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Ask the Slot Expert: Are slot machines 'controlled'?4 September 2013
Thanks for your letter. Let me add to your points.
First, what exactly are the machines programmed to do? Contrary to some players' beliefs, they are not programmed let them win a little and then take it all back and then some.
The machines are programmed to one primary thing: Choose an outcome at random from a pool of outcomes. All the other functions (handling currency, printing tickets, awarding the proper number of credits for a winning combination, reporting your play to the players club system) are all ancillary to the machine's primary task.
Why does the house have an edge on the machines? Because the total value of the pool of outcomes is not high enough. Let's say, for example, we have a machine with 100 possible outcomes and the total value of those outcomes is 99. We have a 99 percent payback machine. Increase the value of the pool to 102 and we have a machine with a 2 percent player edge with no change in programming.
My point is that, technically, the machines are not programmed to have a house edge. They have a house edge because of the virtual reels and paytable. One could consider them to be part of the program, but they're really data for the program to act on.
We are very close to agreeing on your third point. Intermittent, unpredictable rewards are a very potent method to get people, players and lab rats to repeat a behavior. Even though some players look like they're in a trance, I wouldn't go so far as to say they were hypnotized.
Lotteries (lotto drawings and scratch-off tickets) are some of the worst bets you can make. Maybe even the worst. There may not be a table game bet or side bet that has as high an edge.
Casinos run by lotteries are another matter. According to the American Casino Guide, the long-term paybacks in Delaware's and New York's racinos are in the low 90s. Maybe not as high as those in the locals casinos in Las Vegas, but better than those in many casinos run by corporations. Casinos run by lotteries offer much better bets than lottery retailers.
Finally, I'm going to disagree with half of your last point. Playing in a casino is entertainment. But it is also gambling. Players have a chance to win, but it is more likely that they will lose. Players should bet with money that is earmarked for entertainment and that they can afford to lose. It's OK to hope for a win, but they should be prepared for a loss.
Thanks again for your thoughtful letter.
Send your slot and video poker questions to John Robison, Slot Expert™, at email@example.com. Because of the volume of mail I receive, I regret that I can't reply to every question.
Best of John Robison