If you really want to understand gambling, you should learn a little something about mathematics, especially probability theory and the notion of “expectation”. Without it, you’ll seldom know when you have the best of it, or when the casino has the edge.
Those of you who want to learn the basics of gaming arithmetic can check out the chapter in the book Gambling for Dummies where those issues are discussed. It’s not all that difficult, so don’t let your eyes glaze over. This stuff is something any seventh grader who can multiply and divide ought to be able to handle.
First of all, how does slots stack up against other forms of gambling?
I realize that many slot players don’t give a fat flying fig about probability theory or the mathematics of expectation, and that’s OK in one sense. Knowing this stuff may make you smarter but it won’t make you any richer. Besides, the vast majority of the folks who gamble for fun play the slots, and no degree in mathematics is going to help them out.
The concerns of most slot players aren’t with mathematics anyway; they run to questions like these: Is it all just luck or is there a secret to these beastly machines? Are there slots with better or worse payoffs, better or worse odds? And everyone’s favourite question: Are there really “loose” and “tight” slots, and how can I find the former and avoid the latter?
Examining slot machine basics leads us to the answers. So, without further ado, here’s my Ten-Plus Magical Principles of Slots. By the time you’re done reading this article, all of your questions should be answered.
Principle No. 1 – Moooo-Lah:
Slot machines are a casino’s cash cow. They take up little space, require minimal maintenance and supervision, and operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They never go on strike, work without Social Security payments or health benefits, and generate revenues that can amount to 16 percent of the cash dropped into them on each play. A single quarter slot machine in a high-traffic area of a major casino can produce a profit in excess of $1,000 a week. That’s 52 kilobucks a year. Whew! There isn’t anything even remotely like this anywhere else in a casino. No wonder casino owners love their slots and their slot players.
Principle No. 2 – The Big Payday:
Psychologically speaking, the jackpot drives the game. There’s no rocket science or mystery here; our attraction and fascination with slot machines is based on a couple of very simple ideas. Slots are easy to play and provide us with a shot at a serious win in the form of a jackpot. In exchange, the casino holds a large statistical edge. It’s a trade-off, and slots take avantage of the same kind of psychology as lotteries. Odds that are difficult to overcome are offered by the casino in exchange for every player’s prayer for a miracle – the monster payoff. Some- body’s going to hit it eventually, and it may as well be me!
Principle No. 3 – Max Bet or No Jackpot:
If you play “regular” slots – the kind that do not offer a progressive jackpot – you cannot hope to win in the long run. Yes, it is true; if you do hit the jackpot on one of these you will have a winning day. In fact, you could even have a winning year. But in the long run these machines will grind you down. Moreover, the jackpot with its bonus payout only comes into play when you play “maximum coin”. We are always faced with the classic double-edged sword. In order to reduce the long-term house edge by hitting the occasional jackpot we must increase our base bet.
Principle No. 4 – When Mercury Aligns With Mars: On machines with progressive jackpots the odds can occasionally shift in your favor. It’s like “slot-astrology”, and all the signs are favorable. A progressive jackpot may grow to $8 million, and if the odds against hitting it are only something like 7,500,000-to-1, the game now has a positive expectation. Nevertheless, it doesn’t mean all that much to most players, since the amount of time and money needed can make the play inadvisable. Still, wouldn’t it be nice if we could sidle up to the powers that be and say, “Mr. Casino Owner, I’ll give you a check for $7.5 million in exchange for $8 million of yours, and you can reset your slot jackpot once again”.
That won’t work, but there is a solution that pops up every once in a while: team play. Since jackpots this size are found only on machines that are linked together, you need to get a group of big-bankroll buddies and commandeer every machine in the network until one of you hits the jackpot, and you split the profits. There used to be teams like this operating throughout the country – although not as many as just a few years ago because of the dreaded Principle No. 4a.
Principle No. 4a – All Computer Chips Look Alike On The Outside:
You can’t always tell when the progressive jackpot payout on these machines exceeds the mathematical odds against hitting the jackpot. Once you could, but that was back in the days when one could calculate the probability of hitting the jackpot by knowing the number of symbols on each reel and doing a little multiplication.
Modern slots are computer-controlled and very sophisticated. One commonly found variety has 30 symbols or blanks on each reel but may have up to 256 virtual “spots” on each reel that determine where it will stop – and only one is keyed to the symbol for the jackpot. You may think that the odds of hitting the jackpot on a three-reeler with 30 locations are 303 = 27,000, but it actually may be as high as 2563 = 16,777,216. On the modern, comp-uter-controlled slot, it is no longer possible to determine when a jackpot has a positive expectation for the player. Because of this, the team of professional slot players is a thing of the past.
Principle No. 4b – When We Win, the Casino Wins Too:
Don’t think for a second that casinos lose money when someone hits one of these humongous jackpots. On these machines the probabilities of various outcomes are adjusted slightly and the extra take is shifted into the jackpot. The jackpot increases only with additional play, so we are the ones who are actually putting up the money for these occasional life-affirming wins.
