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Slot players push the buttons looking for the lucky spin

| Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, 8:56 p.m.
Dreamstime
Slot machines Credit: Dreamstime

Without question, slot machines are the most popular form of casino gambling.

They occupy about 70 percent of the floor in most casinos; they provide about 80 percent of a casino's net gambling revenue in Pennsylvania, even more in other states; and manufacturers continually scramble to outdo each other with new themes, gadgetry and celebrity tie-ins to attract customers.

Many slot fans accept the fact they are all but guaranteed to lose in the long run. Still, they eagerly feed money to the machines in hopes of striking it rich, having a fun evening or a combination of the two.

Slots are the subject of seemingly unending questions, misunderstandings and myths.

David Catanzarite of Freedom, who enjoys playing Wheel of Fortune slots, wonders when bonus-round payouts are set. He asks whether the result of a bonus round is determined the moment the player pushes the spin button or sometime later during the extra spins.

“He keeps hitting extra spins,” says his wife, Evie. “I can sit right next to him and I don't get the extra spins he does.”

Like anything else with slots, that's a matter of luck.

A random-number generator in the machine determines the outcome of any spin. The RNG continuously spews out combinations of numbers, and the one locked in at the instant a player hits the spin button tells the machine how many credits, if any, to award.

Whatever happens on the screen is entertainment.

That includes bonus spins, says Mike Trask, corporate communications manager for Bally Technologies, whose slot offerings include Michael Jackson King of Pop, Vegas Hits and Betty Boop.

“When you hit the button, you get one of millions of possible combinations,” Trask says. If the combination is one that awards 50 credits, for example, “the bonus rounds are just avenues to that.”

Nothing a player does during the bonus round affects the outcome. The fate of that spin was determined the moment you hit the button for the original game.

Some slots offer bonuses that appear to be based on a player's choice of a mystery prize or performance on a video game. But no matter what you do on that level, your payout won't change from what the RNG combination already established.

Mark McDonel of Churchill, who plays poker more than slots, poses a rhetorical question about “hot” and “cold” machines.

He understands that each spin is independent, that what happened the last time or the last hundred times has no bearing on what happens next. Assume, he says, you have $1,000 in free play and could choose between a machine that's been paying close to its programmed rate or one that's been paying far less. Which would you play?

He leans toward the under-performing slot on the theory that a large jackpot has to come up sometime to bring the payout closer to its programmed rate. McDonel calls it a question of intellect vs. emotion. Players have no way of learning a machine's programmed rate nor the rate it's been paying out. Besides, each spin is independent.

Each state or gaming jurisdiction establishes a minimum payout rate for slot machines — 85 percent in Pennsylvania, for example. That means slots must be programmed to return, over time, an average of at least 85 cents for every dollar put in.

Trask says that as long as casinos meet the state minimum, they can order slots programmed to whatever payout rate they want, even to two or three decimal points.

The return is calculated over “an indefinite period of time,” he says.

If you put $1 through an 85 percent machine, your return probably won't be close to 85 cents. You could wind up with more than your buy-in or you could lose it all in no time. Same with a $10 or even $100 buy-in. Anything can happen in the short term.

But the machine approaches its theoretical payout rate over months of play and millions of spins. When 10,000 people have played $100 each through the machine, the overall return is likely to be close to $850,000, or 85 percent of what went into the slot.

“If you think a machine is hot, maybe it is,” Trask says. “If you think it's cold, there are always more to play.

“The truth is, each bet is completely random.”

Despite what so many slot fans insist, a slot can't be hot or cold. It's a machine that entices players with the prospect of riches and fun.

“The main reason people play slot machines is to win money,” Trask says. “But Reason 1B, a close second, is they play for entertainment. They want something cool to happen.

“They want to touch the screen or spin the wheel or hear Michael Jackson sing. They want to enjoy the game.”

Mark Gruetze is administrative editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7838 or players@tribweb.com.

FTP players still waiting

Online U.S. players owed money by Full Tilt Poker face a long wait, the Poker Players Alliance says.

Executive Director John Pappas and lawyers for the lobbying group met this week with Justice Department officials who will oversee the return of $200 million to players who had money with Full Tilt when its U.S. operations were shut down in April 2011 about allegations of banking-law violations.

The department has solicited bids from potential third-party administrators to oversee the handling of players' claims. The alliance says the department has not set a date for choosing the winner. When one is chosen, a “substantial” administrative process will have to be established to govern the distribution, the alliance says.

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Money trail

Slot players lost $43.7 million at Pennsylvania's 11 casinos during the week ending Nov. 11, the Gaming Control Board reported. That's up from $46.1 million in the comparable week last year, which was before Valley Forge resort casino opened.

The state gets 55 percent of that gross-slot revenue, or what's left of players' wagers after jackpots have been paid.

Statewide, the slot payout rate is 89.94 percent since the fiscal year started July 1. For every $100 bet, the machines return an average of $89.94. Highest payout rate: 90.6 percent at Parx in Philadelphia; lowest: 89.3 percent at Harrah's Philadelphia.

Figures for Western Pennsylvania casinos:

89.98%

Rivers; weekly slot revenue of $5.63 million, up from $5.35 million last year.

89.82%

Meadows; weekly slot revenue of $4.39 million, down from $4.57 million last year.

90%

Presque Isle in Erie; weekly slot revenue of $2.17 million, down from $3.07 million last year.

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