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Best of John Grochowski

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The mystique of slot machines - part 1

14 October 2008

A woman once asked me to lunch to discuss a book idea she had.

"Slot machines have this aura, this mystery," she said. "I want to capture the mystique of slot machines."

What slot machines really have, I told her, are mathematics and electronics. The mystique of slot machines really comes from players not understanding how the games work, or even how some of the peripherals around the games work.

The book never appeared, but slots haven't ceased to be machines of mystery. I still get questions every week about aspects of the games and the math surrounding them that many players don't understand.

Let's take a couple of weeks to stroll through a few recent questions I've received about the slots.

Q. Is there a pattern to the bonus rounds on video slots? If a symbol is a winner on one turn, should I avoid it the next time I go to the bonus?

A. I've been asked this about any number of games over the years. If the fisherman on the left reels in a big fish, should you move to the fisherman second to left on the next Reel 'Em In bonus round? On Dancing Dolphins, if you pick the spot that lands you 15 free spins, should you pick one of the other two spots the next time around?

The answer is that there is no such pattern. The big winner on one bonus round is just as likely to be the best choice on the next. The possibilities bonus rounds present are determined by a random number generator, just as are the reel combinations on the base games.

There's no harm in picking different symbols in subsequent bonus rounds, but it won't help you either. If there are three spots to choose from, as on Dancing Dolphins, the chance of the big number being in any given spot is 1 in 3, every time through.

Q. How much money do you have to risk to make $1 million dollars worth of wagers?

A. Variations on this question flooded my e-mail box a couple of times in recent years when it was reported that politicians had made millions of dollars in wagers. Everyone wondered where they got the millions.

But making a million dollars worth of wagers doesn't mean putting a million dollars at risk. Most of the wagers are made with recycled winnings. That's a concept most of us are familiar with at a low level. We might start with a $20 bill in a video poker game, but we draw some high pairs, a few two-pair and three-of-a-kind hands, the odd straight, flush or full house. If we're lucky, we might draw four of a kind and have a shot at a winning session. If we're super lucky, a royal flush makes us a big winner.

Most of the credits added by those high pairs through full houses, and even from four of a kind, goes right back into the machine. Players re-wager their small winnings. Your $20 investment might bring several hundred dollars worth of wagers before it either drains or you cash out.

How much would you actually have to risk to wager $1 million? It depends on the game. If you're playing 9/6 Jacks or Better video poker at expert level and getting a 99.5% return, $1 million in wagers represents an average of $5,000 in losses. If you're playing a $5 slot machine, returning about 96%, $1 million in wagers represents about $40,000 in losses.

That's a fair amount of money to put at risk, but it's not millions.

Q. How can you tell when a slot machine is ready to pay out?

A. You can't.

I've been writing regularly about gaming for going on 15 years now, and not a week has gone by without someone asking this question.

Much has changed in 15 years. Video slots have taken over large chunks of slot floors. The combination of video, multiple paylines and ticket payouts have brought penny slots back from extinction. Coins, tokens, coin buckets and change carts have all but disappeared.

One thing hasn't changed. Results on slot machines are still determined by random number generators, and there is no way for the player to know what's coming. Machines don't give any signal that they're going to pay out — they don't know that themselves.

Q. Do machines pay less when you use your club card to make up for the benefits?

A. No. The random number generator doesn't know whether you're using a player rewards card. The game returns the same percentage regardless of whether you're using a card.

I'd not heard this question in some time, now that a large majority of players use player rewards cards. But at the beginning of September, my e-mail brought two variations on this old chestnut, proving that some misconceptions never die.

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:

> More Books By John Grochowski