Picture this: You put in three dollars into a progressive jackpot slot machine in Biloxi, Mississippi. You pull the handle and the reels spin. Suddenly they stop, with jackpot symbols lined up on the payline. Bells ring and lights flash. The machine freezes, with a scale showing the progressive jackpot is $509,000. Other players are congratulating you.

What a feeling! You just won the jackpot. Right?

Now imagine casino employees show up, take a quick look and say, “The machine malfunctioned.” They open the front of the machine and start fiddling around inside. You cannot see what they are doing. Suddenly you realize they are spinning the reels, erasing the jackpot — your jackpot. One of them even removes one of the reels from the machine!

A man in a suit and tie tells you that you did not win. A crowd has gathered. A player whispers in your ear, “Have them call the Gaming Commission.” This is the first time you had ever heard you could do that.

“Would you please call the Gaming Commission?” you ask the suit. Even though the law requires that in disputes of at least $500 Mississippi casinos “shall immediately notify the executive director,” the casino executive actually discourages you from involving the Commission. You keep asking.

Finally, the casino calls the Commission. It takes the investigating agent another hour to arrive.

You hit what you thought was the jackpot at 2:14 am. By the time he shows up it is after 4:00 am. Almost all of the other casino patrons have gone home.

The agent talks with you and several casino employees, but you notice he is not taking any notes.

He looks at the slot machine and runs some tests. No one working for the casino tells the agent that they had entered and manipulated the machine prior to his arrival.

There are 16 cameras covering this part of the Judi Bola casino, all making videotapes of what is happening. You later find out that the law requires the casino to retain all videotapes for at least ten days. The casino claims it kept these original tapes for ten days, although the surveillance supervisor testified that he decided that night to erase them. In either case, the casino tapes over all 16 camera shots.

The casino surveillance supervisor did start to make a copy of one camera angle onto a new videotape. But he only dubs eight minutes. The Commission’s investigator looks over the little that had been recorded and finds it is not helpful.

The casino claims the slot machine registered a “tilt” — a malfunction — and froze up because the machine’s door registered that it had been opened. It is easy to find out whether it was an open door or a jackpot. Every slot machine’s computer comes with a custom buffer, a “cus buf,” report, which shows all door openings, tilts and jackpots.

The Commission agent does not ask for this report. The casino erases it.

The Commission investigator finds, surprise, that you have not won.

So, you hire an attorney, who files a formal Petition for Investigation with the Commission. A month after the incident, the Commission assigns a new agent, who has to start from scratch. Of course, by this time, virtually all the evidence has been destroyed.

This nightmare actually happened to David Hallmark. The amazing thing is not that he had been treated so shabbily. Many casinos treat players who claim disputed jackpots as menacing pests.

The real surprise is that any casino in Mississippi would mishandle a patron dispute so badly, after they had been explicitly warned by the State Supreme Court.

In 1999, a trial judge in Tunica County actually reversed a decision by the Gaming Commission and awarded a player, Effie Freeman, a jackpot. The state’s highest Court reversed, holding that the Commission had to be upheld if there was any evidence supporting its decision.

But the Court went on to discuss the “many procedural errors and several coincidences that are at least suspicious.” For example, there was no surveillance videotape because the tapes were changed, with no backup system, at the exact moment Freeman put money into the slot.

In an unusual move, the Justices spelled out how a dispute should be handled, such as removing the slot machine from further play.

Justice McRae wrote a dissent, saying that he would have awarded Freeman the jackpot. He said when a casino “spoils” the evidence, such as by opening the machine and manipulating the reels before an investigator arrives, there should be a presumption “that the slot machine would have been evidence unfavorable to the casino.”


Again in 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a casino against a player, James C. Thomas. But the Court made it clear it did so “reluctantly.” There was so much evidence that Thomas had not won that the Court could not give him the slot jackpot. But it went out of its way to reprimand the casino for violating regulations.


The Hallmark case was the final straw. The Supreme Court slapped the casino’s hand, hard. Even though it appears Hallmark had lined up only two “grand bucks” symbols, indicating a non-progressive prize of $20,000, the Court awarded him the full $509,000 progressive jackpot.


Mississippi casinos may have finally learned their lesson. At the end of 2002, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a casino, because it locked up the machine, immediately called the Commission, took a photo of the reel display, opened the machine only with a Commission investigator present, and sent the machine’s computer processor and memory to the Commission’s Gaming Laboratory.