Beads of sweat catch in the cotton fibers of a white armband as Jon Hauser’s fingers find their position on the football’s stitches. He needs to score again, and the clock is rapidly winding down. But he’s not nervous. He’s been here before. The second he sees an open receiver, he instinctively cocks his arm and fires. It’s a perfect throw. The scoreboard lights up as the clock hits zero.

Hauser’s game-winning pass is not followed by the sound of a roaring crowd. The buzzing in his ears is something so much sweeter: The whirring of hundreds of paper tickets spewing from the machine into a growing pile at his feet.

Hauser has never played football, never laced up cleats, never scrubbed grass stains out of a jersey. But in the dark corner of a Dave & Buster’s in Ontario, California, surrounded by neon lights, he’s something of an athlete, one of a group of some 1,500 hardcore gamers who call themselves “advantage players.”

They cribbed the term from the card-counters and video poker strategists in Vegas, the smart players who find an advantage over the house through careful strategy. Advantage players, or APs, do not cheat. They do not steal. They earn their advantage through endless hours of play, exhaustive study of game manuals, careful strategizing on Reddit, and meticulous attention to their dollar-to-hour ratio.

You’ve probably spent time playing Skee-Ball and cashing in a meager handful of tickets for a finger trap or a handful of cheap candy. That’s amateur hour. Advantage players trade armloads of tickets for PlayStation 4s and iPads, then sell them. The best of them, playing at their peak, can earn 50 bucks an hour. Playing videogames.

Dave & Busters, for the uninitiated, is a chain of fast-casual restaurants with sprawling game arcades. Hauser sauntered in one recent Saturday at 11 am, just as the place was opening. It’s the perfect time for an advantage player: An empty room, no lines. At 6’1″, he cuts a distinctive figure as he ventures into the depths of the arcade, dressed in a bright white polo shirt, dark blue jeans and plain white sneakers. His hair is short, his smile wide, especially when he’s claimed yet another high score on yet another game.

Hauser beelines to 2-Minute Drill, the football game. The object is simple: Toss small footballs at one of three targets and score as many points as possible in two minutes. You get tickets for each point, but there’s a bonus: If you beat the day’s high score, you get a 500-ticket jackpot. Hauser chats as he tosses the novelty footballs almost effortlessly. “You keep one ball in your non-throwing hand at all times, so it’s ready if a bonus pops up,” he says. “Otherwise, you just go for the medium-sized target. It offers the best risk-reward ratio.”

Hauser scores 510 points, enough for the jackpot, as the clock hits the halfway point. Then he does something odd, something only an advantage player would do: He puts the ball down, takes a step back from the game, and waits. There’s a simple logic to it, once you remember claiming the jackpot requires only that you beat the high score. “If you beat it, your score becomes the new high score,” he says. “So, it pays to beat the game by the smallest margin possible.” With that, the clock runs down and the game ends. Hauser swipes his player’s card, hits the Start button, and begins anew.

Ten minutes and five jackpots later, he pulls a pair of sweatbands out of his pocket and puts them on. Twenty minutes and eight jackpots after that, he picks up a mountainous pile of 1,000 tickets, enough to exchange for a new PlayStation 4 game.

“Wanna see another one?” he asks.

The Making of an AP

“I remember when I used to get in trouble, my mom would take away the controller to my Nintendo,” says Hauser. “I would still be able to turn on the game on, but I couldn’t do anything. I’d just sit there and watch the Zelda start screen play out over and over again. It was awful.”

As he got older, Hauser’s interest in gaming and computers only grew, drawing him deep into MMOs like Dark Age of Camelot. When it got time to decide on college, he chose a local program at ITT Tech to become a network programmer. In between classes, he played online poker.

“I did well at first, but then it went bad quickly,” he said. “I lost everything.” Then, months away from graduation, Hauser realized his immediate job prospects would pay him a salary of a little over $30,000. With gambling debt and a student loan to pay, he needed something more. When a friend told him that the local casino was paying poker dealers good money, Hauser quit school, quit gambling, and started tossing cards full time.

A few years later, in 2004, Hauser visited the east coast to see a friend. They made a trip to a local Dave & Buster’s, and he fell in love. The chain, founded in Dallas in 1982, has more than 70 location, each of them packed with games. As conventional arcade games have dwindled in popularity, Dave & Buster’s, like other arcades, has embraced ticket-redemption machines that encourage players to keep feeding them money. The best players win tickets, which they can exchange for prizes great and small.

