The Life & Winnings of Tommy Carmichael
Tommy Glenn Carmichael is on of the most famous casino cheats in the world. He spent decades fleecing the casinos of Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and other gambling joints around the globe.
So how did he do it, and how much did he make? Tommy’s story is a long tale of crime, innovation and millions of dollars. Let’s see how he cheated the house.
Tommy Carmichael’s slot machine scam begins
Tommy Carmichael’s story begins in 1980, when he was working in a television repair shop. At this point he was far from a squeaky clean model citizen; he had a track record of drug-related crimes and misdemeanours under his belt already. However, his crimes would elevate one day in this store.
That day his friend, Ray Ming, showed him something that changed the course of Tommy’s life. It was a miniature slot machine, and a curious device: a top-bottom joint.
How to cheat at mechanical slots: what is a top-bottom joint?
Back then, almost all slot machines were mechanical. A top-bottom joint was a device split into two parts: the top, a metal rod with a bent end, and the bottom, a long wire. Cheats were able to insert the top into the coin slot and the bottom into the payout chute. Much like cracking a lock with a pair of picks, this jammed the machine. In doing so, the cheat unlocked the payout chamber, releasing the jackpot.
Tommy Carmichael in Las Vegas
Needless to say, Ray’s demonstration massively appealed to Tommy, who promptly quit his job and moved to Las Vegas. He tried it out first on a five-cent slot machine on the Strip. He swiftly made $35 in nickels (five-cent coins) and knew he was onto something good.
Tommy spent the weekend going from casino to casino, using the top-bottom joint and making more money than he could have imagined. Unfortunately, foresight was not Tommy’s strong suit at this point. He had overlooked the security of Las Vegas casinos, which may have been lacking for technology in 1980 but was not lacking for thoroughness.
At a Denny’s diner in Las Vegas, Tommy found his coffee rudely interrupted by several police officers. They searched him and found a large quantity of cash, as well as the cheating device. Despite claiming it was a way to start his car, Tommy’s criminal record worked against him and he was sentenced to five years in prison.
Tommy Carmichael meets Mike Balsamo
As is often the case in the US prison system, Tommy was most definitely not rehabilitated from his life of crime. In fact, quite the opposite happened. Tommy met fellow inmate Mike Balsamo, and together they formed a group of expert cheats.
Each agreed to find the other at the end of their respective sentences, and from the mid-1980s until 1999 the gang successfully moved from casino to casino, using ever more innovative cheating methods to fleece the house and win illicit jackpots.
Cheating electronic video slots
The first obstacle that the gang faced upon leaving prison was Bally & International Game Technology. They had invented the world’s first electronic video poker games, operating with microprocessors and random number generators instead of mechanical systems. The top-bottom joint was obsolete.
After Tommy was released, he spent several months saving up the money from part-time jobs to buy his own video poker slot machine. He took it apart and eventually came up with a new device to cheat this new, modern machine.
The Monkey Paw slot machine cheat
Tommy’s months of work came to fruition in the shape of the Monkey Paw. Despite the computerised technology of the modern-day slot machine protecting the payout mechanism itself from interference, much like the Death Star it had small weaknesses.
Tommy worked out that by using a guitar string attached to a metal rod, he could enter the machine’s internal workings via the air vent. With the right dexterity and correctly shaped rod, he could manually trigger the switch for the coin release. Tommy and his gang were able to use Monkey Paws to earn up to $1,000 in quarters every hour – that is, until the casinos improved their technology again.
Tommy and his gang were in an arms race of cheaters versus the house. And they were winning.
Tommy Carmichael’s magic wand
With the Monkey Paw no longer effective, Tommy needed a new way to cheat. This time, he posed as a casino owner and visited Las Vegas showrooms to inspect their wares. Pretending to be interested in purchasing machines for his non-existent casino, Tommy asked to see the internal workings of these new machines.
Tommy’s next invention was the Light Wand. This device took advantage of the complex technology that had rendered his previous devices void. Essentially, the Light Wand could be shone into the machine in such a way as to blind the optical sensor. This meant that the machine had no record of how many coins had been inserted or paid out. With this, Tommy was able to turn small wins into huge jackpots.
However, Tommy’s run couldn’t last forever. In 1996, Tommy was arrested and in 1999 he and five other Las Vegas residents were sentenced for their crimes. The gang were in no danger of stopping before this, though – according to court documents, they were “in the early stages of developing a computer-generated device that can defeat various slot machines without apparent tampering, possibly by remote control.”
What is Tommy Carmichael’s net worth?
It’s a difficult question to answer, because let’s face it – Tommy Carmichael and his criminal gang weren’t exactly filing robust tax returns. However, the authorities who charged the gang in the late 1990s accused them of stealing more than $5,000,000 from casinos in Las Vegas alone.
This would be the equivalent to between $8M and $12M today. Given that they also targeted casinos in Atlantic City and beyond, it’s fair to say that this figure is a very conservative estimate of their take over the decades.
Today, Tommy is working on devices to prevent cheating. He hopes that he can atone for his past mistakes by helping the authorities to prevent future Tommy Carmichaels from going on similar sprees.