Slot Machine Malfunctions
Players don't get the jackpot money they expected
Last update: August 2018
Like all machines, slot machines screw up sometimes. Sometimes such a screwup makes the player think she's won a huge jackpot, which feels like a punch to the gut when she learns she didn't really win.
There are generally two types of malfunctions that make players think they won. With video slots, the machine shows a huge number of credits won, even though the player didn't land the jackpot symbols on the payline. With electromechanical slots (with physical reels), the reels can accidentally land on symbols other than what the computer actually chose.
There are tons of examples of both.
And lucky for you, I've summarized them for you below. As you
read through, you'll notice that you keep seeing the same kind of
malfunction over and over. Because there aren't tons of ways
for slots to screw up. And if this happens to you, maybe
you'll know better than to think you deserve an impossibly large
payout that you didn't actually win. On the other hand, it's
certainly heartbreaking to be denied a large jackpot, and it's
entirely appropriate to press the casino for meaningful compensation
for giving you such a bad experience.
Payout display errors
Sometimes slot machines show an impossibly large number of credits won. And I do mean impossibly large: the number of credits shown as won is way larger than the actual top jackpot on the machine. In most cases, the players didn't even line up the symbols in a winning combination for the top prize. Cases like this are simply programming errors, which the game manufacturers will investigate and fix.
In situations like this, players don't get—and don't deserve—the big payout. It's like if a craps dealer mistakenly said you won $5000 when you'd won only $500, you're certainly not entitled to the $5000 just because the dealer misspoke. A display error on a slot machine is just the machine version of a dealer misstating the payout.
Some players might wonder, "If these slot malfunctions happen, how can I trust the game at all? How do I know that it's not ripping me off all the time.?" It's a fair question. The answer is that the random number generator (RNG), the heart of the machine, is completely separate from the part that controls how many credits are displayed. The RNG is subjected to rigorous testing by the game manufacturer, and, in many cases, by the governmental agency that regulates gameplay in whatever jurisdiction the game operates. Further, both the casino and the agency can run diagnostics on demand to test the RNG and other aspects of the game. In short, the occasional display error doesn't suggest that the overall game itself is faulty.
Below are some examples of machines telling players they won more than they actually did.
Katrina Bookman's machine told her she'd won a whopping $42.9 million. That would have been the largest slot machine jackpot in U.S. history were it actually legitimate. As a computer programmer, I can tell you exactly where the winning jackpot figure came from: Computers work off multiples of 2, and 2 to the 32nd power is 4,294,967,296. Put in decimal for the cents, and you get $42,949,672.96, almost exactly the amount shown in Ms. Bookman's selfie. (Yes, her selfie shows 20¢ less than that; she probably gambled away 20¢ before realizing that the machine was telling her she had $42.9 million in credits waiting. The $42,949,672.96 power of two is so close to the $42,949672.76 displayed on the machine that clearly this is the source of the malfunction.) The question then becomes, of course, what caused the machine to display that amount? The answer is that there's simply some kind of error in the programming code.
While it's clear that Bookman didn't really win, the casino's
reported offer to Ms. Bookman was stingy: a free steak dinner.
Really? After delivering the soul-crushing news that she
hadn't really won multiple millions of dollars, the casino could
have, and should have, offered her much more. She's suing, and
doesn't have any realistic chance of winning, but the negative
attention might convince the casino to simply give the player the
reasonable compensation they should have offered in the first place.
Veronica Castillo had a decent spin on the Jurassic Riches machine (see picture at right), which should have paid 210 credits. Instead, the machine said she'd won 171,787,374 credits, which on her 5¢ machine would be $8.6 million dollars! The top jackpot available on the machine is only $20,000, and based on the number of lines and credits Castillo was playing, the most she could have won was $6000.
Tellingly, this is exactly the same kind of error as Ms. Bookman
experienced above. The 171,787,374 credits shown, multiplied
by an even 25, is 4,294,684,350, which is too close to the 2^32
listed above to be coincidence. The slot is apparently keeping
track of the credits at a 0.2¢ denomination, and then converting to
whatever denomination is actually being played.
Behar Merlaku lined up only four of the five jackpot symbols on
his machine, but the slot told him he'd won $58 million.
More specifically, it told him he'd won 43 million euros. If
that number looks familiar, it should: it's the same as in the cases
above, and the result of the same kind of programming error.
This amount isn't just more than the biggest jackpot ever won, and
isn't just more than the actual top payout of the machine, in this
case it's actually more than typically allowed by Austrian law,
which is two million euros. Despite this, as with almost every
other case, the player insisted on getting paid the full amount and
filed a lawsuit.