“I had been to arcades before, but there were way more games than I had ever seen before,” Hauser said of that first visit. “And I seemed to be good at them.” When he got back home, he started hitting Dave & Buster’s locations around his house. At first, they were a diversion, somewhere to while away a few hours, win some tickets, grab some food.

Then, along came Tippin’ Bloks, which requires you to move a platform left and right along the bottom of the screen to catch falling blocks, which you must stack like boxes on your platform. Stack more than nine and you win a jackpot of a few thousand tickets. Hauser hit the jackpot after a few tries. Then he kept hitting the jackpot. Suddenly, these games were not a diversion, but an opportunity. And unlike poker, the odds were stacked in his favor.

After winning tens of thousands of tickets over the course of a few afternoons, Hauser traded them for a PlayStation 3, worth around $400 at the time.

Jon Hauser carries his winnings at a Dave & Buster's location in Ontario, California.Jon Hauser carries his winnings at a Dave & Buster’s location in Ontario, California. Patrick Hutchison/WIRED

“It was incredible and it was so easy,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. For a while, that’s all I played. Just Tippin’ Bloks.” But as players start beating a game regularly, the manufacturer rolls out software patches to make things harder. Within months, Hauser says, Dave & Buster’s installed a patch that seemed to make the game force you to fail even if you’re playing perfectly. Advantage players call this an “auto-lose function.”

Hauser still plays Tippin’ Bloks, but only after the machine reveals its “tell.” This requires waiting until a jackpot is possible, which happens soon enough as people play the game. Hauser watches a kid who looks about 10 wildly slam the paddle back and forth, trying to catch boxes. “You can tell by watching the third block,” Hauser says. “If it hesitates before dropping, you can win the jackpot. If it immediately drops, you can’t win.”

The block hesitates before dropping. This game can be beaten. Later, after more players have fruitlessly dumped money into the machine, it’s ready to pay out. Hauser grabs the controller, not by the colorful plastic paddle players are meant to hold, but all the way up on the metal rod that attaches it to the machine. This allows more precise control.

Nine blocks later, he hits the jackpot. Tickets spool out. Onlookers stare.

Hauser’s spent untold hours at nearly all of the 100 or so games in the room and has an encyclopedic knowledge of each machine’s quirks. He knows to drop the ball in Slam-A-Winner X-Treme just when the jackpot section of the wheel is between the second and third support arms. He knows to check Fruit Ninja screens by swiping at them to find the game with the fastest response time. And he knows you don’t play Kung-Fu Panda unless the dumpling count is lower than 33.

The list goes on and on, tiny bits of knowledge that mean the difference between a pocketful of tickets and a mountain of them.

Cashing In

After an hour of gameplay, Hauser scoops up tickets with both hands and takes them to the Winner’s Circle to have the credit loaded onto his Dave & Buster’s card. The girl at the counter reads the total: “Seven-thousand, four-hundred, sixty-five.”

It’s a drop in the bucket compared to the three quarters of a million tickets in his digital piggy bank, ready to cash in for PlayStations, Xboxes, and iPads. For players at Hauser’s level, an afternoon of play can yield 50,000 to 60,000 tickets, enough for a small iPod. With a few days of play, he can easily afford a game console. In most cases, he can win tickets faster than the restaurant can stock the prizes. He can boost his profit margin using coupons or playing on Wednesdays, when all games are half off.

Fully optimized, an advantage player can earn the equivalent of $50 an hour. On typical day with average success, Hauser says he nets something closer to half that. It won’t make him rich, but it’s impressive for messing around in an arcade. Hauser waits to redeem his prizes until someone he knows has expressed an interest in buying something. “Sometimes I’ll ask them what they want and get that prize,” he says. “Most of the time I trade in my tickets for iPads.”

Advantage players flip their prizes in a variety of ways, hitting up friends or selling them on Craigslist and eBay. Wherever there are people willing to buy new electronics, there are advantage players willing to sell them.

As skilled as he was, it wasn’t until he met other advantage players that Hauser’s game really took off. One day, he spotted a guy playing Tippin’ Blocks, using similar strategies and winning thousands of tickets. They started talking, shared some tips, and wondered who else was out there.

He found an entire world of peers on the r/DaveandBusters subreddit, a community of 1,500 or so elite advantage players. Leading the discussion, some 2,500 miles away in a Pennsylvania suburb, was Michael Lucas, to whom Hauser gives the most credit for getting him hooked into the world of advantage playing.

I give him a call and hear a cacophony of game sounds when he picks up. “One sec,” he says. “I’m just gonna grab this jackpot while we’re talking.”

