'Common knowledge' about slot machines often wrong

| Sunday, April 20, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Here's a quick true-or-false quiz:

• The American Psychiatric Association recently declared that posting selfies is a mental disorder.

• Obamacare requires every participant to implant a microchip holding medical information and a link to the user's bank account.

• Oracle CEO Larry Ellison tops this year's Forbes list of “most punchable” CEOs, followed by BP's Bob Dudley, Amazon's Jeff Bezos and Rupert Murdoch of News Corp.

All are myths, the work of imaginative writers trying to be funny or make a point.

The danger is that they sound plausible enough that some people might take them as fact.

That sounds like a lot of the “common knowledge” about slot machines. Many gamblers, refusing to concede that machines are indeed machines, assign them superhuman powers to explain personal losing streaks and others' winning spins. Here are a few common slot myths:

Running hot or cold

It's a frequent question by players on the way to the casino floor: Are the machines hot today? Slots don't have cycles. With each spin, you have the same chance of hitting a jackpot, regardless of what the machine paid on the last spin or the last thousand spins. Each machine contains a random-number generator that constantly spews out combinations that determine the outcome of a spin. The instant you hit the spin button, the RNG locks in a combination that tells the machine whether to pay out. How the symbols line up and whether you advance to a bonus round are just entertainment for you.

That was my jackpot!

Some players wait for a big bettor to leave a machine after losing, figuring it's “due” to hit. Nope. While each machine is programmed to pay out a specific percentage of what's wagered, that's calculated for the lifetime of the slot, meaning millions of spins over years of use. What happens in an hour or two doesn't matter. Even if the newcomer hits a jackpot on the first spin after taking over the seat, the player who left can't legitimately claim “that should have been my jackpot.” The winning combination was set at the millisecond the second player pushed the button; even if the original gambler had stayed, it is highly unlikely he would have hit the button at the same instant.

The secret code

Some people swear casinos place loose machines on the aisles, while tight ones go near the restrooms. A gambling buddy used to insist that a meter sometimes visible underneath the reels revealed the machine's hit frequency. In general, players have no way of learning a machine's payout rate. The list of possible combinations and payouts is on a top-secret PARS (Paytable And Reels Strip) sheet, accessible to casino officials and regulators.

The Omniscient Machine

Some people say using a player's club card reduces the number of payoffs. Others swear the machine automatically pays less for free play than for cash. Those who refuse to use their player's cards throw good money after bad; not only are they playing against a high house advantage, they're refusing valuable comps. The points earn free play, free food, free drawings; in essence, you get back a portion of what you bet. Why give that up? The machine can't tell the difference between free-play credit and cash credits. Again, each spin is independent; you have the same chance of winning each time.

I never win

Never say never. You do win here and there, but most people put the winnings back into the machine. The occasional profitable visit gets overshadowed by a string of losses. Recognize that slots are a horrible bet; although big jackpots hit often enough to keep players hopeful, overall the house wins about 10 percent of all wagers. If slots are your gambling choice, play slowly to make your money last longer. You're better off learning games with a lower house edge, such as video poker or blackjack.

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

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