Those Wonderful One-Armed Bandits
More people enjoy casino gambling than go bowling. More adult Americans go to casinos than go to Major League Baseball games. Casino gambling is more popular than tennis, football, soccer, boxing, and professional wrestling. There are more casino gamblers than there are viewers for the top-rated television shows. I'm guessing there are more casino gamblers in America than there are adults having sex tonight.
Most Americans now live within 300 miles of a casino, so enjoying a day, a night, or a few days or nights of casino fun is not out of the norm for America's approximately 54 million casino players. It used to be that going to Vegas or illegal joints were the only ways to get your gambling juices boiling, but now, with casinos in a majority of the states, players spending time in Lady Luck's cathedrals is not unusual. And we love to spend time in the casinos. I'm certain that readers of this book are avid casino players.
Casino gambling is a multibillion-dollar industry. The cash cow, the golden goose, and the treasure chest of this industry is the once-lowly slot machine. Strangely enough, it wasn't until 1984 that slot machines made more money for Atlantic City and Las Vegas casinos than did the table games. Until that time casinos were associated with table games, not slot machines. The top table game until about 1963 was craps; after 1963 it was blackjack. Roulette always had a following as "the third game," and those carnival games you now see spread throughout the table-game areas, such as Let It Ride, Three-Card Poker, and Caribbean Stud (plus many more!) didn't come into the houses of chance until after the slot machines made their move to take over the casino world.
In those heady pre-1984 days — especially from 1942 through 1978, with the opening of Atlantic City — the slot machines were considered the province of women. Cigar-smoking middle-aged craps players wearing impeccable suits could be heard saying, "Hey, baby, here's some change. Go play the machines." That was then.
This is now: About 80 percent of all women casino-goers play the slot machines, while about 63 percent of the men do so. The table games are still dominated by men, with craps having about a 90 percent male majority and blackjack and roulette seeing smaller male majorities but majorities nevertheless.
Obviously surveys show that women like playing the machines, and many of the machines are geared to this female clientele. Note the number of new machines each year that have movie titles, television titles, or star titles as their branding. Most of these machines are clearly aimed at women — although many machines are geared toward a male demographic as well (the Star Wars and comic-book machines, for example).
Why women prefer slots to table games in such a huge majority is not truly known with certainty. Maybe the tables seem more competitive, combative, and judgmental. After all, rarely does anyone tell you how to play the slots, but many blackjack "experts" do not hesitate to tell other blackjack players how to play their hands or scold them if they just played a hand incorrectly. Whether the blackjack "expert" actually knows how to play is irrelevant — he thinks he knows how to play, and that is enough for him to lambaste anyone who plays differently.
But those 63 percent of males playing those machines is where the cosmic increase in slot play has occurred. The men of the old days rarely played slot machines, and, if they did, they played a few coins here or there, nothing major.
Once men broke into slot play in large numbers at the same time that casinos were spreading like wildfire throughout the country, the die was cast — or rather the RNG was twirled — and slot machines became the big thing.
The slot-machine aficionado is not only the preferred player in the casinos but a player many casino advertisers wish to reach. Look at casinos' television commercials, and they feature slot players more than table-game players, a thing unheard of before 1985. Can you imagine James Bond playing a Betty Boop machine?
Slot machines are no longer chump change to the casinos. Using average paybacks released by casino jurisdictions for various denominations, with a 12-spin-per-minute play rate and three coins being played, a 25¢ slot player's expectation is to lose about $54 per hour based on a house edge of 10 percent. A $1 slot player's expectation is to lose about $194 per hour, based on a house edge of 9 percent. A $5 slot player's expectation is to lose about $432 per hour, based on a house edge of 4 percent.
Compare the slot figures with the following table games: At blackjack, playing about 80 hands per hour, a $25 basic-strategy player is expected to lose about $10 to $25 per hour; a $50 player between $20 and $50 per hour; and a $100 blackjack player between $40 and $100 per hour. A baccarat player making a combination of Bank and Player bets, playing 50 decisions per hour at $100 per hand, will be expected to lose between $60 and $70 per hour. A roulette player, playing 50 spins per hour, with a $25 average bet, is expected to lose about $66 per hour.
The casinos understand this completely. A $1 slot player makes more money for the casino than a $100 baccarat player, because unlike the table games, the machines don't need to work eight-hour shifts, get into arguments with floor personnel, receive medical benefits, get sick days and vacation days, or have mood swings. Slot machines are cheap employees with rich people's returns for the casinos' minor investments. They cost the casino far less than table games.
