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Do Your Choices Matter When Playing the Slots?

10 July 2003

By John Robison

You can hear me give my slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Clyde Callicott with Frank Scoblete, which is broadcast from Memphis on WMC 790AM Saturday morning from 09:30-12:00 CT.

One of the buzzwords in slot machine design today is player interaction. Playing the slots used to take very little on the part of the players. They'd put money in the machine, pull the handle or press the spin button, look at the result, and then either jump for joy or curse their bad luck. The only choice the players could make was how many coins to play.

Many of today's machines try to get the players more involved in the game by giving them choices to make. Some of these choices, even though they seem important, are actually inconsequential and it doesn't matter what choice you make. Others are very important and will have a direct effect on how much money you win. This week, let's look at the some of the choices you can make while playing the slots.

Stopping the spin. Many video slots display a Stop Spin soft button on their touchscreens. If you press the button, the reels stop spinning and lock into place. I'm frequently asked whether pressing the Stop Spin button has any effect on one's results.

Pressing the button has no effect whatsoever on the result of the spin. The only thing it does is eliminate much of the reel-spinning display--the "show," as it's called in the trade--and reduce the amount of time between the start of the game and revealing the outcome. The only effect pressing the button does have is enabling you to play more spins per hour because each spin lasts less time.

Some machines have Stop Spin buttons that are active during a bonus event. Reel Deal Poker, for example, has a button to stop the reels that spin after you hit a certain hand. A recent caller to this show asked if it was worthwhile for her to try to press the button when the high-paying symbol was on the payline. Again, it doesn't matter when you press the button. Pressing the button only causes the reel to immediately stop on the pre-selected symbol. Pressing the button does not affect which symbol lands on the payline.

Choices before a spin. On a Bally video slot, I think it was Cash Encounter, you had the opportunity of choosing a particular color of alien. You received some sort of award--I don't remember whether it was credits, a free spin, or something else--when an alien of that color appeared on one of the reels.

Here's a choice that seems important and your choice will affect whether or not you get the award on any particular spin. But since each color alien is equally likely to appear, in the long run, it doesn't matter which color alien you choose.

Choices during a bonus round. The choices you can make during a bonus round are the most extreme example of inconsequential choices you can make. It seems like when you choose a fish in Reel 'Em In, or items in The Price is Right and Winning Bid, or oil wells in Texas Tea, you're taking your destiny into your hands and your choices affect your fortune.

I recently had an exchange of messages about Winning Bid with a reader of my web site. He wanted to know if his strategy of picking items was any better than picking them at random. Briefly, his strategy was to keep picking the same bidder and item if the bonus he received was low. He said that he rarely saw the same bidder and item have the low amounts two or three times in a row.

Let's simplify the situation and say you have to pick one of three items. Each item is assigned a bonus amount at random, just as on the real game. Let's look at two different strategies. If you pick the same item each time, you have a 1/3 chance of picking the lowest amount, a 1/3 chance of picking the middle amount, and a 1/3 chance of picking the highest amount. One-third of the time you'll get the lowest bonus, 1/3 the middle, and 1/3 the highest.

Now, suppose you pick at random. One-third of the time you'll pick the lowest amount, 1/3 the middle, and 1/3 the highest. No different than picking the same item.

Finally, let's say you try to apply some smarts to the problem and choose an item based on what has happened in the past. No matter which item you pick, it has a 1/3 chance of being the lowest on this round, 1/3 of being the middle, and 1/3 of being the highest.

It doesn't matter which one you pick. In the long run, you'll pick the lowest 1/3 of the time, the middle 1/3 of the time, and the highest 1/3 of the time--regardless of what method you use to pick.

When Your Choices Do Matter

Video poker. The most obvious example of a machine in which your choices do matter is video poker. You give up anywhere from one or two to as many as five or more percentage points in long-term payback when you play by your hunches instead of a mathematically derived strategy.

Bonus rounds on Mikohn slots. Mikohn has carved out a niche for itself by designing slots that require meaningful choices in their bonus rounds. The choices you make during these bonus rounds do affect the amount you win and the more skillful you are in playing the bonus round, the more you can win. An insider at Mikohn once told me that a good player can pick up over one percentage point in long-term payback over a poorer player.

Some examples: Yahtzee -- you have to choose which die or dice to re-roll during the bonus round to try to get the best-paying Yahtzee hand. Battleship -- you have to choose which grid squares at which to fire your missiles in an attempt to sink the enemy fleet. The fewer missiles you take, the higher your bonus. Ripley's Believe It or Not -- the higher your U.I.Q. (Useless Information Quotient), the more you can win. The machine displays a trivia question along with a number of answers. The sooner you pick the correct answer, the higher your bonus.

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