After retreating to the quiet solitude of his car, he tells me how he started. Like Hauser, Lucas had grown up with Nintendo and arcade games. “I was at this amusement park, playing a game where you stop a little light that flashes around a circle and I found that I was hitting the jackpot every three out of five times or so,” says Lucas. “It was great. People would stop and watch me all the time.”

In his teenage years, a Dave & Buster’s opened nearby. His family went to check it out. “I noticed that they had a lot of the games I was used to at Kennywood, but the payouts were much, much higher,” Lucas said. His skills honed by time spent at low-budget amusement parks, Lucas set about taking Dave & Buster’s for all its tickets.

But Lucas did more than win. He perfected his craft and began doing research. He downloaded game manuals as they appeared online, and made extensive calculations on the use of coupons and limited-time offers to ensure that he earned maximum playing credits for every dollar. He compiled this exhaustive knowledge in a 44-page guide that he uploaded to r/DaveandBusters. It’s packed with tips that aren’t obvious to casual players—things like, don’t throw the footballs like footballs, lob them like basketballs so they bounce inside the holes, not back at you.

No less important than the tips for beating the games are the tips for not ticking off Dave & Busters. While most onlookers tend to just watch in awe, an extended winning streak can occasionally draw accusations of cheating. This can prompt restaurant managers to reduce the payout for a jackpot, or game manufacturers to release software patches that make the games harder to beat. Clearly, advantage players want to avoid these things.

“The key is to maintain good relationships with the employees,” Lucas says. “Don’t rack up too many tickets. Always be polite. Always offer to let other people play the game you’re on.”

Not ruffling feathers is key to the AP lifestyle. On any given week, Hauser says he might visit three locations dozens of miles apart so he might spread out his impact on certain machines—and the managers who oversee them. Lucas offers another rule on the subreddit: Maximize your profit margins if you must, but always tip the wait staff 20 percent.

Advantage players see themselves helping Dave & Buster’s in the long run, arguing that they generate more revenues than losses for the chain by encouraging the far more lucrative recreational players to keep pumping money into the machines so they, too, might score a jackpot. We’ll have to take Lucas’ word on this, because no one at Dave & Buster’s HQ in Dallas or at its external PR firm replied to multiple requests for comment.)

The Final Showdown

When Hauser finishes with Fruit Ninja, I ask him to show me the game he plays most often. The big money. “Ok, first, you’re going to need a chair,” he says. “We’re going to be there for a while, and it’s hard to stand.”

We grab chairs from the dining area and set them up in front of a vertically aligned LED TV displaying tiny birds bobbing between pipes like the ones from Super Mario Bros. It’s called Floppy Tickets, and it’s a damn near a carbon-copy of the infamous iPhone game Flappy Bird. Hauser sits down, swipes his card, and immediately starts tapping the game’s sole button, flying his clumsy little bird to the top of the screen as the first set of pipes approaches. Each pipe he passes earns him a ticket. If he beats the high score, he wins a bonus of 1,000 tickets.

The high score is 116, and he reaches it without even breaking out the sweatbands. But unlike 2-Minute Drill, Hauser doesn’t stop playing once he hits the jackpot. This is because, with skillful play, a game of Floppy Tickets theoretically could last forever. He can earn many more tickets by playing and playing and playing a single game than by repeatedly breaking the high score in consecutive ones.

jon Hauser's hand hovers over the single button used to control Floppy Tickets.jon Hauser’s hand hovers over the single button used to control Floppy Tickets. Patrick Hutchison/WIRED

“What’s the highest score you’ve gotten?” I ask. “2,708,” he replies. I check the screen. He’s in the low triple digits. I sit down.

At one point, as Hauser flutters past 500 points, 22 spectators are gathered around the screen. When Hauser finally crashes to earth and the game ends, a kid approaches and gawks at his pile of tickets. Then the questions begin. How many have you won? How long have you been here? He answers them all with a sheepish smile, then offers to provide some tips and even a chance to play. It’s all part of his effort to be a gracious AP.

As the kids take their turns, Hauser strolls off to check the high scores on his favorite games, looking for an opening, an opportunity at an easy jackpot. He snags a few hundred tickets at a carnival sim, and another thousand playing Kung Fu Panda.

With the same fervor, Hauser attacks the games he always loses money on, and it doesn’t bother him a bit. Before the day is through, he’s back in front of Floppy Tickets, pounding the button until he screws up or the machine runs out of tickets.

In most cases, it’s the machine that gives up first.

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