The house always wins, right? Not this time. The house was crumbling, brick by brick, bubble by bubble.
The game is called Ocean Magic, and it had long been among the most exploitable casino slots games — you just needed to know what to look for.
Summed up in five words: “Wild” bubbles are your friend. If you start with them in certain positions on your screen, you have an opportunity to play with an edge over the house.
“I’ve been playing Ocean Magic pretty much since the day I was made aware of the game,” says Max, a professional gambler based in Las Vegas. The problem, as Max knew well, is that the stakes available at brick-and-mortar casinos are limited. And so, in turn, is the upside. The B&M version of the game isn’t necessarily worth a deep-pocketed player’s time.
It was in late January that Max received a call from his friend Jay back east in New Jersey. Ocean Magic was available at legal online casinos in the Garden State, and whereas $500-a-spin was considered an extremely high limit on the brick-and-mortar machines in Vegas, online in Jersey, spins with favorable odds were available for up to $3,000.
There was a unique exploit specific to this online version. And Jay could only do so much to take advantage of it by himself.
“When Jay made me aware of Ocean Magic in a playable game state for nosebleed stakes,” Max says, “I was very excited to get involved.”
Max wasn’t the only friend who got the call. Jay says there were “about 10 people that played.” Each opened his own account at numerous sites and made four-figure or five-figure deposits and bet as big as possible.
This started January 29, the Tuesday before the Super Bowl.
Within a week, nearly every online casino in New Jersey had pulled the game.
But Jay and his friends were already up almost a million dollars.
“Jay” — that’s what he asked to be called for the purposes of this article, and similarly “Max” is not his friend’s real name — was working on Wall Street until 9/11 caused him to press the “Spin Reels” button on his career. He left New York for a fresh start, and he soon stumbled into what is known as “advantage playing.”
When most people picture a slots player, images pass through their minds of a blue-haired woman with a slowly diminishing bucket of quarters.
Jay, now in his mid 40s, departs from that stereotype in every possible way, right down to the fact that the quarters in his bucket usually don’t diminish. Advantage players look for any casino game that gives them an edge. Slots are part of it — looking to vulture machines that have been left in a position with a positive expected value (EV).
For example, Ocean Magic is what’s known as a “dependent trial” slot. With every spin, Wild bubbles move up one spot on the screen until they disappear off the top edge. Advantage players will walk the casino floor looking for machines vacated by previous players with Wild bubbles in certain positions, knowing their EV and jackpot potential are enhanced.
There are also some table games that can be beaten. Everyone knows about card counting — a skill that’s difficult to master — which often requires a team of people working together, and can get those who attempt it banned from the casino floor.
But sometimes the house just hands over an edge in an effort to get gamblers in the door. Some casinos have been known to offer a promotion with a “triple down” option in blackjack, which gives players who understand when to double down a positive overall expectation. Others have offered special “happy hour” rules such as a 3/1 payout, instead of 3/2, on suited blackjacks.
Then there are promotions like one SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia experimented with a few years ago, offering double jackpots on slots for a specific time period. Instead of the house having about a 5% edge, players who know which machines to pounce on could temporarily enjoy an edge of about 40%.
These are the situations an advantage player looks for.
“I was in Atlantic City in June of this past year,” Jay recalls, “and I was looking at a couple of the sign-up bonuses online.”
Legal, regulated online casino games first launched in New Jersey in 2013. There are now about 20 such sites, and sign-up bonuses, in the form of free spins, free money, cash-back refunds, and so forth, are a key component of the competition for customers and deposits. An advantage player like Jay is always on the lookout for the lowest-risk and highest-reward offers.
While checking out the sign-up bonus situation, he also scrolled through the game selection. And he saw Ocean Magic in one of the lobbies.
“I took a look at it,” Jay says, “and realized that it started, on the first spin, in an advantageous position.”
Specifically, he saw that a “Wild” bubble appeared in the first column, second row:
His first time playing, though, Jay didn’t realize the full extent of the advantage. He only had a few hundred dollars in his account, and players can’t see the board state of any bet denomination higher than what’s in their account. He played several spins at a low denomination, and as he says, “didn’t really think much of it.”
But on his next trip to New Jersey, Jay noticed a key detail.
“I realized that not only did the game start in an advantageous position on the $1 denom, $2 denom, and $3 denom level, but each time that you switched denoms, the board went back to the original state for one spin on that denom,” he explains. “So if you had played the $1 denom already, it didn’t go back to that state. But when you played the $2 denom for the first time, it started in that same state. And next the $3 denom, $5, so on and so forth.”
Once again, though, Jay’s account contained limited funds, so he still wasn’t seeing the whole picture.
He returned to Atlantic City in January, and this time, planning to place some large bets on the Super Bowl, his account was well funded, five figures deep.
“That’s when I realized the game started in that board state at up to $3,000 a spin. At some casinos, it was capped at $1,000, but at several, it went up to $3,000.”
Jay could tell there was a serious opportunity here. The next step was to put a number on the seriousness of it.
He contacted a friend with an actuarial background and asked him to run the math on the value he was looking at.
