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A Shuffle Through the Gaming Mailbag

11 May 2010

By John Grochowski

Q. I expect that you may have heard about the woman who thought she won $42.9 million in Central City, Colo., but only found out that the machine malfunctioned. It was on a penny machine. Is it even possible on a progressive penny machine to win that much?

A. The largest jackpot ever awarded on a penny slot machine was just shy of $3 million --- $2,995,071.87 --- on an IGT Twilight Zone slot in Laughlin, Nev., in 2005. Progressive jackpots keep growing until somebody wins. A percentage of each wager is added to the jackpot. So it's theoretically possible for a penny jackpot to get as high as $42.9 million, but in practice, years, and perhaps decades would have to pass without anyone winning. To say it's unlikely would be an understatement.

News reports after the Central City incident said the machine was a WMS Gaming product with a maximum payoff of $251,000. It wasn't made clear if that was a fixed jackpot, or just where the progressive meter was at that time --- I'd assume the latter. That jackpot level makes sense. WMS progressives do not typically have multimillion-dollar jackpots. That piece of the slot machine market belongs to IGT's MegaJackpots line.

Clearly, there was a malfunction in Central City, and all slot machines in licensed casinos display the words "Malfunction voids play," or words to that effect. Modern slot machines are computers in disguise, and computer glitches happen. There are several ways it can happen. One comes when the display on the reels or screen does not match the random number generator's electronic record. The RNG determines the actual result of play, and the reels or screen are just a user-friendly interface there to display what the RNG tells them to. If the display is something other than the RNG result, it's a malfunction and play can be voided when a manager checks the electronic record after a large jackpot.

Another possible malfunction is a glitch on the electronic signs that display progressive jackpots. Progressive jackpots are displayed on electronic meters capable of changing and showing the increasing jackpot with every play. A malfunction can cause the meter to display an incorrect amount.

And a machine can go into celebration mode, displaying a jackpot the player hasn't won for an amount not available. That happened last year at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa, Fla., when a malfunctioning machine displayed a jackpot of more than $166 million --- more than four times the world record at any denomination. It seems to have happened again in Colorado.

Such cases are rare, and players who had been thrilled to the bone to see the big jackpot are never happy when denied the prize. Casinos usually try to mollify the player with comps and perhaps smaller amounts of cash, and there have been lawsuits. I don't know of any that have actually gone to court and been decided in favor of the player, but there have been out of court settlements.

It's not merely a case of the casinos trying to cheap out on the players. The machines in dispute are usually immediately impounded and checked out by gaming labs. The state has an interest in all this, too. Gaming taxes are based on casino revenue, and a drop in revenue to pay off a jackpot of millions of dollars that the player hasn't really won costs the state tax dollars.

It's only natural that a player's excitement is replaced by deep disappointment and even anger when told he or she hasn't won after all. If ever put in that position --- and 99.99 percent of us will never encounter it --- I'd push for whatever compensation the casino will give. But would I expect $42.9 million? Nope. Malfunction voids play, and as any computer user knows, malfunctions happen.

Q. Playing blackjack, I was allowed only one card on each split Ace. When playing with that rule, should I still split Aces against everything except Aces?

A. That is the common rule, so basic strategy applies. However, basic strategy when you're dealt pairs of Aces calls for you to always split, even when the dealer has an Ace. The exception is if you're playing European-style blackjack, where the dealer takes no hole card. With no hole card, the dealer can't check for blackjack before we play, so we need to exercise a little more caution in risking extra money on splits and double downs. With that rule in effect, we just hit against a dealer Ace, but split against everything else.

I've never played in a casino that allows the player to take more than one card on a split Ace, although some allow you to split again if you're dealt another Ace. With the exception of the no-hole-card game, the best play is to split again.

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, with podcasts at Look for John Grochowski on Facebook ( and Twitter (@GrochowskiJ).

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