Be ready!

dragon dance

We don’t like picking on our friends. Well, actually, we do. When the folks we’re picking on are really our friends, it can be kind of fun. One of the hallmarks of true friends is that they’re going to continue to be your friends even though you’ve publicly tweaked them for a display of overarching stupidity.

So what about picking on people who are supposed to be your friends but somehow just can’t meet the standard? Should you criticize these folks in a public forum? Yeah, we know, we’re being cryptic and mysterious. We’re also more than a tad bit angry about some things we read recently, and we might as well demystify all of this and tell you why.

When we signed on to write a monthly column for Strictly Slots we leapt into the job with enthusiasm. Although we’d probably both rather be at the poker tables than anywhere else, we love slot machines of all varieties, as well as other gambling games, and over the years we’ve become pretty good at virtually every form of gambling. We’ve got a bunch of books under our belt, with one of them actually making a respected “top 10” list of best gambling books of the year, and another generally regarded as one of the best poker books ever written.

In short, we regard ourselves as members of a select fraternity, experts on gambling and games of chance, who write and impart advice to a believing and trusting public. At least we hope our readers trust us. In any event, we count ourselves among most gamblers’ best friends – the kind you can pick on if you wish and we won’t mind it. Indeed, at the end of each column we put our e-mail addresses so you can let fly with whatever feelings you may have about our advice.

And being card-carrying members of this small fraternity of gambling writers – or sorority, as the case may be, since many contemporary gambling writers are women – we’re in your corner and feel a deep moral obligation to impart honest and correct advice. Moreover, we believe that the rest of this little band of journalists should do the same. Those who do are the folks we call friends – and you should too.

Alas, not everyone who writes about gaming is as assiduous about imparting the truth to you as we are, and that’s why we’re hopping mad right now. Recently, we ran into a virtual blizzard of bad advice that was presented on a highly touted website and authored by someone whom we have now dubbed a false friend. The article in question was penned by someone claiming to be a slot expert, who was ballyhooed to the slot-playing public with a series of glowing recommendations.

But his piece contained some of the most egregious errors we’ve seen in some time. It’s unfortunate, but we’re sure that many slot players probably believe some of the misinformation imparted to them in the offending article. As we said, one of our goals in writing this column is to dispel misunderstandings and chase away bad advice. But we are driven utterly bonkers when this kind of drivel shows up under the banner of a supposed expert – one who not only hands out advice that is dubious at best, but who openly welcomes questions from readers – so that they can be further misinformed.

Claim 1
“As an intelligent slots player, you should never choose and play any slot machine at random or by chance”.

Actually, this comment isn’t totally wrong, although the rest of the advice given by our “expert” makes it clear that the wrong principles are being applied. The advice that follows discusses how to pick the right machine using a variety of gimmicks that are all, alas, based on statistical fallacies and illusions.

The truth of the matter is simple: so long as you are staying within the same base bet size, like quarter or dollar machines, you may freely pick your machine at random or by chance. The anticipated payout of a slot machine is governed by a delicate combination of market factors, state regulations and the geographical location of the casino.

Payouts are set higher for high-priced machines, lower for machines with a smaller base bet. For marketing reasons, some locations have slightly better or worse payouts than others. For example, casinos in Atlantic City have slightly lower overall payouts than those in Nevada. Even within the same market, forces exist that lead to some variation in the average payouts from one location to another. Las Vegas’ Downtown casinos pay better than those on the Strip. With a little thought, you can probably figure out why these patterns exist.

Claim 2
“Loose slots will have better payoffs to a ‘certified’ high of 100 percent, on average, over a period of time”.

As Tony Soprano puts it, “fuggedaboudit”. You will never, ever find a slot that is programmed to pay out at 100 percent, other than as a short-term promotional gimmick. Anyway, as we pointed out in an earlier column and discuss below, there are no such things as loose slots.

Claim 3
“The more paying symbols a machine has, the greater the probability of payouts”.

Nonsense. That statement is absolute balderdash. The number of paying symbols is utterly irrelevant, since any particular symbol can be programmed to appear with greater or lesser frequency. The machine’s programming is the key, not the number of payout symbols. In fact, a slot could have only a single symbol on each of three huge reels but be programmed so that it paid out on virtually every spin. Similarly, by tweaking the program, a machine could have only a single location that didn’t have a symbol for a payoff, and still hardly ever come up a winner.

In the old, rough-and-tumble days when carnys plied the back roads and lots of towns throughout the land, the rigged wheel of fortune operated on just this principle. With each new bet, the barker would put yet another winning symbol onto the wheel, making a win appear more and more likely. Finally, every slot would be covered but one and some poor rube would be fleeced out of his last few coins when the wheel impossibly stopped in the only losing position. It’s all in the programming – which in those days was carried out by using magnets and hand-operated brakes under the table.

Claim 4
You can “slot test by playing through a single roll of coins without using accumulated credits to determine possible payout percent for a selected slot”.

No you can’t. A single roll of coins is far too small a sample to give you any idea at all about how that particular slot has been programmed. The best guide, as noted above, is the basic bet size and the geographic location of the casino.

