to accomplish our mission with the highest levels of independence and integrity,” say Gaming Laboratories International on their website.
These testing bodies run several rigorous checks on the software and hardware running on online casinos. Statistical randomness, unpredictability, non-repeatability, re-seeding and cycling, and the internal state of the Random Number Generator (RNG) are all monitored.
Checking the operation of the RNG ensures that cards, slot game symbols, die and jackpot triggers are all working as intended – statistically randomly and sufficiently unpredictably. The RNG is vital to the inner workings of on an online casino game as it is the algorithm which determines how the whole thing works.
During an assessment, a number of processes are conducted including: the examination of the source code and compilation of the internal state of the RNG, the implementation of the RNG, the compilation of the RNG code, and the identification of the RNG algorithm. The raw numbers of the RNG algorithm are also subjected to diehard tests, and Chi-square tests are applied to specific games.
Independent Testing Bodies also have automatic software which detects any kind of irregular modifications made by the online casinos, and when it comes to assessment; games and casinos are directed for entirely at random by the testing bodies, like drug tests in sport.
However, unlike drug tests in sport, the cheats aren’t one step ahead of the game. The testing bodies very much have the power in their hands, and with almost every gambling company making a substantial profit anyway, there is really no need to cheat as the punishment is not at all worth it.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t be done. Thankfully, technology and regulations have come a long way since 1887, and the governing bodies and watchdogs finally seem to have the player at the forefront of their minds. All things considered, there’s never been a safer time to be a gambler.