Michael LaPointe’s monthly column, Dice Roll, focuses on the art of the gamble, one famous gambler at a time.
Tommy saw the solution in a dream. “I’m seeing myself from behind,” he recalled, “and I have [the tool] in my hand.” All through 1990, he’d been searching for a way to cheat the latest slot machines. He needed a new tool, something to replace the clumsy old instrument that had landed him in the penitentiary. Night and day in his Vegas apartment, he toiled on a Fortune One video poker machine. But no matter what he tried, some riddle in the guts of the unit would thwart him.
Then, in the recess of sleep, the solution appeared in all its brilliant simplicity: a flexible piece of metal, wedged at the top, and some piano wire. “I woke up,” he told the History Channel, “actually got out of bed, and went and built it.” Tommy had found his answer: The Monkey Paw.
When a friend dropped by Ace TV Sales and Service in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1980, Tommy Glenn Carmichael was just an unremarkable repairman who moonlighted as a pool hustler. He had minor drug convictions and some juvenile mischief on his criminal record, but nothing about the thirty-year-old suggested that he’d one day stand among the most inventive cheats in gambling history.
Carmichael’s friend had brought along some toys to tinker with: a Bally’s slot machine and a cheating device called the top-bottom joint. Of how his multi-million-dollar criminal enterprise got started that day, Carmichael simply said, “We got to playing around.”
Triggering a payout with a top-bottom joint was a crude operation. A piece of guitar string comprised the “bottom” part of the tool. It went into the left corner of the machine, up against the circuitboard, and sent low-wattage electricity coursing through the unit. The “top” part was a piece of metal curved like the number nine. When inserted into the coin slot, it completed a circuit powerful enough to hot-wire the hopper, where the coins are kept.
Sensing his destiny, Carmichael closed his repair shop and moved to Las Vegas, eager to put the top-bottom joint to work. After his first attempt, he walked off with about thirty-five bucks in nickels—chump change compared to what would come, but enough to confirm that he was onto something big. “You are thinking you are going to have yachts and cars,” he later told the Associated Press. “You know, the American Dream.”
That dream fell apart on Independence Day, 1985. After a few years of success with the top-bottom joint, Carmichael was playing slots at a Denny’s near the Strip when police slammed him against the wall and discovered the device. He was arrested, convicted, and sent to the penitentiary.
But he wasn’t scared straight. He knew he’d found his calling. Once he was out, Tommy vowed to reinvent himself as the slot machine wizard of Las Vegas.
When Carmichael was arrested in 1985, slots had come a long way from their nickel-plated, side-handled origins. German mechanics in San Francisco invented the first slots in the early 1870s, but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that the Liberty Bell machine set the standard, with its three reels of spinning lucky charms: bells, horseshoes, hearts.
Although slots gained popularity during Prohibition, their conquest of casino floors was slow. Compared to the skilled, high-stakes action of table games like poker and blackjack, slots were nothing but a pull of the lever of chance and the payoffs were relatively small. The machines were relegated to the periphery of the casino floor, and pejoratively associated with bored wives killing time while their husbands bet the farm. One Atlantic City casino vice president said the machines suffered from “the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome”: they couldn’t get no respect.
That began to change in 1963, when Bally Manufacturing introduced the Money Honey, widely considered the first modern slot machine. The Money Honey came with front-light electricity and sound effects, giving the play some sizzle. But more crucially, it contained a 2,500-coin hopper. Prior to the Money Honey, if the gambler hit a jackpot, they had to wait for a member of casino staff to verify the win and pay them in cash. As casino operator Warren Butcher said, “This didn’t just slow up play, it kind of suggested closure, an end to the game … it tempted the customer to cease play and walk out the door with his winnings.”