And each year machines that aren't working as well as other machines or that don't seem to have the potential player interest of newer models coming off the line can be replaced without those awkward words: "Sorry, John, you're fired!" Slot machines are relatively headache-free, as are slot players.
Casinos don't even have to worry about advantage slot players taking their money, even when some progressive machines get into positive territory. You will learn about such machines in this book. That is correct, you can become an advantage slot player (or close to it) if you follow the advice I'll give you in these pages. Even with you winning money from the positive machines, it is still no big deal to the casinos because the machine is making the programmed amount of money for the casino over time despite occasionally being in a player-positive mode. If you are savvy and only play the advantage-play machines when they are in a positive mode, you could be a long-term winner at these specific slots. Not a bad situation at all.
There are many benefits to slot play for the player too. You don't get game interference at the slot machines. Most other slot players don't care whether you play one coin, two coins, three coins, or fifty coins or whether you are superstitious or happy or depressed or clinically insane. Most slot players exist in a world of their own; they are cocooned and only occasionally interrupted by the screams of some other slot player who has just won a big one and can't keep from yelling her good fortune to the world. Slot players rejoice when other slot players win and then quickly go back to doing what they love to do — playing those machines.
While slot play is overwhelmingly the game of choice for both women and men, savvy slot aficionados recognize an interesting peculiarity in their slot-playing brethren. Slot players lose interest in all types of machines relatively quickly. They will play a given machine for a period of time and then abandon it. One slot player said, "I loved the Elvis machines, but I never won on them, so I quit playing them and moved on to Betty Boop machines." And what happened? "I didn't have much better luck on Betty, so I dumped her too."
Like bad marriages, slot players and slot machines divorce rather often. Slot players are the Henry VIIIs of casino gamers — always looking for the perfect match to have monetary offspring and never finding it. This is probably due to the fact that most slot players lose most of the time on all the machines. By switching machines so frequently, they hope to switch their luck. Unfortunately, the machines are not programmed to increase the players' luck. They are programmed to increase the casinos' bucks.
Casino executives know of the brittle relationship of slot player to slot machine, and that's why each and every year you will note how many new machines make their way onto the casino floors. All casino gaming shows, such as G2E (Global Gaming Expo), are dominated by new machines. There may be no difference in payouts between Betty Boop machines and Shirley Temple machines, but they look different and sound different, and the slot player will jump from one to the other hoping they are actually different.
The first law of slot machines is "keep them coming," because new machines will be tried by players. You will not see this same jumping around at table games. Craps players don't abandon their favorite game because, whether they win or lose, they love the game of craps. Blackjack players are loyal as well. You will not see many new table games at gaming shows and, while some new table games have gotten a foothold in the casinos, compared to the number of new machines out there, the number of new table games is infinitesimal.
Still, the paybacks on slot machines make them tough sells. Most have edges over 5 percent (a loss of $5 for every $100 wagered), many have edges over 10 percent (a loss of $10 for every $100 wagered), and some have edges of over 15 percent (a loss of $15 for every $100 wagered). These are big edges to monstrous edges, and when combined with the high speeds with which slot players attack the machines, they add up to frequent and often large losses. Very few people will stay in a marriage where they are abused, and slot players don't want to stay at machines that have been cuffing them around for any period of time. So on to the new machines they go with hope burning in their hearts. Slot players are like a country song called "I Keep Losing My Love, but I Never Give Up!"
Of course, if slot payouts were really generous, say 99.5 percent (the casino having a ½ percent edge in that case — which is the approximate house edge against a basic-strategy player at blackjack), then the chance is fairly good that the slot player would stick with such a machine come hell, high water, or new slot inventories. Getting some kind of return on a gambling investment is the best way for casinos to keep their players playing. The second-best way is to offer new machines. The casinos prefer to offer new machines.
There is really no end in sight to the slot revolution that has taken place in the casinos. In 1984, in both Atlantic City and Las Vegas, the slots made more money than the table games for the first time, and their growth since then has been nothing short of phenomenal. While 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce, most divorced people still want to get remarried. And slot players still want to play the machines even after they have divorced numerous previous machines. It's the way of the slot world.CHAPTER 2
The RNG, the Paybacks, and the Hit Frequency
Throw a projectile into a giant room crammed with tens of thousands of Ping-Pong balls sitting atop mousetraps (or some kind of propelling agent), and when that projectile hits some of those Ping-Pong balls on those mousetraps, all hell breaks loose. Ping-Pong balls rocket all over the place, causing other balls to rocket all over the place, hitting other balls on the mousetraps and in the air too. Before you know it, the room looks like Alaska in a snowstorm, with Ping-Pong balls flying, hitting, and bouncing all over the place. There is no way to predict what balls will hit what other balls. It's a random distribution, unpredictable in practice and fast as all get out.