Much of the time, payouts are spread out over up to 20 years – just like many of the lotteries do – and that’s not good news either. Here’s what happens: You hit a $20 million dollar jackpot. Great. You get $1 million right now – and, of course, Uncle Sam and your home state take their cut too. The casino holds on to the other $19 million. Next year you get another million – again with taxes taken out. What’s happened to the interest on your dough – the dough you haven’t seen yet? “Well, golly, Buffalo Bob, I never thought about that”. Need we say more? Actually, we do need to say more and in the future we will devote an entire column to this issue.
Principle No. 5 – Amnesia:
Slot machines have no memory. While rummaging through a book that “guarantees” to make you a slot winner, we found the following piece of nonsense: “Go up to the clerk who is making change for one bank of slots and after getting change give the clerk a couple of bucks as a tip and strike up a conversation. Once you have gained his or her interest and confidence ask which of the slots has not paid off a jackpot in some time and therefore is clearly ‘due’. Then play this machine”.
If this gimmickry worked, why would a change clerk tell some stranger? Because of a lousy $2 tip? Get a grip. If we were clerks and this kind of information was reliable, there is no way we would give this information to total strangers – even if they tipped us $2,000. We’d have all of our friends playing these overdue machines, and we’d all clean up. So would every slot machine attendant in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Please believe us, nice as most slot attendants are, they are not driving Beemers and Benzes to work.
Anyway, unlike a lot of other bad advice, this one won’t cost you anything, except for the tip. But you won’t gain anything either. Machines are not “due” for anything. A slot machine is a mindless collection of metal, wires, plastic and silicon. It doesn’t know whether it paid out on the last play or hasn’t paid out in three years. Each spin of the reels has no bearing on future spins. The probability of hitting a jackpot is exactly the same on every spin no matter what happened before, or hasn’t happened yet.
Here are two stories for you. Both true. A friend of ours was on his way to the poker room in a major casino when he passed a grinning gentleman at a $5 machine who was being paid for a $5,000 jackpot. He gave him a congratulatory thumbs-up and went to the poker room, only to find no available seat. Like many other poker players waiting for a game, he left his name on the list and headed out through the casino to get a newspaper. He saw the same guy at the same machine, and on the very next spin he watched him hit the same machine for another $5,000 jackpot!
On another occasion we watched a woman walk up to a quarter machine and before she could unwrap her roll of coins an elderly gentleman leaned helpfully over toward her. “Don’t waste your time with that one”, he said. “Some guy hit it big no more than five minutes ago. It won’t be due for a while now”. She smiled, thanked him and proceeded to start feeding the machine anyway. While he shook his head disbelievingly, she proceeded to rack up a neat profit of $600 in less than 20 minutes. That’s the way it goes in the real world.
Principle No. 6 – Bells and Whistles:
Machines with special features may be fun to play but their payouts aren’t any better than ordinary machines. “Nudge” machines create winners out of losers and “multiple” machines offer an extra spin on an extra reel to multiply your winnings. You’ll find machines based on familiar cartoon characters, TV game shows, and anything else that might draw your attention and make you sit down and play. While it’s especially pleasurable to watch a “nudge” symbol turn your losing spin into a winner, or a machine based on a TV game show dump a cool grand into your wallet, the long-term payouts on these machines are no different than those without bells and whistles. Shifting the probabilities of the “regular” outcomes offsets the extra wins coming from the gimmicks.
Principle No. 7 – Bet More, Win More:
There is a direct relationship between the size of the base bet and a slot’s payout structure. Cheaper machines return the smallest percentage and the high-roller slots the largest. The average payouts for machines around the country show nickel slots returning a bit less than 90 percent. Quarter slots usually pay a tad above 90 percent, while dollar and $5 slots pay a couple of points higher than that. High-roller slots, the kind that gobble up $25 or $100 a pop, pay as high as 98 or 99 percent. The principle is simple. Casinos take a smaller percentage from the higher machines without suffering any loss whatsoever in total revenues. How do the casinos control these payouts so carefully? It’s those programmable computer chips we told you about in Principle 4.
Principle No. 9 – We Will Reward You For Your Business:
Casinos love slot players and compete hard for their business. These days it seems like every major casino has a slot club that offers generous comps, cash back and other perks to regular players. And you should take advantage of them. In fact, you’d be foolish not to. Comps actually blunt the house edge while improving your quality of life. You still won’t beat the machines in the long run, but you ought to have the best time you can – and comps are the way to do it.
Principle No. 10 – Where Are Those Loose Slots I’ve Been Looking For?
Oh yes, the title question. Unfortunately, they’re as much a figment of one’s imagination as the Fountain of Youth or the mythical pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Yeah, we know, we’ve seen those books that tell you to avoid the machines in the dark corners and only play those in the area near the walkways, near the doorways, near the aisles, near the men’s room, and even near the centre of your astrological zone’s crystal influences. It’s all nonsense. There are no loose slots, no hot areas on the floor, and no zones of profit.
We’re sorry to be the bearers of bad news, but that’s just the way it is. This simple fact is misunderstood so often and misrepresented by writers with such astonishing frequency, that in a future issue we’re going to devote a whole column to it. Our advice to you is simple: just find the slot you like in a location where you feel comfortable and play it. Good luck.