Slot myths


Letters, we get letters… OK, folks, we’ve arrived. We’ve started getting fan mail, even though we’ve only been here for a few months. Well, perhaps it’s not exactly fan mail, but it shows you’re reading our column nevertheless. What we did get was an interesting letter from L.R., a reader in Silver Spring, MD, who is apparently a serious slot player with a lot of good questions on his mind.

He was very interested in how slots operate, and he also had some questions about many of the popular myths that seem to permeate the culture of slot players. The answer to many of L.R.’s questions, and probably many of yours, hinge on “randomness” and “probability”, and how the interaction of these two concepts determines how slot machines work. Please bear with us if we seem a little sarcastic, cryptic or humorous from time to time. There’s just something about all these slot machine myths and misconceptions that gets us worked up. So here are L.R.’s questions, along with our response.

I understand that slot machines pay out randomly on the basis of a computer chip that sets the payout level. But what happens when a machine has had a long string of plays and is not paying out? Eventually the coin bin is going to get full. Does the machine change its odds to lighten the bin?

Boy, did we love this one! We can just see folks wandering around the casino looking for slots that are heavy with fat and happy bins ready to upchuck their contents into the hopper. Otherwise, like poor old Pooh Bear who got himself stuck in the honey bin, they will become too fat to function. We suppose this could happen – at least theoretically – although the nature of randomness and the size of the bins in these beasties make it exceedingly unlikely. Our guess is that if the coin bin couldn’t hold even one more quarter, the machine would just shut down and wait for a casino operator to come and unburden it.

Do other machines around it affect a machine’s payout? I’ve heard rumors that one should not play next to a machine that has had a major payout. Does this same principle apply to banks of machines that are tied to the same progressive payout?

This question touches on a common slot myth. The answer is that each machine is completely independent of every other machine. And just to push this point home, each spin on each machine is independent of every other spin. Slots are just complicated piles of metal, plastic, wires and silicon. They have no memory. They don’t know what happened on previous spins and they don’t know what their neighbors are doing. This also holds true for banks of machines that are linked to a single jackpot. As for playing next to a machine that has had a major payout, we kind of like playing next to someone who is a big winner. Winners always seem to be having more fun; they tell jokes, laugh a lot and generally make the atmosphere a pleasant one. Sometimes they even take you to dinner. Playing next to losing grouches is a downer.

Sometimes a slot machine gives you credit when you put currency in, but on other occasions it drops out coins. Why?

We’re confused. Whenever we put in currency (in the form of folding green), the machine always racks up credits. If you want coins, you can, of course, just punch the payout button and your credits will get converted into coins. Then you can take these coins to the cashier who will give you back U.S. greenbacks. If you keep this up you can “play” the slots all night long and never lose a nickel of your bankroll.

If a machine has to be refilled would this indicate that it is a “hot” machine and should be played, or is it less likely to pay out for a time? 

See the answer to Question 3. Machines have “hot” and “cold” periods at the rate predicted by the programming properties of the chip that controls it. They don’t know whether they paid out on the last 42 straight plays or haven’t racked up a winner since Bush papa was in the White House. Machines do run out of coins all the time. We’ve all seen machines that have paid out their last coin and the next winner has to sit there waiting for a casino employee to come to the rescue.

Is there such a thing as a “loose” or “tight” machine? 

We’ve dealt with this one in earlier columns and the stock answer is “no”. However, it might help if we go into a bit more detail. Each machine can be programmed to pay out at a particular (probabilistic) rate. If you look at the detailed data published each month in Strictly Slots about slot payouts in North America, you will see systematic payout differences for machines based on their basic bet size as well as on the casino’s location.

Higher base-bet machines tend to have a higher percent return. In addition, slots in New Jersey tend to be tighter than those in Illinois. Vegas Strip slots have lower payouts that those in northern Nevada. But within any given bet size and particular venue, all the slots are programmed the same way. Hence, there are no such things as “loose” or “tight” machines within given venues, and any variations you see are really random processes at work.

If payouts are random, how is it that some machines will have very long sequences of payouts and others seem to go forever with no payouts at all?

Because this is how randomness works. All machines will produce runs like these. If it weren’t this way, it wouldn’t be random. And if it weren’t random, outcomes would be predictable. And if results were predictable, you wouldn’t have a game.

The likelihood of long runs of wins or losses would seem to be very small. If things are random, how can these extremely unlikely things keep happening?