And that is like the RNG — or random number generator, or Really Nifty Gadget — that decides what symbols will appear on the face of the machine you are playing. It determines these symbols by creating sequences of random numbers, perhaps thousands of sequences, so that when the play button is pressed or the handle is pulled, the RNG tells the reels (or video segments) what should show up. The RNG is contained in a computer chip, and this chip will determine everything that goes on with the machine's selections. The job of the player is simple in this scheme of things: she merely tells the machine to tell her what symbols the RNG just selected for her. She does this by pressing the play button.
The RNG is functioning all the time, even when the machine is not being played (some RNGs might pause when the machine is not being played, but this is unusual), so that when one hits the play button, the RNG will immediately shoot out the symbols for the slot player to see. But that RNG sequence and associated symbols would not have been had the slot player pressed the play button a second later or a second earlier.
Knowing this, you can see that certain slot myths such as "You stole my jackpot!" can't be true. No play button can be hit at the exact same time. If your dastardly competitor pushes your hand out of the way to press the play button, the sequence of symbols is not the same as the sequence you would have gotten, owing to the slight pause between pushing your hand away and then pressing the button. Yes, it is that fast. So if your competitor wins the jackpot, you probably would not have won it had you pressed that button.
You might have seen advertisements in some casino venues stating that their machines return 98 percent of the money played. The casinos make such a payback look as if it is a great thing. In reality, what the casino is saying is actually, "You put in $100, and we'll give you back $98." Of course, this is the expected value over time — a $2 loss for every $100 played. Naturally, the first $100 you put in might win you thousands or lose you every penny. But over time the expected value in real life will be the expected value programmed into the machine. There's no escaping it — reel life and real life ultimately even out. Given the number of machines the casinos have and the number of decisions those machines give out, the casinos are on top in a very short period of time — and the money just rolls in.
So how is the machine going to pay out this money? How does it know to keep $2 per $100 wagered? If we take a strictly random coin toss of heads and tails, the odds are 50/50 that you'll hit whatever side of the coin on which you are betting. In a fair game where the casino has no edge and you have no edge, a $100 bet will win you $100 or lose you $100. Over enough time the expectation is for you and the casino to be even.
But what if the casino decides to pay you $96 for your wins but still take the $100 from you when you lose? Well, the casino now has a 2 percent edge over you. For $100 wagered, you win one ($96) and lose one ($100), so the $200 you bet returns you $196 — a 98 percent return on the money you played. The casino is now keeping $2 per every $100 you wager.
Obviously inside that slot machine's payback programming are thousands of combinations appearing and disappearing constantly, but all of them combined follow the basic concept of a random coin toss, where the casino will pay back less than it takes in. That's how the casino makes its profit.
There is no way to change this, short of taking a sledgehammer to the machine and walloping it, which means over time slot players must lose. Even advantage-play machines (which you will read about in Chapter 24) win money for the casinos because the machine is only in a player-favorable mode for a small percentage of the time. The rest of the time, the house has its nice fat edge. That's why advantage slot players must only play these machines at those times when the machine is in that positive mode. To do otherwise is to be playing a losing game.
How do the casinos know that the programming will work itself out? Go back to the coin toss. Heads and tails will each appear half the time. The casino cannot lose when that machine is played over an extended period of time. And don't just think of one machine of a 50/50 coin toss that short-changes on the wins; think of hundreds of thousands of them, each churning out decisions every few seconds. The casino is in the long run in a rather short period of time due to the total number of machines slot players are playing. The casinos must win, and they certainly do win — a lot.
The same principle applies to the linked-progressive machines. The linked machines either each have an individual RNG that will signal the main jackpot computer that the jackpot line has been hit, or all the machines are being run by a central RNG. In reality, it does not matter how the machines are set up; the paybacks will follow the programming in terms of what the casino gives and what the casino takes — and naturally what the casino takes will far outweigh what it gives.
What Pays What
Over time there has been little change in the actual payback percentages on the various denominations of traditional machines. The traditional penny machines return about 85 percent, nickel machines return about 88 percent, the 25¢ machines return about 90 percent, the 50¢ machines return a little over 90 percent, the $1 machines return about 91 to 92 percent, and the $5 machines return about 94 to 95 percent.
Some venues are more generous than others. The Las Vegas Strip machines are tighter than the off-Strip casinos, which cater to Las Vegas locals. Tunica in Mississippi is more generous than Atlantic City. But the averages throughout the United States and Canada still tend to hover around the percentages I gave above.