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Best of John Grochowski

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A Shuffle Through the Gaming Mailbag

20 December 2005

There's something that bothers me about video slot machines. They don't have handles. I've been pulling the handle on three-reel games for 30 years, and I hope to keep pulling the handle for a good while yet. I always found I got better results pulling the handle than pushing the buttons. Can't do it on the videos, though. Is that how the house makes extra money, taking the handles away from us?

Truth be told, slot machine handles have been nothing more than window dressing for a couple of decades. They're there because players have traditionally thought of slots as "one-armed bandits," and some players just don't want the games to go armless.

But it makes no difference whether you push a button or pull a handle. All of today's slot machines, whether they have video screens or spinning reels, are computer-driven. Pushing the button or pulling the handle accesses the same reel-spinning portion of the program. Any difference in results you see between button and handle is purely coincidental, and wouldn't stand up to any lengthy test with careful record-keeping.

On video slots, the emphasis is on the entertainment experience, the sights and sounds, animated characters and bonus rounds. Much of what's done in video slots is derived from video arcade games, and pulling a handle has never been an integral part of the video games experience. Some three-reel players expect a handle to be there and find it a necessary part of their enjoyment of the game; video games players don't.

Programmers could build the same house edge into the game regardless of whether you pulled a handle, pushed a button, touched the screen, spun a wheel, stomped on a foot pedal or screamed "Spin!" into a microphone. It's all in the game's programming, not in how you start the reels spinning.

I saw a show on CNBC that said casinos keep about 10 percent of everything players bet on tables, and only 5 percent on slots, but because there are so many slots, that's where casinos make most of their money. I always thought the house edge was lower on table games. Can you explain?

I saw the same show, and it made a basic mistake in casino math. In calculating how much money they make from the games, casinos use a statistic called "hold percentage." Hold percentages range from about 3 to 15 percent on slots, with $5-on-up slots at the low end and pennies at the high end. Table hold percentages range from about 10 to 20 percent.

Problem is, the statistic means different things on tables and slots, and that can confuse someone who's not used to working with the data.

On a slot machine, the hold percentage is the percentage of all WAGERS that the casino keeps. On a table game, the hold percentage is the percentage of all BUY-INS that the casino keeps.

There's a big difference. On a slot machine, if I buy in for $100 and get enough winners that I make $1,000 worth of wagers before my credits run down to $50 and I cash out, the casino wins $50. The hold percentage is the $50 won by the casino divided by my $1,000 in wagers, multiplied by 100 to convert to percent --- 5 percent.

On a table game, if I buy in for $100 and win enough hands that I make $1,000 worth of wagers before I'm down to $50 in chips and I cash out, the casino wins $50. But this time the hold percentage isn't that $50 divided by my $1,000 in wagers, it's the $50 the casino wins divided by my $100 buy-in. Multiplied by 100 to convert to percent, that makes the casino hold 50 percent.

In each situation, I've risked the same $100 and lost the same $50, but a statistical illusion makes the table game look like a far worse bet than the slot machine.

The table game statistic that is most comparable to a slot machine's hold percentage is the house edge. In blackjack, the house edge is a half percent or so against a basic strategy player, and 2 to 2.5 percent against an average player. On the average, for each $100 an average blackjack player wagers, he'll lose $2 to $2.50. For each $100 a slot machine player wagers on a dollar slot with a 5 percent hold, he'll lose $5.

Casinos make much more money on slots than on tables for three very powerful reasons. First, with the exception of some bad table bets, slot machines have higher, not lower, house edges than most table games. Second, slot machines play much faster than table games. A blackjack player will make about 50 to 250 wagers per hour, depending on how many players are at the table, speed of dealer and whether automatic shufflers are used. Slot players can make 400 to 1,000 wagers per hour. And third, slots are the most popular games in the house and simply get more action than the tables --- even though players get a better shot to win at table games.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Beat the Odds" tips Saturdays at 6:20 a.m., 2:50 p.m. and 7:41 p.m. and Sundays at 8:20 a.m., 2:50 p.m. and 10:42 p.m. on WBBM-AM, News Radio 780 in Chicago, streaming online at www.wbbm780.com

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

Winning Tips for Casino Games

> More Books By John Grochowski