With a 2,500-coin hopper, however, odds increased that the gambler would keep playing their winnings back into the machine. Play became continuous, endless. The Money Honey set the industry on an illustrious track that would, some forty years later, lead one Canadian company to market adult diapers specifically to slot-machine addicts who refused to staunch the flow of play. In 1981, slots out-earned table games at Las Vegas casinos, and the same happened in Atlantic City in 1984.
Each phase of the slot machine’s evolution inspired commensurate innovation among cheaters. It began with plugged nickels and coins on strings. At one point, you could pour laundry detergent into the slot in lieu of money (how someone discovered this is anybody’s guess), or jam the gears by giving the arms an awkward tug at just the right moment. Then came a succession of more sophisticated tools like the shim, which could manipulate Mills and Buckley machines, and Jenny’s Shaker, which enabled you to move the reels around.
It was a constant arms race with manufacturers. As soon as a cheating device gained popularity, security was one step ahead. The top-bottom joint, which first inspired Tommy Carmichael, worked for a while, but it was old-fashioned by the time of his bust in Denny’s. “I was playing a dinosaur,” he said. In 1990, after his time in the penitentiary, slot cheats awaited the next breakthrough.
Tommy’s Monkey Paw, nicknamed after its wedged, beckoning tip, slid up into the payout chute and triggered a microswitch, emptying out the hopper. The success was overwhelming. This wasn’t the cursed monkey’s paw of W.W. Jacobs’s short story; Carmichael had gotten what he’d wished for, and it was excellent. “You could leave a whole room empty,” he marveled, estimating that he regularly walked away with $1,000 an hour. “You got a credit card that won’t run out.”
But in the slot cheat business, triumph is always short-lived. Less than two years after The Monkey Paw’s invention, fresh innovations in security rendered it obsolete. Indeed, the legacy of The Monkey Paw wasn’t so much in its lasting efficacy, but in the confidence it instilled in Tommy. Archimedes once said, “Give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth.” At the end of the nineties, Tommy Carmichael declared, “Give me a slot machine and I’ll beat it.”
In 1992, Tommy was perusing the showroom of International Game Technology (IGT), a leading slots manufacturer, disguised as a customer. He needed to understand what was going wrong with The Monkey Paw. When he asked an engineer for a glimpse inside one of the machines, to his amazement, the man obeyed. Eureka. “The second he opened it up,” Tommy said, “I knew how to beat it.”
The new machines employed electronic sensors to keep track of how many coins were being dispensed by the hopper. Tommy’s new device, “the light wand,” comprised a camera battery and a miniature light bulb. When shone up into the machine, the light wand blinded the sensor, making it oblivious to how many coins it was dispensing. Say you put a hundred bucks into the machine, then requested it to cash out your input. With a light wand, that hundred would quickly become two, then three—whatever you had the nerve to take.
It was Tommy’s most devastating invention yet. The light wand cost just $2.50 to build, and some slot cheats said they could make $10,000 a day from it. The device proliferated so widely that gambling authority Jason England dubbed the mid-’90s the “light wand era.” “It was probably the device that took more money out of the industry than any other,” England said, estimating the damage in the high hundreds of millions.
Tommy had finally chased down his American Dream. He owned a house in Rancho Bel Air and a Jaguar XJ6; he dated a topless dancer; he paid his taxes on time. Touring around in a mobile home, he’d cheat casinos in Connecticut, Colorado, and Louisiana. In 1995, risking a walk on the plank, Tommy took seven cruises in six months, ripping off slots all through the tropics.
By now, his operation was perfected. He always worked with a team of “shades,” using them to block security, and kept a dutiful eye on the latest technological developments. When IGT installed the Actuator Arm to counter the light wand, Tommy answered the challenge in just over an hour with “the hanger.” He was at the height of his powers, an artist in his prime: “I really felt they couldn’t make one I couldn’t beat.”
