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Best of John Robison
Questioning randomness27 November 2006
Well, as I have written so many times, the impressions that players get from playing the machines are usually wrong. Players do not use the scientific method to test their hypotheses and instead believe the "facts" they conclude from their faulty, selective memories.
For example, at one time I was convinced that the third reel on a Double Spin Double Diamond machine always re-spun to the same symbol. I asked the slot director at the casino about what I had observed and he told me that he thought I was wrong. He thought that the odds on the re-spin were identical to the odds on the primary spin and that different symbols should appear on the third reel.
I tested my hypothesis by getting a roll of quarters and a pencil and pad to keep track of the results of the re-spin. On my very first re-spin, the third reel stopped on a different symbol. My hypothesis was proved false with one spin. My impressions of what happened on the machine were incorrect.
The only way you can draw valid conclusions from playing the machines is to track what you're doing (e.g., number of coins wagered) and what happens (i.e., the symbols that land on the payline). If you rely on memory and gut feelings, you'll draw wrong conclusions. Good science requires good record-keeping.
Let me address your points:
The number of coins you play has no effect on the symbols that land on the payline. You can prove this by playing, say, 1,000 spins at one coin and 1000 spins at full coin. Keep track of the symbols that land on the payline. It's easiest to perform this experiment on a traditional 3-reel machine. You'll find that the symbols on each reel land with about the same frequency no matter how many coins you play. I'll believe you're correct only after you've sent me written results of your tests and I'm able to duplicate them.
The RNG is not affected by the number of coins you play, therefore the symbols that land on the payline are not affected. The only thing affected by the number of coins you play is how much you get paid for the combination that lands on the payline.
Yes, most of my information does come from manufacturers. I have inspected the programs of some gaming devices and they operate the way I describe. The regulations come from gaming jurisdictions. The regulations are designed to protect two things. First, the regulations are designed to protect the players. And second, the regulations are designed to protect the jurisdiction's share of the gaming revenue. The regulations protect players and profits by ensuring that the games operate in a random manner.
It's true that the trade shows are not open to the public, but gaming trade shows are not unique in this aspect. There are plenty of other trade shows that are not open to the general public. The Consumer Electronics Show is one example. In addition, there are many auto shows that are for the public, but there are also shows that are for dealers only.
The Global Gaming Expo is closed to the public not because there are deep, dark secrets on display. It is closed in part to control crowds and to ensure that manufacturers are able to spend time with their customers. It's also closed to the public for security reasons. During the show would be an ideal time for a slot cheat to spend a lot of time examining machines in an attempt to find physical vulnerabilities without having to worry about being spotted by casino security. The cheat would not be able to open a machine on a casino floor, but be might be able to on the trade show floor.
The payback percentages are clearly not in the player's favor. The casino wants to make money and the state wants its cut too. Casinos are designed to make a profit, to provide value for your gambling dollar. They do this by having a house edge. It's the same as the markup a store or restaurant charges. Every business is designed to separate people from their money by providing a good or service that the people desire. I can never understand why some people are so surprised and dismayed when a casino wins their money.
The only thing that is random on a slot machine is the combination of symbols that will land on the payline next. Because this combination is drawn from the population of combinations determined by the layout of the symbols on the virtual reels, we can calculate the probability of landing any particular combination on the payline and, thus, the long-term payback for the machine.
Consider throwing two fair dice. I don't know what sum you'll throw next, but I know that if we plotted the sums thrown over time, we will end up with the Pyramid of Craps. THAT, my friend, IS randomness. And it shows that we can know quite a bit about the overall picture of a random event even though we don't know what will happen next.
You have to be careful about using a lay definition for a mathematical concept. Your definition of random is a lay definition and not a rigorous, mathematical definition.
I prefer this illustration of randomness. You say that all machines have patterns. If you that is true, you should be able to discern the pattern. I'll make a bet with you. You can watch a machine for as long as you want until you are able to make out the pattern. Once you have the pattern, you now have to tell me with 100% accuracy the symbols that will land on the payline for future spins.
If you truly knew the pattern, this feat would be a piece of cake. But I bet that you can't do it because there truly is no overall pattern to the results on a slot machine. And that's because the results are determined at random. No matter how much information you have about past results for an event, you cannot consistently predict future results for that event.
And consider this. Let's say the cherry symbol lands on the payline on the first reel three times in a row. There's a pattern, right? Well, what if the cherry appears on virtual stops 5, 8, and 33, among others on the first virtual reel, and these are the three numbers chosen for the first reel for those three spins. Now, where is your pattern?
In general, experience is a very poor teacher for random events, particularly those on a slot machine because there are so many possible outcomes.
Talking to players does not get you the plain and simple truth. What it does get you is a collection of half-truths, myths and misconceptions, many conflicting with one another so they can't all be true. You have to go up one step in the food chain and look at the machines themselves to see what is really happening.
I realize that you can never prove that a conspiracy doesn't exist. But do you really believe that in the two decades we've had computer-controlled slot machines, no disgruntled casino, gaming commission or slot manufacturer employee has ever come forward with credible evidence to prove that this is all a hoax?
Best of luck in and out of the casinos,
Send your slot and video poker questions to John Robison, Slot Expert, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Because of the volume of mail I receive, I regret that I can't send a reply to every question. Also be advised that it may take several months for your question to appear in my column.
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