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Battle over slot jackpot holds lesson for all gamblers

| Sunday, April 23, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

A Florida couple's battle over a $100,000 slot machine jackpot is a reminder for gamblers everywhere that friendship and money seldom last long together.

And because casino visitors can encounter many ways of “sharing” bets with loved ones or strangers, the case also is a reminder that both parties need to agree in advance what happens if their venture pays off.

The Florida saga involves Jan Flato and Marina Medvedeva Navarro, who were playing a $50-per-spin slot machine on Jan. 31 at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino. Flato's player's club card was inserted, but surveillance videos showed that Navarro pushed the button on the winning spin.

Both she and Flato have said they put money into the machine, but whether it was his money or hers does not seem to be the crucial factor. Based on long-established procedure for Florida and other jurisdictions, the $100,000 jackpot went to Navarro because she made the bet. Thus far, she has kept all the money.

The spat, which became public early this month, is not the first such dispute. In 2000, a Texas woman sued a longtime friend over a $1.9 million slot jackpot won when the two were on a Las Vegas trip; in 2010, two Boston sisters with a signed and notarized agreement to share gambling winnings went to court after one won a $500,000 lottery prize; battles between friends over a $1.1 million jackpot won on a cruise ship and a $2.3 million slot jackpot won in a French casino also have wound up in court.

In a slot machine case, the standard that the button-pusher gets the payout makes sense. Even if a companion put money into the machine, the button-pusher is the one actually making the bet.

For a more important reason, bear in mind how slots work and why milliseconds matter. Thousands of times each second, a random number generator inside the machine produces combinations of numbers that determine the outcome of a spin. The lucky player happened to push the button at the precise time the RNG was on a jackpot combination. (However, a judge using contract law to settle the French slot dispute ruled that the player who put up the money got 80 percent of the jackpot and the button-pusher got 20 percent.)

Because of the potential for large jackpots, slot fans who share a machine are most at risk for a win that could strain – or end—their friendship. They should agree before playing how they will handle a windfall, and they should live up to their word.

The Boston sisters aside, it's easiest with family. For example, my wife and I occasionally stake our adult sons for a casino blackjack session. If they win, they repay the stake and keep the profit. If they lose … well, we've had a family outing.

But gamblers can encounter several instances when they put their faith in fellow gamblers. In poker, for example, it's common for the final four or five players in a tournament to “chop” the remaining prize money rather than play to the end. All involved must agree to the terms, and savvy players push for the method that most benefits them. Two popular methods are the “chip count,” which favors players with the most chips, and the “Independent Chip Model” (ICM), which favors smaller stacks. Phone apps are available for figuring payouts using each method, but each player is responsible for protecting his interest and following through on the agreement.

I've been at blackjack tables where another player wants to put a side bet on my spot because I'm “always” getting hands that would pay off. Other times, players offer to let tablemates put up part or all of a double-down bet. While a few casinos forbid players to pass chips between each other, many allow these transactions but require that the recipient put the chips into the betting area. That makes it the recipient's bet – and payoff, if there is one.

Before you hand chips to someone who's little more than a stranger, be sure you'll get the money if the wager pays off.

I remember a message-board tale by a low-stakes blackjack player who was enjoying several pat hands of 19 or 20 while a big-betting tablemate whined about losing time after time. The high roller repeatedly asked to put money on the poster's spot, but the poster declined. Eventually, the high-roller offered to pay the poster $25 to put his $100 bet on the spot. The low roller agreed, put his normal $10 bet with the high roller's and received two face cards. When the dealer came to him, the poster announced that he would take a hit unless the high roller paid another $50. Faced with losing his $100 or paying another $50, the high roller coughed up the extra fee.

Whether this account is truth or fable, it has a moral: When you give someone a bet, you give up control.

Mark Gruetze is the Tribune-Review's gambling columnist. Reach him at PlayersAdv@outlook.com

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