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Player's Advantage: Penny-slot players aren't as frugal as they think they are

| Friday, March 1, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
Frank Scoblete, gambling author
Frank Scoblete, gambling author
John Grochowski, slot machine author
John Grochowski, slot machine author

Of all the ways to spend money in a casino, slot machines rank at the top in simplicity. Push the button. Win or lose. Repeat.

Regardless, many players instill the machines, or casino executives in charge of them, with almost mystical powers that govern who gets a jackpot and when.

Players wind up costing themselves money by misunderstanding how the machines work, two nationally known gambling experts tell Player's Advantage.

A common error is that players delude themselves into thinking they risk minimal amounts when they play penny slots, authors Frank Scoblete and John Grochowski say.

“You can actually be a high-roller as a penny-slot player,” says Scoblete, one of the most-prolific and popular gambling writers in the country. The machines can have 100 pay lines or more, and players can wager $3 or more per spin. At a typical rate of 500 or 600 spins per hour, the amount of money a “penny” player can bet is staggering.

“What really screws you on those machines is that the return percentage is as if the machine is a penny or five-cent machine,” Scoblete says. “They're not returning as if the machine is a $1 machine or a $5 machine.” In general, the lower the denomination played, the lower the payback rate.

Grochowski, known as the “Casino Answer Man,” advises that players wager enough to cover all the pay lines but sees no incentive to bet more than one credit per line. With traditional reel machines, the common advice is to always bet the maximum, because the jackpot is disproportionately high for a max bet, typically three coins. While the top prize might be 1,000 credits for a one-coin bet and 2,000 for a two-coin bet, it might be 5,000 credits for a three-coin bet.

Video slots usually don't have an extra payout for a max bet, he says. Grochowski suggests players spend enough to qualify for bonus rounds, because those account for almost a third of what's returned to players.

Taking a different approach, Scoblete says penny-slot fans can extend their playing time by betting as little as possible.

“Since you don't have an edge on a machine, the casino is grinding its win from you,” he says. “Go with the lowest (amount). You're there to enjoy yourself. Chances are, you're not going to win. Why not put the least amount of money in, and you can spend a longer amount of time there.”

Scoblete and Grochowski say Pennsylvania's slot payout rate of 90 percent is low, although not much different from what's offered in most jurisdictions outside of Las Vegas and Mississippi. Few players spend enough time on a machine to be able to tell a higher-payout machine from a lower-payout machine.

Scoblete says those who play “all the time” develop a sense of which machines are looser.

“It's almost like an evolutionary principle,” he says. “They seem to herd themselves toward the better machines.

Grochowski says payout percentages — how much the slot machines are programmed to keep from overall bets over the long run — have fallen as the number of penny machines has increased.

“If the players keep playing, the casino is happy,” Scoblete says. “If they see players are playing machines that have a very crummy return, there's no reason to give them a better return.”

Where a slot is located on a casino floor is no indication of its payout rate, they say.

In the “old days,” slot managers liked to have machines with high payout percentages in spots where many people could see someone enjoying a jackpot. That's no longer common because of the advent of meticulously designed floor plans and payment by tickets instead of coins cascading into a metal tray.

Slots, which provide the lion's share of a casino's gambling revenue, are evolving into complex sources of entertainment. Special effects, mystery bonuses and team play are becoming common. Grochowski says slot manufacturers are building online communities, where people can play for fun.

“Machines are coming into casinos like crazy,” Scoblete says. “It's almost like a sex orgy. There are so many new machines that the players divorce the machines they're playing.

“(Casinos have) to keep those slot players happy. They can't keep them happy with wins and wins and wins, obviously. So, what they have to do is change the look of the machine.”

What many players fail to realize, he says, is the machines are all the same inside. Whether you win or lose is a matter of dumb luck.

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

Frank Scoblete

Based in: Atlantic City

Books include: “Slots Conquest: How to Beat the Slot Machines,” which details how players can tell when a group of “banking” machines can be an advantageous play. Also has written on craps, blackjack and a variety of other casino games.

Quote: “(Casinos have) to give people the feeling — and, obviously, it's a complete illusion — that you've got a much, much better chance of winning at their casino.”

John Grochowski

Based in: Chicago

Author of: Columns for newspapers and magazines across the country.

Web site:

Quote: “Players believe that if they use their players card (in a slot machine), they're going to get a lower payback percentage to make up for the additional comps. That isn't what happens. The last thing in the world (casinos) want is to short the people they're hoping are going to become their most loyal players.”

Online gaming gets go-ahead in new jersey

New Jersey casinos might be offering online games by this time next year, after Gov. Chris Christie this week signed a bill legalizing Internet gambling.

Gaming regulators will set an official start date of three to six months after the bill was signed, or between May and November. Casino executives told the Associated Press that it could take six months to a year to get everything in place.

The law allows casinos to offer Internet forms of all gambling already legal in New Jersey. The law expires after 10 years and sets the tax rate at 15 percent of casinos' online winnings. State officials estimated an extra $200 million in gambling tax revenue next year, mostly because of online play.

Money trail

Slot players lost $49.8 million at Pennsylvania's 11 casinos during the week ending Feb. 24, the Gaming Control Board reports. That's down from $53.4 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 are 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: 90.62 percent at Parx in Philadelphia; lowest: 89.37 percent at Harrah's Philadelphia.

Figures for Western Pennsylvania casinos:


Rivers; weekly slot revenue of $6.32 million, down from $6.38 million last year.


Meadows; weekly slot revenue of $4.7 million, down from $5.22 million last year.


Presque Isle in Erie; weekly slot revenue of $2.45 million, down from $3.26 million last year.

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