This is another manifestation of how randomness works. This is also how the world works. We hope you understand that all kinds of things happen all the time that are highly unlikely. Suppose you’re playing poker and you pick up a hand with A’, K’, Q’, J’, 10’. “Wow”, you think, “a royal flush. This is just astonishingly unlikely”. And it is. Then on the very next hand you pick up K’, 6®, 4®, J©, 9™. You think, “Sheesh, what an ordinary, boring hand this is”. But guess what, folks? The second hand is just as wildly unlikely as the first. Every five-card poker hand has the exact same probability of happening. It is the psychological aspect that makes one seem so astonishing – never mind all the money you’re going to win on the hand – and the other so ordinary that you probably won’t make a penny on it. This also holds true for those seemingly peculiar runs at the slot machine. They are just what you expect when you look at a whole lot of random events.

Does it make a difference how a machine is played, whether by pushing a button or pulling a handle?

Nope, except the handle-pull gives you more exercise – and most slot players could use a little physical workout now and then – which is why we advocate jumping up and down a few times and then doing 10 pushups whenever you hit a jackpot.

Strictly Slots has had lots of articles about people’s favorite machines, along with recommendations for play. The differences between machines seem to be based on a whole host of factors – like the number of reels, the number of symbols on each, whether there are double or triple symbols, whether some can nudge up or down to the pay line, and even whether the machine boasts some theme or TV game. So machines, it would seem, ought to be able to be ranked from best to worst for the player. Can you list the best to the worst among the machines most commonly in use today?

Nope. It makes absolutely no difference in terms of payouts. Only the programming in the chip counts. The rest is fluff and feathers, bells and whistles, and most of all, marketing.

I like to jump from machine to machine. If the probability that some machines are located near a large payout, some are far from one, and still others are somewhere in-between, do your odds of finding one that is near a big payout increase by moving around? What do you think of this approach? 

Like they say in Dixie, “It don’t make no never mind”. Because of the nature of random processes – which we’ve explained in our response to preceding questions – no machine is closer to a large payout than any other, and it doesn’t matter whether you make each play on a new machine or stick with “ol’ Betsy” till they come and sweep you away.

Can slot machine placement on the casino floor be used to determine which machines offer better payout odds? I’ve always heard that machines located at crossroads where people gather, or near entrances that draw people in, pay off better. Is there any merit to this?

Nope. And we doubt that there ever was. It is possible that back in the old days before casino control commissions functioned as industry watchdogs, that this location strategy was correct, but we are suspicious. Here’s why. There is an inherent bias underlying the impression that “loose” slots are located near entrances or crossroads. The bias is one of perception, and is caused by the simple fact that there are more people at the entrances and crossroads, and more of them are playing those slots.

What do you consider the best ways to increase your odds of winning at slot machines?

There isn’t anything you can do that will increase your odds of winning. However, there are things you can do that will decrease you chances of losing. The game is one with negative expectation. Just how negative the expectation ultimately will be is will be is predicated on these three critical factors:

Basic bet size: Lower denomination machines generally have the lowest percentage return. The rate of return can run anywhere from 90 percent for nickel machines to as high as 98 percent – give or take a couple of percentage points – for high-roller $100 slots. While you can and will win on many occasions, in the long run the average slot maven is going to lose a given percentage of his or her investment, and that percentage will be based on the statistical properties of the machine being played.

Notice how the casinos adjust these payout patterns. They return a smaller proportion of the base bets when the levels are low and much higher proportion of the amount you wager when they are high. They make a bit more profit on a percentage basis when your wagers are small and a bit less when higher amounts are bet. If you think through the psychology of this strategy, you’ll see that there is a wonderfully sensible pattern here. In a future column we will deal with this delicate balance in more detail.

The speed with which you play: This principle is related to the one above. Since it is the total amount of money put at risk that matters most, the faster you play, the more your bankroll is in jeopardy. If you are frenetically feeding two machines as fast as you can stab those “maximum coin” and “spin” buttons, you are going to “invest” a lot of money – a lot more than someone who plays one machine in a more relaxed and even manner. Slot machines are a lot like cars and drugs: “Speed kills”.

Your comps: Virtually every casino has a system in place allowing regular players to earn comps for their action. They run the gamut from the generous to the paltry, and some of the regular features in this magazine outline rules and regulations in effect at various venues. A few comp programs return actual cash, some provide reduced or free rooms and food, and others have rather luxurious slot clubs with all the amenities one could ask for. In the more generous settings, your comps can amount to nearly 1 percent of your action. It would be foolhardy of anyone frequenting these particular casinos not to avail themselves of these goodies.

Myths and fallacies about slot machines abound, and we love debunking some of the more preposterous and outrageous ones. And the only way we know what you’re concerned about is when you tell us. So keep those cards and letters coming, folks.

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