Late last autumn, a Russian mathematician and programmer named Alex decided he’d had enough of running his eight-year-old business. Though his St. Petersburg firm was thriving, he’d grown weary of dealing with payroll, hiring, and management headaches. He pined for the days when he could devote himself solely to tinkering with code, his primary passion. The time had come for an exit strategy.
But Alex couldn’t just cash out as if he owned an ordinary startup because his business operates in murky legal terrain. The venture is built on Alex’s talent for reverse engineering the algorithms—known as pseudorandom number generators, or PRNGs—that govern how slot machine games behave. Armed with this knowledge, he can predict when certain games are likeliest to spit out money—insight that he shares with a legion of field agents who do the organization’s grunt work.
These agents roam casinos from Poland to Macau to Peru in search of slots whose PRNGs have been deciphered by Alex. They use phones to record video of a vulnerable machine in action, then transmit the footage to an office in St. Petersburg. There, Alex and his assistants analyse the video to determine when the games’ odds will briefly tilt against the house. They then send timing data to a custom app on an agent’s phone; this data causes the phones to vibrate a split second before the agent should press the “Spin” button. By using these cues to beat slots in multiple casinos, a four-person team can earn more than $250,000 a week.
Alex, who insists that his hacking doesn’t violate Russian law, fancies himself a bit of a Robin Hood—a champion for the common man against an avaricious casino industry. “Gaming manufacturers claim they provide ‘entertainment,’but we all know the nature of this ‘entertainment’ a little too well,” he says by email. “All they and I are really doing is moving money. Their job is to help casinos take money from the people; my job is to help myself and the people take money from the casinos. Just a little counterweight to the global gambling system, where the house always wins.” Yet he also knows that his self-described “milking system” is considered criminal in several countries, including the United States: In 2014, four of his agents were indicted on federal fraud charges after sweeping through casinos in Missouri, Illinois, and California.