“He got back to me and said that basically, for one spin, I was playing with a 126% edge,” Jay says. “And then on three further spins, I was playing with a 40% edge. Which, if it was only a $3 bet, would not interest me. But when you’re talking about a $3,000 bet, that’s quite substantial.”
The plot thickened: Jay called a friend in the advantage-playing community and suggested he fund an account and give it a try. Indeed, the board started in the same state at every denomination for each individual player the first time through.
Then they dug further. “It wasn’t just this one casino that offered it,” Jay learned. “It was 13 casinos that offered the game in the same state.”
More numbers were run. Jay determined that one person playing Ocean Magic all the way up the denominations once in that advantageous state — and you could only do it once per account per casino — was worth, on average, about $80,000-$100,000 across all the online casinos in Jersey offering the game.
“Then you factor in some sign-up bonuses,” says Jay, ever the advantage player, “and it became quite valuable.”
Max had been making his living playing poker for more than 10 years, until about three years ago, when some friends introduced him to the world of advantage play.
“For me, it’s been better than poker,” he says. “Much lower volatility. It’s much more cut-and-dried work. And I kind of look at it like a puzzle, trying to find exploits in these casinos, so it’s not hard for me to get up every day and do this.
“When it comes to advantage gambling, as long as I can make sense of what I think my edge is, I’m willing to try it.”
Jay and his number-crunching friend had already done the work of making sense of what the edge was. So Max got on a plane. They “loaded a couple of accounts,” Max recalls, “and had immediate success.”
In the most matter-of-fact manner imaginable, Jay describes that immediate success. “The first account happened to get lucky,” he says, “and hit for $220,000.”
That’s about three times the average annual household income. Jay and his friends reeled that amount of money in with one journey up the denoms at Golden Nugget Casino.
At the typical online casino, the cashier page includes language indicating how long players should allow for a withdrawal to process. Some say up to 48 hours. Others say up to five business days. Jay says Golden Nugget paid this account, in full, about 30 hours after the withdrawal request. So far, so good.
“We then let all of our friends know about this crazy game,” Jay says, “and pretty much everybody we knew flew in and made deposits.”
Under different circumstances, with a different type of game, a case could be made that Jay and his friends tried for too much, too fast. If you’re running a blackjack card-counting scheme, for example, if you keep your bets and wins modest, you might never get noticed. If Phil Ivey and Kelly Sung had left the Borgata baccarat table after winning $1 million instead of hanging around until they’d won 10 times that, maybe nobody would have raised an eyebrow.
With Ocean Magic at the online casinos, though, the play was always going to be limited and the goal was always to hit it as hard as they could while they could.
“It’s over with once you win because there’s no plays left,” Jay explains. “It’s only advantageous for four spins at each denomination. So you’re talking about maybe 80 spins, unless there are some re-triggers involved. And then you’re done. Then that person has no reason to play on that site anymore.”
And an Ocean Magic player can’t intentionally “give a little back” to keep the house off the scent.
“You can’t minimize your win, because you have no control what’s going to come out on that spin,” Jay says. “You’re starting with two Wilds. If five more Wilds come out, you’re winning a quarter-million dollars no matter what you do, you don’t have any control over it. The other thing is that it’s not going to last. Once one person would hit big, it’s going to be gone on that site.”
That made Jay’s approach quite straight-forward: “I tell my friends, and as much as they can win, they can win.”
So deposits were made and games were played. A lot of accounts lost. Even with a mathematical edge, sometimes you’re going to brick out. There was risk involved for Jay and his friends.
But overall, the results fell in line with his mathematician friend’s calculations. Collectively, across the 13 sites, the players won about $900,000, according to Jay.
They withdrew the first $400,000 or so without any problems.
But then it got complicated. On February 2, Resorts removed Ocean Magic. On February 5, seven more New Jersey online casinos followed suit. Within two more days, the game was gone everywhere. It was over.
From his Twitter handle, @playwithanedge1, Jay posted a screenshot of one of his winning Ocean Magic boards on February 6 and wrote, “Oh bubbles…… it was a good run……. you will be missed”
“We had about a full week,” Max says. “Which was, honestly, more than we expected.”
But there was a detail they didn’t see coming: The remaining half-million bucks or so that they’d won wasn’t being released to them inside those industry-standard time windows.
There are two sides worth telling in a story like this. So NJ Online Gambling reached out to the casinos. We tried to make contact at Borgata, Play Sugarhouse, Golden Nugget, Caesars, Betfair, and Hard Rock. In some cases, the contacts were generic; in other cases, we had direct phone numbers and email addresses for representatives who absolutely had awareness of the situation. Not a single voice mail or email was returned.
We also tried to reach International Game Technology (IGT), the company that provided Ocean Magic to the casinos. Again, we couldn’t get anywhere.
As of February 11, when we first spoke to Jay and Max, either they or their friends were struggling to get money from six different sites, ranging from about $30,000 to $130,000. In many cases, they said their customer service experiences were less than ideal.