Louise Chavez had the fortune of her slot telling her she'd won
in impossibly massive jackpot. She then had the
devastation to hear from a casino employee that the machine had
simply malfunctioned and she hadn't really won at all. The
amount that machine said she won was...wait for it...$42.9
million. Exactly the same as for the other cases above.
Of note, this is one of the rare cases in which the player didn't
sue the casino.
Bill Seebeck was playing Bally Ultimate Party Spin when it told
him he'd won $167M. Which is absurd, since that's four
times the largest slot jackpot in U.S. history. The max
payout on Seebeck's machine is only $99,000, and only $2500 for the
$1.50 per spin that he was playing.
The slot that Ly Sam was playing told him he'd won $55 million.
As per usual, this is not only more than the actual top jackpot on
the machine ($46,000 or $95,000, depending on which article you
believe), it's more than any jackpot ever won on any slot machine,
ever. It doesn't seem that the player actually lined up the
jackpot symbols, because the few articles I found made no mention of
the symbols. As usual, the player sued, and in a surprising
move, the court ordered that the player be paid. The casino of
course appealed, but I can't find any further information about this
case, probably because it's not being covered much if at all in the
Twice, a video poker machine told a certain player that he'd won
a million dollars. Unfortunately for him, the top prize
on the machine was $40,000. As a result of the glitch, the
Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. shut down all 296 of its video
poker games while the gaming commission investigated. The
player was paid $1000 and $4000 for his wins.
Paul Kusznirewicz's "Buccaneer" machine said he'd won an
incredible $42.9 million prize. You'll remember that
number from several of the cases above, meaning it's the result of
the same kind of programming error. Anyway, the top prize in
Mr. K's machine was only $9,025. News reports don't give a lot
more details about this particular case.
Gary Hoffman thought he won $1.6M on the slot machine he was
playing, because that's what the slot told him. As usual
in cases like this, he ignored the fact that he didn't even line up
a winning combination, as well as the fact that the top payout on
the machine he was playing was only $2500. And as usual, he
sued in district court. And as usual, he lost. (The
court dismissed the suit.) He appealed to the NM Court of
Appeals, which upheld the decision of the lower court. He then
appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear the
case. Usually the player loses in court because the casino has
evidence of a malfunction, but in this case, the casino was owned by
a Native American tribe, which can't be sued because it has
sovereign immunity. As one attorney said, "You can't sue the
state of New Mexico in Texas."
With video slots, the common malfunction is that the machine shows a bunch of credits won, even when the player didn't line up the jackpot symbols. With electro-mechanical (physical-reel) slots it's the opposite: the jackpot symbols line up, but the machine says the player won nothing, or just a small amount. In these cases, the computer inside the machine has chosen the correct combination to be displayed, but for whatever reason, the physical reels don't actually display what the computer chose.
The typical reasons this happens is because the coin or bill acceptor is jammed, or the machine thinks someone's trying to open the cash door. When that happens, the reels will either stop immediately (rather than stopping on the combination the computer chose), or spin backwards until the error is cleared, where again, they'll stop suddenly, and not on the combo chosen by the computer. When the reels stop suddenly, it's possible that the jackpot symbols might happen to all land on the payline. But if so, that's just a side effect of the sudden shutdown; the reels didn't stop where they were supposed to stop.
Las Vegas butcher Joe Pepitone thought he won $463,895 on a slot
by lining up the jackpot symbols. In fact, the coin
acceptor was jammed, so the slot went into error mode, spinning the
reels backwards until the machine could be reset, at which point the
jackpot symbols happened to line up. But that wasn't the
combination chosen by the computer when Pepitone pressed the spin
button. He filed a claim with the gaming commission, which
ruled against him. He then filed a case in district court,
which also gave him no relief. He appealed to the Nevada
Supreme Court, which yet again sided with the casino.
Cengiz Sengel had a similar experience. The bill
acceptor signaled that the cash door was open, so the machine shut
down immediately, causing the three jackpot symbols to be displayed
on the payline. After the casino refused to pay the $1.8
million jackpot, Sengel took the Nevada Supreme Court, which ruled
No winning combo AND no payout display error
In the cases above, the player either lined up the jackpot symbols, or the machine told them they'd won. But there's a third situation in which neither happens, but the player still thinks s/he won anyway. Here are some cases like that.
April 8, 1995 • $1.7M jackpot • Cool Millions slot. The player said she played three credits (necessary to win the top jackpot), and lined up all three jackpot symbols on the payline. The casino said she played only one credit, and that one of the jackpot symbols was above the payline. The player was possibly lulled into believing she'd won because the machine had gone into a hopper tilt (the coin acceptor was jammed), which caused the slot to flash its top light and make a loud noise. That's to notify casino staff that the machine needs to be serviced, not that a jackpot has been won.
