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Ask the Slot Expert: Are coin-pusher machines a good bet?

21 November 2018

Question: I just came back from a cruise. In the slot section they had a game in which you insert a quarter and the quarter lands on the playing field. Robotic arms push the quarters on the floor. If they happen to push the quarters to the end, you win.

What I can't figure out is how the house makes money. Have you ever seen this and is it a good bet?

Answer: I've definitely seen these sort of games in arcades, where you win tickets instead of quarters. I thought I had seen them in casinos, but I wasn't sure. I did a little searching and found posts about coin pusher machines in Las Vegas casinos 10-20 years ago. Every casino I go to has gotten rid of these carnival-style games (like the Big Wheel). I don't think there any coin-paying machines around now.

The main way the casino makes money on these machines is because the coins that spill over on the far edges don't get returned to the players but go into the machine instead. Another way the casino makes money is by having a time limit on how long the game lasts after you drop a quarter. The casino keeps any coins that fall after the game has ended. If you have a stack of quarters teetering on the edge and they finally fall due to a mini-tremor a thousand miles away 45 seconds after you played your quarter, you wouldn't win anything because the game officially ended after, say, 35 seconds. The Wizard of Odds estimates that the house edge on the Flip-It machines that were in Las Vegas 20 years ago was about 10%.

Is it a good bet? Nope.


Question: Over the past two years, my wife and I noticed that one of the most popular casino slots are the new Chinese Dancing Drums slots. They are really fun to play but very streaky. We wintered in Laughlin last year, visited Vegas six times and hit Tunica and Biloxi this past fall. They are all over the place. Beau Rivage and the IP in Biloxi must have 40-50 of them each, though several variations.

When you "get the pot" and you get to select from the gold coins until you get three each of either the "mini," "minor," "major," or "grand" jackpot icons. You mostly get the mini, occasionally the minor rarely the major or the grand.

But once you get a match of three, you never get to see what was behind the remaining coins.

Why don't they show you where the other icons were behind the scenes (coins not picked) for the higher jackpots? Is this because they are not always there — and you don't always have a chance to win the higher jackpots--and only pay-off the major and grand once the machine has taken in enough money to pay it off after making a handsome casino profit?

My wife recently hit the grand at a tribal casino in WI — and had lots of other luck on these machines in Tunica and Biloxi.

We also play this on our iPad daily and in hundreds of hours and dozens upon dozens of jackpots have only hit 1 grand and 1 major between us.

This would be a more fun game if you always could verify that the winners were there . . . and adding a random jackpot hit would make these games even more fun.

Getting ready for our annual winter gambling and golfing trip.

Freezing in Wisconsin!

P.S. What are the new tax laws regarding taxable jackpots? Can they still be written off against your losses on Fed forms? What about on short form if you no longer have enough deductions?

Answer: There are many Chinese-themed slots, all I think descended from 88 Fortunes. Some casinos have many of these machines. Suncoast, which opened a Chinese restaurant just about a year ago, has a greater percentage of its slot floor allocated to Chinese-themed slots than Gold Coast, which has had two Chinese restaurants for years. Go figure.

Most of these machines have the same bonus round. You pick coins from a field of 12. You win one of four progressives after you uncover three of its coins. Four times three equals 12, so one would think that each progressive has three coins on the board. One would also expect to get each progressive about 25% of the time, but we know from experience that you get the mini and minor most often, maybe occasionally the major, and you've never gotten the grand but you know someone who has. We can't tell what is really going on with the coins because the unpicked coins are not revealed at the end.

I investigated this bonus round on 88 Fortunes in past columns. Based on what I was told by a slot director, here is how this bonus round actually works.

It's possible for you to win any of the progressives, but your picking has nothing to do with it. When the bonus round is triggered, the program polls the RNG to determine which progressive you will win. Clearly the algorithm is designed so you are more likely to win the mini, somewhat less likely to hit the minor, somewhat more less likely to hit the major, and less likely still to get the grand, but hitting the grand is possible — even with the minimum bet.

Now that the program knows which progressive you will win, it randomly places two coins for each of the remaining three progressives on the screen. Then it fills in the remaining six positions with coins for the chosen progressive.

Your picks have nothing to do with determining the progressive you win. Only one progressive has three coins on the screen. The only thing your picks affect is how long it takes to discover which progressive you've won. The help screens, in fact, have a statement saying that "player interaction in the bonus round has no effect on the amount won."

The progressive is chosen randomly. The amount of money the machine has taken in has no effect on which progressive is chosen.

The machine doesn't reveal the coins because the designers don't want you to know that the progressive was determined by the RNG, not your picks — as if you couldn't already tell something wasn't right from how much more frequently you get the lower progressives.

Is the bonus deceptive? A little bit, because it makes you believe that each progressive has three coins on the screen. But it's not against any regulations because players aren't betting based on the coin-picking game. The coin pick is a bonus, not the game. The player has no money at risk. As Homer Simpson so wisely says when you win free spins on The Simpsons slot machine, "Woo Hoo! Free spins. I can't lose."

It may not be freezing in Las Vegas, but it's a bit chilly. Better bring a light jacket. On second thought, maybe not. A former boss said that when he lived in Minnesota, they would break out the short-sleeve shirts when the temperature got above freezing. You might consider 65 degrees balmy.

As for taxes, it's best to consult a professional preparer. They have access to all of the IRS rulings and letters. Well, you do too, but they'll understand them.

From my understanding, the casual gambler is really hurt by the new law. You can still deduct your losses if you itemize. But since the standard deduction has been raised, you'll need larger losses or more deductions to justify itemizing. More people will end up just declaring their W-2Gs as additional income and not reporting their losses.

When I was an expert witness on a tax case a few years ago, one of the attorneys I worked with told me that the IRS doesn't really believe you can make money gambling. But it sure does make it hard for you to show that you lost money.


John Robison

John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots
John Robison
John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots