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Best of John Robison

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Ask the Slot Expert: I've never had a hand pay on a slot machine

16 March 2016

Question: A few years ago I went to Vegas for a vacation. Before my trip I practiced playing video poker using a program that told you when you played a hand incorrectly. I played about 80,000 hands at 99% correct.

I played mostly Double Bonus Poker in Vegas. I played about three hours a day. In the 10 days I was there, I hit one four-of-a-kind. What are the odds of that happening?

I remember playing blackjack and losing 17 hands in a row. On the other hand, I once won 15 sports bets in a row.

Now those are real streaks.

Answer: According to the Double Bonus page in Lenny Frome's Winning Strategies for Video Poker, you should hit four aces once every 5,000 hands, four 2-3-4 every 1,900 hands, and the other quads every 600 hands, on the average. That's a quad about every 418 hands using Lenny's strategy. The odds of playing for 30 hours and hitting only one four-of-a-kind are indeed long, unless you played really, really, REALLY slowly. The odds are so long, in fact, that I wonder whether there's a little exaggeration in your report of how few quads you hit.

Looking back over my own results playing Bonus Poker, the best pay table available at my local casino (OK, it's not the best. The best is 9/7 Triple Double Bonus, but it's only in uprights and far too volatile for my tastes. So, I play Bonus Poker, but only when there's a good promotion.), I've hit one, two or three quads per 1,000 hands. That result matches Lenny's estimate of a quad every 400 hands, on average.

Today I hit only one quad. I thought I might not get a four-of-kind at all as I played hand after hand, holding multiple trips, without ever getting four-of-a-kind. Finally, at about hand 800 of 960, I held two fives and drew the other two. My only quad for that session.

Sometimes you get the cards. Sometimes you don't.


Question: I'm a frequent Atlantic City slot player who has never won more than $150 from a single game. I was going to ask if you could suggest what I might be doing wrong as it seems that everyone and his second cousin has at least one big hand pay story. Then, almost as if I could hear your voice of reason in my ear, I realized that most likely the majority of us have never won big and the hope of doing so is exactly what keeps the casinos in business. So never mind about that one (unless, of course, you do have some gem of advice that might change my luck).

Instead, I'll ask this:

When a casino is hosting one of those cash or slot dollar promotions in which a winner of some set amount is announced every 7 or 15 or 30 minutes — do you know if those names are picked randomly or if they are tied to a player's card status or amount of play?

I understand that one must have inserted his player's card into a machine or opened a table game during certain hours to be eligible, but beyond that I cannot recall ever reading that these are, indeed, entirely random. And, you guessed it, I've never won any of those either. So you know what I'm thinking. Have you ever checked that out?

Answer: I'll address your first question. There are far fewer hand pays today with ticket machines than before with coin machines. Today a machine will go hand pay only when a player wins $1,200 or more to ensure that the IRS paperwork is prepared. In the coin days, smaller wins would be paid by hand to avoid emptying a machine's hopper and to prevent making the player carry a ton of coins or tokens to the redemption booth. (I once had a particularly good run on a machine at The Mirage. I needed a hopper fill and the help of a slot floorperson to carry all the buckets of tokens. Really could have used tickets that time.)

The proliferation of penny slots is another reason that hand pays are less frequent. We used to have, for example, 75 cents riding on one payline, but now that 75 cents is spread across 25 paylines, leaving only 3 cents bet on each line. Even landing the jackpot symbols on a payline doesn't amount to much of a payout with only 3 cents at risk.

Spreading your bet over multiple paylines also explains your relatively modest winnings on each spin. Most penny slots take your money slowly, and once you're inevitably down in a deep hole, it's nearly impossible to win enough to get back even. Hence many players complain that they rarely leave the casino ahead playing penny slots, but they did sometimes leave winners when they played single-payline quarter slots. The slot manufacturers are addressing this problem by adding more volatility to some machines using stacked symbols, tall or wide symbols, and other techniques.

Moving on to your second question, you should be able to get a rule sheet describing the promotion from the slot club booth. There are a number of different ways these promotions can run.

Sometimes you have to earn virtual entries into the drawing by playing. Premium players may earn entries at a faster rate and sometimes they might also be given additional entries. In this case, a virtual entry is chosen at random from the virtual drawing drum. Players who have more entries have a better chance of being called.

A better chance, but not a guarantee. During a recent drawing, I commiserated with another player over how our names are never called. (Actually, I fibbed a little because my name has been called a few times.) He said that one of his friends was selected once and she had only one entry in the drawing. That's all it takes.

I think the winning players were chosen at random from all the active, carded players at the time of the drawing in the promotion you described. Every player had an equal chance of being chosen. To be sure, though, you'd have to get the rule sheet from the slot club.


Question: I am writing in regard to the question about automatic slot machines.

On a visit to Brighton Beach in England, we visited a casino that had these machines. Some players were playing numerous machines all at the same time by setting them in the auto mode.

These machines are very popular in Europe, but I have never seen them in the U.S.

Answer: Slot regulations in European countries can be very different from those in the United States. In my reply to the original letter about auto-play on online slot machines, I said that I wasn't sure that the feature would be allowed here. There's one feature in British fruit machines that I know is not allowed in the U.S.

Back in the late 1990s, one of my co-workers had a friend who programmed British slot machines. He said that one of the algorithms in the program running the machine altered the probability of hitting winning combinations on the machine if the machine was paying out too much or too little. The algorithm decreased the volatility on the machine — for both casino and player.

Such an algorithm is illegal in the United States. The result from the random number generator must be displayed without any alteration. As a result, U.S. slot machines may take longer to home in on their long-term paybacks than English fruit machines because the U.S. machines depend on volume of play to close in on the long-term payback, not an algorithm that alters probabilities.


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