The computer logs from the machine corroborated the casino's
version of events, and the Mississippi Gaming Commission ruled that
the player hadn't really won the jackpot. The player appealed
to a circuit court, which sided with her and ordered that she be
paid. They based this not on evidence that she actually won,
but that the casino had failed to protect the evidence: For
example, their security cameras failed to record the dispute because
the tapes were being changed at the time, they opened the machine
and messed with it before the Gaming Commission agent arrived, and
they put the game back in play before the agent arrived. The
gaming commission and the slot maker (which would have had to pay
the progressive jackpot) appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court,
which reversed the lower court's decision, and ruled that the player
hadn't legitimately won the jackpot, but criticized the casino's
handling of the situation.
Oct. 14, 1995 • $2.7M jackpot • Cool Millions slot.
Extremely similar to the 4/8/95 case below, right down to the brand
of slot machine: A player said he lined up the jackpot
symbols, the casino said he didn't. The Mississippi Gaming
Commission sided with the casino. The player appealed to a
court of law, and after losing there, appealed to the MS Supreme
Court, which also sided with the casino, but which again reprimanded
the casino for spoiling the evidence which hurt the player's
When a slot is set up incorrectly it can result in another kind of error. In these cases the machine doesn't malfunction: it functions according to the way it was programmed, but that programming is screwed up. Here are a couple of cases of this.
In the first, Imperial Palace casino in Biloxi, MS ordered a flat-top slot from IGT, but IGT accidentally set it to be a progressive. The signage on the machine said the top payout was $8000, but when the player lined up the jackpot symbols, the screen said she'd won 200,000 credits, which at $5 per credit would be a cool $1 million. Of course the casino refused to pay, the player sued, and lost. The court ruled that the $8000 payout listed on the display constituted the contract between the casino and the player. (FindLaw) This case was discussed in some detail by players at the Wizard of Vegas forums.
In another case, 87-year-old Pauline McKee was playing a Miss Kitty slot at the Isle Casino in Waterloo in 2011 when it told her she'd won a "Bonus award" of $41,797,550.16. The top payout on the machine was supposed to be only $10,000, and that's what was listed on the machine. The slot maker (Aristocrat) knew that the false bonus could be triggered, and had recommended that casinos stop using those games until they could be fixed. Isle Casino didn't. The casino's compensation to the player was ridiculous: $11.85. Seriously. Of course the player sued, and the Iowa Supreme Court sided with the casino. (WaPo)
Addressing this problem
In most of the cases above, the slot machine screwed up. So the responsibility for the screw ups should like with the manufacturers of the games. Everyone's initial focus seems to be on the casino, whether or not the casino should pay, with many people insisting that the casino should pay, since such people are rooting for the underdog player. But realize in most cases that the casino is as much a victim as the hapless slot player. They paid good money to buy or rent a machine that didn't work properly. And thanks to the contracts, the slot maker is almost always off the hook.
They shouldn't be. Slot makers ought to guarantee that their machines will work as they're supposed to, and in the event of a malfunction or programming error that causes a player to think she's won a big jackpot, the slot maker should be required to pay a respectable amount—say $5,000 or $10,000—directly to the player. That would also give slot makers an incentive to make sure their games don't screw up.
Perhaps a solution to problems like this is to hold the game
maker responsible when they set their games wrong (or when
Play slots online
I suggest you play something other than slots because the slot odds are so bad. You could also play online with fake money, because then it doesn't matter if you lose. A good casino for free-play is Bovada, since it requires no download and no registration—one click and you're in. You can play with real money too, though I hope you won't (or at least won't bet more than you can comfortably afford to lose).
All my slot machine articles
- Slot machine basics. How much it costs to play, how much you can win, expected loss, why they're a bad bet, why they're popular, how you can limit your losses, speed of play
- How to play slot machines
- Slot returns. How much they pay back.
- The Randomness Principle. Slots don't continually get looser and tighter as they're played. They don't have to.
- How they work. Explains the randomness principle, and runs through the math to show how a game returns a particular payback percentage. There's a companion page on Par sheets.
- Slot Machine Myths
- Slot Machine B.S. Wrong info that's published elsewhere.
- Strategies. Tips for increasing your chances of winning, and saving money.
- Slot Jackpots. Odds of hitting the jackpot, progressive jackpots, and other jackpot topics.
- Skill-Based Slots. The scoop on the new games in which your results aren't entirely determined by chance.
- Slot Machine malfunctions. How and why slot machines screw up, causing players to think they've won the jackpot when they really haven't.
- Slot Machine Simulator. I programmed an exact replica of the Blazing 7s slot (odds-wise). Click it to play thousands of spins in one second and see how you do.
- List of good Bovada slots. I spent a full day surveying Bovada's voluminous offerings and extracted only the few with nice, modern graphics and mobile-compatibility.