Computer scam 'cheats fruit-machine gamblers'

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Fruit machines are one of the last refuges of chance, and the laws overseeing them would ensure they cannot be rigged against the player. Right? Wrong. Enthusiasts who decoded the software that controls the machines found you have not a hope of beating them, even when they offer what seems to be a sure bet.

"Every fruit machine in the UK cheats everyone who plays it on more or less every single spin of the reels," claims the Fairplay campaign, a small group of fruit-machine and videogame enthusiasts who copied the machines' programs, then ran them again and again on their computers.

Stuart Campbell, a spokes-man for the group, many of whom are experienced computer programmers, added: "As far as we can tell, practically the entire play cycle of any given fruit machine is completely predetermined."

They discovered, for example, that when you win a jackpot but are offered a "double or quits" gamble to win more money, chance doesn't enter the equation; the machine has decided if you will win before you press another button. When you do press a button that claims to be a "gamble", there is no luck involved.

So players have, in effect, been cheated out of payouts of millions of pounds, the campaigners say. Certainly, the amounts involved are huge. There are 500,000 fruit machines in the UK, which the law allows children under 18 to play. Bacta, the machine-makers' trade association, told MPs in 2000 that "£10.8bn is wagered annually in coin-operated amusement and gaming machines".

Fairplay's breakthrough came when some computer programmers bought a fruit machine and made an "emulator", a piece of software that runs on one computer and pretends to be another machine. Fruit machines used to have finely balanced reels, but now they have programs stored on memory chips to control the precise timing of lights and other parts of the machine.

The gamers downloaded the programs from the fruit machines and ran them on emulator programs on their PCs. They tested the systems in all possible combinations of near-payout and potential gambles. They were especially interested in the most galling situation, the failed gamble on a big payout. The fruit-machine software operated exactly as it would in real life, because to the software there was no difference.

Although the "cheating" does not seem to affect the average 70 per cent payout that fruit-machine makers voluntarily adhere to - but are under no legal obligation to meet - it does mean many people have been thwarted of payouts by predetermined settings rather than luck. "We've also had this confirmed to us by former programmers who worked for the fruit machine companies," Mr Campbell said. "But they won't say why or whose idea it was, just that they were told to write programs which did it. It's something we've suspected for ages, but now we've been able to prove it. At times, it will throw a jackpot to keep you interested. But most of the time it has a preset block on what you can win. And that's low."

The discovery was made at a crucial time for the gaming industry. The Government is revising the 30-year-old legislation to replace the voluntary code that covers fruit machines with a tough, compulsory regime. Fairplay wants new laws to prevent children under 16 from playing fruit machines, saying it is wrong to encourage gambling in youngsters; and for the minimum payout level to be made legally enforceable. It suggests at least 85 per cent, displayed on the machines so players know their chances.

Changes in law may be the only way to alter how the fruit machines work, because none of the bodies now regulating the industry thinks anything is wrong. The Gaming Board of Great Britain, which the Government has put in charge of overseeing the fruit machine industry, said: "We are not aware there is a problem." Its only checks had been of statistics provided by the makers to make sure new machines met minimum payout guidelines.

"We're not sure what the Gaming Board is for," Mr Campbell said. "They don't even have the power to get the manufacturers to show them the code for the machines. We aren't saying they don't pay out the 70 per cent, but that at specific instances the machines cheat. But it looks like only the police have the power to investigate it further."

Bacta, the trade association of fruit-machine makers, simply said machines made and operated by its members conformed to the "strict guidelines ... agreed with the Gaming Board".

Mr Campbell said Bacta had signally failed to say that any of Fairplay's allegations were false. "I think that's rather interesting. I would have thought they would have said so if they thought it wasn't true."

But nobody in the industry seems to want to do that. Leslie McLeod-Miller, Bacta's lawyer, turned down repeated invitations to comment on Fairplay's allegations. Instead he cited a Bacta statement. That says: "We have seen the comments made by Fairplay Campaign, many of which we think are very misleading." He declined to specify which comments were misleading, or how.

None of the UK's leading fruit-machine makers, including Barcrest, Maygay and Bell Fruit, would comment.