Australians are big players of the pokies — and like all dedicated players, we're big losers. Each year, we lose around $10 billion.
And that's not bad luck — all poker machines are designed to only pay out a certain amount of the money put in.
In Australia, that payout is set at 87 per cent or higher. That means that averaged over a long time, the pokies will pay out 87 per cent of the money put in. It also means that while you may have a win here or there, the longer you play, the more likely you are to lose.
The Russian cheats who won millions on US poker machines weren't riding a lucky streak — they used the maths behind the seemingly random play of poker machines to really shorten the odds in their favour.
The weak spot in every poker machine
When you hit play on a pokie, the symbols start spinning and depending on the pattern that forms when they stop, you might get a payout. An unbroken row of say, five cherries, and you could get the maximum payout.
Now it's important for the 'house' that the gambler cannot predict when a winning sequence like this will appear. Ideally, the symbols should appear in a totally random order. But there are two problems with that.
First, if they were truly random, then the house would not get its cut of the gambler's money.
Second, truly random things are really hard to find. Some events are truly random — like which particular radioactive atoms will decay, or the appearance of a quantum fluctuation in a vacuum. But these happen much too slowly for modern high-speed pokies.
So in general, today's poker machines rely on pseudo-random number generators. These typically use complex mathematical formulas based on a single number, called the seed.
For example, the seed might be a number with 20 digits. You could square that number to get a 40 digit number. Then you might take the first 20 digits, and multiply them by the last 20 digits, to give you another 40 digit number. You might repeat this 100 times, and only then, pick the middle five digits.
These five digits then determine the display on the screen that the gambler sees — and if they're a continuous bunch of sevens, the player wins.
So how did the Russians foil the pseudo-random number generator and beat the pokies?
How to beat the house, Russian style
When Mr Putin banned practically all gambling in Russia in 2009, thousands of casinos sold their poker machines very cheaply to whoever would take them. Some of them went to a team in St Petersburg, who started trying to reverse engineer these pokies to see if they could scam them.
And in 2014, they were doing just that. Small teams of Russians began getting unusual payouts on American poker machines. It was suspicious because the poker machines were paying out a lot more money than they took in, even though they did not award any large or major payouts.
Another odd thing was that the Russian player would always keep one hand in their pocket, or in a small satchel. Finally, the Russian would make lots of small plays (one cent, one cent, one cent) repeatedly, and then (seemingly at random) they would make one large play of $50 or $100 — and win.
So how did they do it? With a hidden smartphone and some serious maths back in Russia.
The cheating Russians weren't playing just any old machine — they played only on the Aristocrat Mark VI, an oldish pokie manufactured in Australia.
And they did more than just press play.
After each one cent play, the gamblers would enter the pokie screen display into an app on an iPhone hidden in their pocket. (Spoiler alert: you cannot get this app from your app store.)
They would do this a few dozen times — and all that information would go back in real time to the criminal mothership in St Petersburg.
There, the mathematical criminals would work out exactly where in its pseudo-random number sequence the poker machine was.
The gambler would keep putting in cent after cent, until they got word from St Petersburg to play big. The phone would vibrate, and one quarter of a second later the gambler would put in a big play — and get back $1,000. They were careful to avoid the really large and major pay outs, hoping not to attract too much attention to themselves.
A team of four gamblers would typically win a quarter of a million dollars in a single week. Not a bad return!
But it turns out that American casinos don't like to lose money. At first, the cops couldn't work out how the Russians had done it. And because it's not a crime to win in a casino and be a Russian, the cops had to let them go. But soon they worked out that the Russians had used mathematics to win at the pokies — and started jailing them.
Today, there are around 100,000 Aristocrat Mark VI pokies still operating around the world.
As Dirty Harry would say: "Do you feel lucky, punk?"