Claim 5
“Generally the loosest slots are placed in high-traffic areas where passersbys [sic] can see other players winning often”.

This is the single, most frequently believed myth about slots – and it drove us nuts to see it in the writings of an “expert”. Loose slots are not placed in high-traffic areas – or low-traffic areas either, for that matter.

This myth is the result of a simple psychological principle and a misunderstanding of basic statistical principles. People think that the slots closest to the entrance, where the traffic is heavy, pay off frequently because a lot of people see lights flashing and hear coins tumbling down to the excited shrieks of the players. But this is exactly what you would expect, for two reasons: people tend to play machines that are near the door, and they’re far more likely to see someone hit a jackpot simply because more jackpots are going to be hit where more machines are played. But the proportion of jackpots to the total number of coins run through the machines won’t change at all.

Since passersby virtually never wander into the shadowy back corners of the casino, and since practically no one plays these machines anyway, rarely does anyone see someone hit a jackpot back there. But the payoffs actually do occur at the same rate! Playing in a high-traffic area is no better – and no worse – than playing in a dark, lonely corner. So play where you want. It doesn’t matter. If you like crowds, hook up with a machine by the door. If you’re nursing a hangover and want some peace and quiet while you gamble, go find yourself a machine in the corner.

It’s all the same to us, it’s all the same to the casino, and it ought to be all the same to you too. Of course, you’ll seldom find a cocktail waitress in that dark corner, but if you’re nursing a hangover, you probably don’t want another drink either.

Claim 6
“Don’t play two machines at a time side-by-side; tight slots are placed next to loose ones. Also don’t play next to a winning machine”.

Oddly, the first part about not playing two machines at a time is correct, but not for the reasons our “expert” thinks. Since slots have a strongly negative expectation for the “punter” – as gamblers are referred to in England – playing two machines at a time will suck the money out of your pocket twice as quickly.

The reason cited, however, is total nonsense – as is the recommendation about not playing next to a winning machine. To the contrary, we think that playing next to a winning machine is a good idea. Maybe you’ll make friends with someone who is feeling flush and they’ll buy you dinner. Actually, instead of playing two machines at once, play one machine with a larger base bet. They are generally programmed to pay off better than smaller base-bet slots.

Claim 7
“The casino’s own brand of slots are generally looser, creating the desired PR for the casino”.

Actually, we’d never heard this one before. However, knowing what we know about state regulations and casino practice, we suspect it is not true.

Claim 8
“If a slot does not pay after 3-5 maximum coin spins, move on”.

This piece of wisdom, offered as our expert’s “most often repeated advice”, is relatively harmless nonsense. Since it doesn’t matter which slot you are playing in a given casino, so long as you stay at the same basic bet level, it doesn’t matter whether you move on or not.

But if moving on takes some time away from constantly pulling the lever or stabbing at that “spin” button, it will help your bankroll. Remember, when playing slots, speed kills. Since the game is one that you cannot beat in the long run, the more you play the more you can expect to lose over time. Anything that slows down the rate at which you stuff coins into the machine will benefit you in the long run, so feel free to move on as often as you like.

Claim 9
“If the jackpots are high, the indication is that these machines have had a lot of play without hitting either jackpot and therefore the chances of that jackpot hitting soon are greater”.

Phooey! Slots have no memory. They are mindless collections of metal, silicon and plastic. They don’t know whether they have hit a jackpot on the previous play or haven’t paid off since Reagan was in the White House. Our “expert” is correct in suggesting that you look for the machines with big jackpots, but not because they are “due”. You should play them simply because the existence of a big potential payout increases the overall expectation of your gamble. By the way, this notion about an outcome that hasn’t occurred in a while being “due” is so famously wrong that it has a name all its own. It is called “the gambler’s fallacy”. ‘Nuf said.

There was more, but we’re running out of space. From time to time we plan to return to some of these slot myths. It’s part of our campaign to increase slot literacy. But just for a moment, let’s speculate about what could possibly lead our “expert” to produce all this rubbish. Here’s our guess: The advice is driven by what psychologists call the illusion of control.

It can be quite disturbing to learn that a particular belief or action makes no difference in what happens to us. In the world of the slot machine, the truth is that all your beliefs and actions make no difference whatsoever. Payouts are determined entirely by the random number generator in each machine and its programming – and there is nothing you can do about it but push the button and say a prayer.

People hate this. So they find ways to avow themselves of the notion that what they do actually works. They look for the “loose” machine, the “due” machine, the one with the jackpot just waiting to be hit. They try to avoid the “tight” machine, the one that “isn’t ready” to pay out yet, the one with the most payout symbols, or the one next to the one that just paid out – or didn’t pay out yet. Whatever!

While none of this makes a difference, feel free to believe it, as long as it makes you happy. Our only serious, useful advice here is simple: Don’t let any of these nonsensical slot theories encourage you to increase your basic bet size, or to play more often than your bankroll warrants. Gambling is a recreation and slots are its major attraction. Stay within your comfort zone. Get lucky at the rate that your machine is programmed for and have as much fun as possible. The more honest we are about these facts of slot life, the better off we all will be.

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