Although lacking the romance of card sharps, or the freakish genius of card counters, slot cheats are uniquely innocuous, almost laudable characters. If you cheat at table games, you’re siphoning money from your fellow gamblers. But if you cheat at slots, it’s just you versus the casino. There’s a reason that slots are nicknamed “one-armed bandits”: we intuitively sense that their gains are ill-gotten. And so, like Omar Little in The Wire, the slot cheat is only stealing money that‘s already dirty. “I wasn’t hijacking somebody at the family store,” Tommy said. “It was always directed at the casinos.” One notorious cheater named Timothy John Childs once listed “slot cheat” as his occupation on a loan application; that’s how close to legitimacy it sometimes seemed.
But the life of a slot machine outlaw came with high risks. Tommy’s enterprise began to unravel in 1996, when he got busted with a second-generation light wand at Circus Circus. Those charges were dropped, but Tommy kept surfacing on law-enforcement’s radar. In 1998, he was arrested again in Laughlin, Nevada. At the time, he was dreaming up his most ambitious device ever. As he described to the television show Breaking Vegas, written by Peter Fruchtman and directed by Ted Schillinger, “The Tongue” would enable him to steal about two thousand dollars per second by loading up machines with credits and then cashing out. The plan was to snatch millions and retire.
When he was apprehended again, in Atlantic City in 1999, it turned out that federal wiretaps had been recording Tommy and his crew discuss The Tongue. In 2001, he admitted to operating an illegal gambling enterprise, and was given eleven months in prison. It was estimated that his team had stolen over $5 million. Even with all that, Tommy probably would’ve found his way back into the life, hypnotically drawn, like so many gamblers, to the dazzling interface of the machine. But then came the Black Book.
Created in 1960, the Black Book was ostensibly developed to keep organized crime out of the Nevada gaming industry. If your name is placed in the book, it’s a crime for you to enter a casino. The process of who gets included has always been arbitrary, even hypocritical. As Ronald Farrell and Carole Case write in The Black Book and the Mob: The Untold Story of the Control of Nevada’s Casinos, “Not all who might have presented a serious threat to gaming at the time were placed in the Black Book.” Given so many early Vegas investors’ pasts in bootlegging and illegal gambling, “This would have been impossible.” Instead, the Black Book has always been leveraged to target certain groups and manipulate the balance of power. Only one thing is for certain: once you’re in, it’s virtually impossible to get out.
When word came down that he was going in the book, Tommy didn’t contest it. “It’s a no-win situation,” he said, “a kangaroo court.” He’d already lost his house and his car. Resigned, he moved back to Tulsa. The American Dream was over.
But the Edison of the Strip had one last burst of inspiration. Claiming he’d had a change of heart and wanted to “right a wrong,” Tommy invented “The Protector,” an anti-cheating device for slot machines. At the time, he estimated that he was responsible for ninety percent of cheating devices in circulation, and that The Protector was the one solution he’d always been afraid the manufacturers would discover. When any sort of light shone inside the machine, The Protector would prompt the unit to shut down. In 2002, Tommy sold his patent, which ended up in the possession of iGames Entertainment. The device was approved by Nevada regulators and sold to Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines for use in its casinos.
Yet Carmichael, who died in 2019, survived by his two dogs, Mojo and Scochie, never stopped haunting the slot machine industry’s unconscious. When the Nevada Gaming Commission discovered that iGames Entertainment’s anti-cheating device had been invented by Carmichael, they launched an investigation into its legitimacy. Said one member of the Gaming Control Board, “There’s little doubt in our minds that Tommy Carmichael has the knowledge and the ability to reprogram it.”
Was The Protector just Tommy’s most elaborate scheme yet, a Trojan Horse for every slot? His patent application contains expertly drawn diagrams, the fruit of a lifetime spent with slots, indicating precisely how The Protector would fit into the machine. And then he concludes, “Further objects, features, and advantages of the present invention will be apparent to those skilled in the art upon examining the accompanying drawings.”
Michael LaPointe is a writer in Toronto. His debut novel, The Creep, will be published by Random House Canada in 2021