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Slot machines are bad bet

| Saturday, July 17, 2004, 12:00 p.m.

WHEELING, W.Va. -- Retired steelworker Robert Finney sets aside a couple of hundred dollars every week to play the slot machines at nearby Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center.

"If I lose $100, I'll go home because that's the smart thing to do," said Finney, 54, of Martins Ferry, Ohio. "But I keep coming back here because I win more often than I lose."

Finney should count himself among the lucky few, according to gambling experts and math wizards.

"Mathematically, slot machines are a bad gamble," said Robert C. Hannum, a statistics professor at the University of Denver and an expert in casino math.

Gone are the days of old-fashioned slot machines with mechanical reels that spin using a clunky, whirring system of gears, brakes and levers. Their quaint cherries and monotone bells have been replaced by streaming video clips from hit TV shows and booming pop music in surround sound.

Your chances of winning a jackpot on a traditional slot machine with three reels and 20 symbols would be 1 in 203, or once every 8,000 plays, Hannum said.

On modern slot machines, however, odds calculations are impossible for the average player to perform, he said.

That's because since the 1980s, slots have been computer-driven, relying on a microprocessor to set the rate of return.

The outcome of each pull of the handle -- or push of the play button -- is actually controlled by what's called a random number generator in the machine's computer chip.

It works like this: Thousands of numbers fly out of the generator every second, even when no one is playing. The very instant a gambler pulls the slot machine handle or hits the play button, the computer records the next few numbers. These numbers are fed through a simple mapping program to determine which symbols will pop up on the display screen.

Low-paying symbols are programmed to hit frequently to keep gamblers going. On the other hand, very few numbers are associated with the highest-paying symbols.

This allows casinos to offer bigger prizes, which entice more people to play, Hannum said. But the odds of winning the huge jackpots are significantly longer, often on the scale of millions to one.

"Slot machines are like the lottery," Hannum said. "Your odds are horrendous, but I think there's the prospect of 'Gee, if I happen to get lucky, I might win a million dollars, and it could alter my life.'"

Laws of probability mean you have exactly the same chance of hitting the jackpot every single time you play, Hannum said.

That means slot machines don't become hot or played out. Winning or losing is purely a matter of blind luck, not skill or strategy.

Casinos are able to program the machines to pay back a certain percentage of the total money bet over their lifetimes. No one knows exactly when payouts will come -- only the long-term probability they will occur over an infinite number of plays, Hannum said.

The slots bill approved earlier this month by the Pennsylvania Legislature requires casinos to pay back a minimum of 85 percent of all dollars wagered. Most casinos pay out more than the legal minimum to try to attract customers, said Michael Shackleford, a former Social Security Administration actuary who runs a gambling advice Web site called the Wizard of Odds.

Casinos in Nevada don't advertise your odds of winning on the slots, but Shackleford said his research shows that machines in Las Vegas pay out $85 to $94 of every $100 bet. Similarly, slot machines in West Virginia last year returned about 91.3 percent of the $7.6 billion wagered, according to state lottery data.

But they don't call it the one-armed bandit for nothing.

Regardless of the exact payback percentage of the slots at your casino of choice, if you play long enough, you will lose at least 5 to 15 percent of the money you bet, Shackleford said.

By far, the most popular machine among Wheeling Island's 2,400 slots is the flashy Wheel of Fortune game, developed by International Gaming Technology, track officials said.

Reno-based IGT is the world's largest slot machine manufacturer, boasting revenue of $2.1 billion and sales of almost 135,000 machines in 2003.

Designers and engineers at IGT use a slew of technological tricks that increase casino profit by luring people to play longer and faster. The push-to-play button speeds up how fast you can gamble. Some machines allow players to bet 30 or 40 coins at a time. Even nickels and quarters are becoming obsolete. The latest slots technology replaces coins with paper vouchers that can be inserted into other machines for credit or redeemed by the casino cashier.

IGT's splashiest innovation has been the Megabucks system, which wires together slot machines across the nation into a single "progressive" jackpot that grows as machines on the system are played.

Yet whether slot machines are festooned with Betty Boop or Austin Powers, or offer jackpots of $100,000 or $1 million, they still represent a bad bet, Shackleford and Hannum said.

By comparison, savvy gamblers playing certain table games or video poker can reduce the house advantage to 1 percent, they said.

Improbable odds didn't stop the crowd of mostly older gamblers who gathered recently at Wheeling Island to test their luck. Awash in soothing light and humming like an arcade, the casino teemed with slots players such as Maudie Bougard, 47, of Steubenville, Ohio.

"I just paid my bills, and now I need to win me some money," Bougard said, laughing.

The Weirton steel mill employee has a favorite slot machine -- called Ten Times Play -- that once paid her $750 in a single turn.

Bougard said she knows the odds are against her, but she doesn't care.

"If I win, I win, and if I lose, I lose," she said. "I just come to have fun."

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