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Best of John Robison

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Ask the Slot Expert: Reprogramming slot machines for a tournament

27 June 2018

Question: At MGM Detroit I saw a bank of slots walled off. All were opened and there were tech folks with laptops. One told me they were reprogramming the machines for a tournament. What gives?

Answer: What gives?

Nothing sinister.

Slot tournaments almost always use machines that are programmed differently from a typical slot machine. I'll even go so far as to say always. The only time I was in a tournament in which the machines were just machines on the slot floor was about 20 years ago in Atlantic City. If I remember correctly, there was a timer for, say, three minutes on each machine in a circular bank. These were the tournament machines. Your score was whatever you could win in the three minutes. Although there was no entry fee for the tournament, you had to pay for each spin. I've never seen another tournament like this one.

When tournaments used reel-spinning machines, casinos typically used one of two choices for getting the machines. One, they could purchase (or lease) special tournament machines and keep them in storage until they were needed for a tournament. Just ballparking numbers, 25 machines at $10,000 per machine gives a quarter of a million dollars tied up in machines that are used only once a month or so. Another option casinos had was to rent the machines from a company that rents tournament machines.

A tournament program differs from a game mode program in a number of ways. First, tournament programs are usually free play. No credits are deducted from your credit meter for each spin. Just to keep things interesting, though, I know of one exception to free play on a slot tournament machine.

Second, there is a timer to time your session. The timer is usually just for your machine, but the tournament that does not have free play also has a community timer. Even though the emcee may give a starting countdown, if you wait a second or two to start playing, you can see that your timer doesn't start until you hit the Spin button with individual timers.

Finally, the biggest difference between the two programs is in their long-term paybacks. The tournament program is way above positive expectation, maybe 500% to 1000% long-term payback.

I regularly played in the slot tournaments at the Desert Inn. It used Blazing 7s machines for its tournaments. In a field of 25 or so players, there was almost always someone whose machine was counting out the credits for three Blazing 7s. It wasn't unusual to get the Blazing 7s once during your session and many times we would get them two, three or even more times. As I wrote at the time, if we could get the tournament virtual reel layouts on a machine on the slot floor, we could all quit our days jobs.

The tournament program for a video poker tournament machine is a bit different from that of slot tournament machine. Video poker tournaments are either time-based or time and credit-based. Time-based sessions penalize slower players, so most video poker tournaments also have a limit on the number of hands one can play in a session. These machines are not free play. They deduct credits for each hand from your allotment of credits. Your session ends when you run out of credits or time, whichever comes first. Because the credit meter is now being used to limit the number of hands you can play, your winnings are accumulated on another meter, usually attached to the top of the machine.

Almost all of the tournaments I've played in in this decade have used video machines because of their flexibility in being reprogrammed. A few years ago, a couple of casinos had tournaments on old reel-spinning machines that looked like they were left over from when Bill Clinton was in office, but they have switched to video machines now.

If the casino is repurposing slotfloor machines, it has to reprogram them with the tournament program. You saw one way. It looks like the techs were able to reconfigure the machines by using a laptop connected to the machine. When the tournament is over, the techs will have to go back to each machine to reconfigure it back to game mode.

Many casinos now use the TournEvent system from Everi to run their slot tournaments. TournEvent makes it simple for a casino to switch machines from game mode to tournament mode. With TournEvent, the most time-consuming task in running a tournament is setting up the stanchions to cordon off the tournament machines. With a few clicks on the Master TournEvent PC, all of the machines in the tournament can be switched to tournament mode in less than 30 seconds.

The games available for a TournEvent tournament are not the same as Everi's regular titles, so there can be no confusion about whether a machine is in game mode or tournament mode.

The TournEvent games are the exceptions to the standards of free play and personal timer. Spins on a TournEvent game are not free. Each spin dings your credit meter for, usually, 50 credits per spin. You start with 10,000 credits, so there's no worry about not being able to pay for your first few spins. I don't know why Everi didn't go with free play.

The TournEvent system also uses a community timer. When the session is kicked off and the countdown appears on each machine, you better be ready to start hitting the Spin button when it reaches zero. The timer starts when the countdown ends whether you're ready or not.

I can see why Everi uses a community timer. The TournEvent system automates all of the tasks involved in running the tournament. It captures all of the players' scores and produces a player ranking at the end of each session. With the community timer, everyone is done playing at the end of time. With individual timers, a machine malfunction stops the machine's timer until someone resets the machine. You sometimes see players continuing to play for quite a few seconds after everyone else has finished because their timers were on hold during a malfunction.

So, that's what gives. Nothing bad. But I do have a similar story that does not have a happy ending.

A few days before Memorial Day. I overheard slot floorpeople telling the players at a bank of Ten-Play machines that the machines were going to be taken out of service at 6PM. Techs eventually put a little sign saying that the machine would be taken out of service on the top glass on each machine. About 15 minutes later, they came to the bank of Triple-Play/Five-Play machines at which I was playing and put the machines that were not in use out of service and the little sign on the machines that were in use.

At a little before 6PM, a slot floorperson came to the bank and put the idle machines out of service. I asked her if I needed to get off of my machine. She said that the techs weren't ready yet, so I could continue to play but once I left, she would put the machine out of service.

"Just out of curiosity," I asked, "are you going to move the machines?"

"No, I don't think so," she said. Then she saw a tech over by the Ten-Play machines. "Let me go ask him."

She said something to the tech, then they took a few steps back behind the bank of Ten-Play machines so I could not see them. Maybe they thought I could read lips. After a minute or so, she came back and told me that they were just going to do normal maintenance.

Normal maintenance does happen. One of my slot tech friends once looked a bit glum when I saw him at work. He said things were slow right now, so the techs were going from machine to machine, cleaning them inside and verifying that everything was working properly. Not as exciting as setting up new machines and fixing broken ones.

Now, I had my suspicions that there was nothing normal about whatever maintenance was going to be done on these machines, so I decided to play until they kicked me off. I was the only one left at the bank. Not surprising since all of the other machines had been out of service for a while now.

I threw in the towel at around 7PM.

When I came back the next day, I discovered that normal maintenance meant replacing the high-paying video poker paytable on each machine with a lower-paying paytable.

The really unhappy part of the ending of this story is that even though the machines are not nearly as busy as they used to be, they still get a fair amount of play. I suppose that there's no chance that the casino made more money from the busy machines with a high-paying paytable than from the lightly used machines with a lower-paying paytable.


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