“We’re getting everyone from lower-level employees all the way up to management that are just straight-out BS-ing us,” Jay said during that initial conversation. “We can’t get anywhere. They’re just stonewalling us at every turn. Ask for a manager, ‘manager’s not in.’ Call on a Friday, ‘we don’t work on Fridays.’ Call today, ‘it’s a snow day.’
“Based on my research, in the state of New Jersey, if you hit the lottery, or you hit a single casino jackpot in excess of $50,000, and you owe child support, they have the right to hold it. They’re claiming that they’re running child support checks — on people that aren’t even withdrawing $50K.”
Max related a similar experience with one casino: “I requested management, and she told me something along the lines of, ‘Well, it’s pending verification for integrity from the game vendor and it’s pending legitimacy checks.’ She then brought up child support checks, which is not even in play, nor is it relevant.”
Jay said on February 11 that he was about to turn to the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement to intervene. NJ Online Gambling tried to reach the DGE for comment on multiple occasions last week, but couldn’t get an answer on the phone, couldn’t leave a voice message due to a full mailbox, and got no response to an email outreach.
It would be ideal to be able to explore multiple sides of this story. But only one side is talking.
What makes the casinos’ apparent reluctance to address the situation particularly perplexing is the fact that some of those we reached out to have now paid the Ocean Magic players in full.
Play Sugarhouse, after locking a player’s account and telling him they’d brought in the DGE to investigate, released payment on February 13. The day before that, Golden Nugget’s director of customer service for online gaming sent a polite email to a player telling him that he’d “received verbal approval from the Executive Leadership team to pay out the $66,330.20.”
Why would those casinos decline to issue a comment to the media, when the situation has been resolved and the only remaining gripe against them might be that payment was delayed by a week or so? One can only speculate. Embarrassment over getting beaten or over having stalled on the payout process might be playing a role. Maybe the DGE specifically instructed the operators not to comment publicly. Maybe it’s at IGT’s request. Whatever the case, across the board, somewhere on the way up the chain of command, a decision is being made to go silent.
As of February 20, Jay said the players were still owed money from three outlets.
Borgata/PlayMGM, which told one of the players in an email that he had “violated the terms and service at our site,” was holding about $130,000, according to Jay. There isn’t anything in the Borgata terms and conditions that the players appear to have run afoul of, although the possibility of withdrawal “delays due to any Security Review” are accounted for in the fine print.
Borgata has a rather high-profile history of digging its feet in when an advantage play against the casino is successful; see the Ivey baccarat case. This is not out of character for MGM/Borgata. But it’s troubling that the casino conglomerate is holding a six-figure sum and won’t give the players a reason why.
Caesars allegedly owes them about $40,000. But that particular payout situation was complicated by the fact that Ocean Magic was removed from the site with a player in mid-game, “with the board still in a state that they paid for,” Jay says, and a remaining upside possibly as high as $200K.
And then there’s the most perplexing holdout, Hard Rock. Jay claims the casino owes one player about $700, the modest remaining balance in an account that lost a considerable amount.
We don’t know how involved the DGE has been to this point. While it’s encouraging that the amount owed to the players has been whittled down significantly from where it started, ideally, a DGE interjection would have resulted in a uniform solution. The players’ dealings with the various casinos have been anything but uniform.
“I’ve checked with four attorneys on this,” Jay says, “and not one of them has even a shadow of a doubt on whether what any of us did was legal. I mean, if I thought I was even remotely in the wrong, I wouldn’t push the issue. I’d be happy with what we got. But nobody has said to me that we did anything wrong. Everybody was in the state of New Jersey, there were no VPNs used whatsoever, everybody played on their own account.
“They’re basically holding not only the winnings, but our deposit money as well.”
Max is equally confident in his position.
“I pride myself in never having to lie, cheat, or steal, or break any laws, to do my job,” he says. “I’m not too concerned about getting paid. Obviously, it’s a lot of money to everybody involved, so it’s a sweat. But we were very careful to make sure that we weren’t breaking rules. We had a bet that was available on their software, that anybody could make, and they took our deposits, they booked that action. Pay the bet. The irony here is that the payment of a bet is the crux of everything in gambling. If the customer could do this to them, if a customer could be like, ‘I want to review everything and look for reasons not to pay my bet to you,’ they would be out of business in one week.”
Instead, in one week, 13 casinos combined lost a little under a million dollars. Hardly enough to put them out of business. Not even enough for the higher-ups in the corner offices to notice, if it was dealt with quietly and efficiently. This is an industry, after all, that currently pulls in over $30 million monthly in gross gaming revenue.
It’s uncertain as of now, about three weeks after the Ocean Magic reels stopped spinning, whether the players will be paid in full. They’ve been steadily inching in that direction.
If the DGE intervened and is helping to make that happen — which seems likely, based on the information shared by Max and Jay and the communications from the casinos that they showed us — it speaks to the positives of a regulated market.
When an offshore casino declines to process your withdrawal, you have no legal recourse. In New Jersey, proper channels exist.
We don’t know yet how the story ends. We do know that for one week, the players held the advantage over the house. If this is to be a positive story for the U.S. gambling industry, it will end with them having nearly a million dollars to show for it.
Additional reporting by Robert Della’fave.