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Best of John Robison

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Ask the Slot Expert: Casinos can't make slot machines pay

29 June 2016

Question: My friend is an addict that must be at our local casino two or three times a week. She maintains that management, sitting in their offices, can turn off slots so they won't pay off anything until they decide to turn them back on.

I've tried to tell her that the Washington state gaming commission wouldn't allow that kind of activity, that slot machines are manufactured to pay at a certain percentage for house and player, and that that percentage is set by a state gaming commission as regulated by the legislature.

The Indians are getting rich as it is without their being able to turn the machines off for periods of time.

I hope I'm right but probably not.

Answer: You were doing so well until the very end when you supposed that you were probably not right. With a tweak here and there, I agree with everything you said.

First, I would like to take exception with calling your friend an addict. Of course, this is speaking as someone who visits a casino almost every day, sometimes more than one when there are good promotions running. I prefer the term enthusiast or aficionado. I would use the term addict only when there is some self-destructive behavior, like losing the grocery money.

I don't understand people who say that the slot machines are all rigged and then play them again and again. Do they think that at some point the rigging will be in their favor? Is your friend hoping that management will turn on the machine while she is playing it?

I don't know whether this casino has a compact with the state to offer Class III slot machines. If it does, then Washington State regulations apply. If not, regulations in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act apply. In either case, the sort of manipulation your friend described is not allowed.

Just think if that sort of control were possible. Nothing would prevent a casino manager from telling his friends to play specific machines at specific times and then splitting the winnings with them. It goes against the Prime Directive, if you will, of casino regulations -- Protect the integrity of the games so every bettor has a chance at winning.

Casinos are a license to print money. With few exceptions (e.g., counting cards, dice control, positive expectation video poker) the odds favor the house. All the house needs is a sufficient bankroll to cover all bets and then it can sit back and watch the money roll in.

Sure, there may be some hiccups now and then. Casino earnings reports occasionally say that earnings were down because some whale was lucky at high stakes blackjack or baccarat. But that's a rare event. You never read that quarterly earnings were affected by lucky dollar slot players. With the exception of ultra-high-denomination slots ($25 and up), the machines get so much play each earnings period that their actual payback percentages are very close to their long-term payback percentages.

The casinos already have the rules in their favor. The casinos are in it for the long run; they back every bet. Why would they risk anything by trying to get an additional -- and illegal -- advantage?


Question: I visit Tunica quite often. One of the casino deceptions I have noticed is how they will place a machine on the floor and loosen the payouts for a few weeks. Guests that find these machine will go directly to the machine each visit and win. Then suddenly you go back and the machine will suck you dry.

What I started doing was noticing small details about the machine and realized that they had replaced the machine with one identical. Sometimes the serial number is different and sometimes it's not.

I conducted my own test on a machine that I placed a mark on and it was still there after three weeks. The fourth week I went back there was an identical machine sitting there, but no mark on the machine.

I was paid 24 credits out of a hundred-dollar bill on this dollar Triple Gold 2-play machine. They had replaced this machine with one identical and it was NOT the same machine.

Answer: This is a common belief that casinos tighten machines after they've been on the slot floor for a while and players have gotten used to winning on them.

Let's assume that a casino did do this. Players are winning on the machine during the honeymoon period. Well, not every player. No matter how high the long-term payback percentage, it's still below 100% and not every player will win and the casino will make money from the machine. Still, players keep going back to the machine.

Now the honeymoon is over and the casino drops the long-term payback percentage. Players give the tightened machine a few tries and then give up on it because they went from winning to losing. New players lose and never try again. Now the machine earns less than it did when it had the higher long-term payback percentage because it's getting much less play. The machine is in a death spiral to getting almost no play.

Changing a machine's long-term payback percentage is not that easy. In many states, once the percentage is changed the machine has to be treated like a brand new machine. The money on the old machine has to be reconciled and closed out, which is a bit easier to do today because machines no longer have hoppers. The new machine gets a new asset number and gets re-entered into the slot accounting database. The state regulators also have to be informed of the change and they may have to witness or even perform the change.

How did you make a mark on that machine? Is it possible that it just got cleaned off? And when you say serial number, are you looking at the serial number on the plate applied by the manufacturer or at some other number on a label on the machine? Labels on the machine usually indicate the location of the machine and they'll change whan a machine is moved.

We can't tell anything about a machine's long-term payback from a few hundred (or even a few thousand) spins. Spin results are too volatile to be able to tell that the payback was changed from samples this small.

Hasn't it ever happened to you that you win on a machine on one visit, lose on it the next, and then win again? It certainly has happened to me, on new machines and on machines that have been on the slot floor for months.

The simplest and most likely explanation is just the randomness of results on a slot machine.


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