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Troubling trend emerges in slot machine payouts

| Saturday, April 9, 2011

Gwen Estes of Swissvale and Barbara Calloway of Point Breeze have heard the talk about reduced slot machine payouts at Rivers and The Meadows.

They don't buy it.

"Nothing's changed," Calloway said. "I'm still losing. ... I just feed the machine."

Estes had the same view as her playing partner, but for a different reason.

"Nothing's changed," she said. "I'm still winning. ... I've had good luck."

Slot players everywhere worry about casinos making the machines "tighter" by flipping a secret switch when a holiday weekend is coming up and the floor will be crowded. Or on days when fewer players will be around and no one can tell. Maybe someone just hit a hefty jackpot and the casino needs to "make up" for the payout. And if the casino hasn't paid a jackpot lately, that's "proof" the machines are tight.

Of course, casinos are not able to tighten or loosen slot payouts with the flip of a switch. A computer chip determines a machine's payout rate over its lifetime.

Most players recognize that slots are a bad bet. They simply enjoy playing and the outside shot at winning a nice jackpot.

Slot enthusiasts have been talking about payouts more than usual recently, because monthly rates at The Meadows and Rivers have dropped below 90 percent for the first time.

While a brief dip might not mean much by itself, the trend is troubling. Monthly payout rates once were above 91 percent.

When studying slot payouts, look at the long run -- the longer, the better. For an extreme example of focusing on the short term, let's say you put $20 into a machine, double your money on the first spin and cash out. Another player, envying your good luck, puts in $20, loses 10 consecutive spins and leaves broke.

The two players would have markedly different views of whether the machine was tight or loose.

In Pennsylvania, the overall house edge on machines has been around 10 percent since casinos opened in 2006. For every $100 played through a machine, the casino keeps, or players lose, an average of around $10. Through the first nine months of fiscal year 2010-11, the average loss per $100 bet at slots was $9.88 at Rivers and $9.81 at The Meadows. In the 10 casinos statewide, the average loss per $100 bet was $9.72.

In '09-10, the loss rate at Rivers was $9.84 per $100 bet; at The Meadows, $9.08.

Since The Meadows opened in Washington County in June 2007, it has a payback rate of 90.77 percent, according to Gaming Control Board figures. The annual rate has dropped each year. The Meadows' highest monthly rate was 91.98 percent, in the casino's first two months of operation; the lowest is 89.93 percent in February.

Since Rivers opened on the North Shore in August 2009, it has a payback rate of 90.67 percent, with the highest monthly rate at 91.84 percent in October 2009 and the lowest at 89.76 percent in March.

Presque Isle in Erie, which opened in February 2007, has an overall payback rate of 90.94 percent, with a monthly high of 91.37 percent in February 2009 and a monthly low of 90.17 percent in August.

Gaming Control Board spokesman Richard McGarvey said payout percentages have dipped slightly since table games started in July and casinos removed several virtual blackjack and virtual roulette machines, which were classified as slots but had higher payout rates than traditional machines.

Pennsylvania law requires that slots pay out at least 85 percent over the life of the machine.

Each slot machine in the state is hooked to a central computer system in Harrisburg that tallies every bet. The system can't toy with the payback rate, McGarvey said. Each weekday, casinos must pay the state its share -- 55 percent -- of the slot take, and the system verifies an accurate count, he said.

Casinos must notify the state any time they take a machine offline -- for example, to do maintenance or to switch the machine from one game to another, or to change the computer chip that determines a machine's overall payback rate.

"The lab hasn't seen a concerted effort to change pay tables," McGarvey said.

Poker tournaments galore

» Richard Mobley, 30, of Mannington, W.Va., won a seat in the World Series of Poker Main Event by outlasting 187 other players last weekend at The Meadows. In addition to the WSOP seat, worth $10,000, he received $2,000 cash. Second place and $2,720 went to Eric George of Chippewa.

» The next WSOP satellite tournament at The Meadows will be a seniors tournament, for players 50 and older, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. It has a $70 buy-in and one $50 rebuy. The winner gets a seat in the WSOP seniors tournament, worth $1,000, plus $2,000 in expense money.

» The next WSOP Main Event satellite at The Meadows will be at 11 a.m. April 17, with a $125 buy-in.

» Rivers casino has launched poker tournaments that offer the winners $10,000 to enter any Las Vegas tournament they wish, plus $2,000 in expense money. The next will be at noon April 16 and 23, with a $125 buy-in. One top prize is awarded for every 120 entrants. Players may choose from tournaments in the World Series of Poker as well as large tournaments at the Venetian and Bellagio in Las Vegas.


Why does a straight pay more than a flush in Three Card Poker?

In Three Card Poker, a straight is harder to get. According to , a player can receive 22,100 possible hand combinations. Of those, 720 result in a straight, compared with 1,096 that result in a flush. The Wizard says 16,440 of those hands do not have a pair or better.

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