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Answering reader questions about the hot and cold nature of slots

By John Grochowski

Sometimes slot players write to ask how games work. Sometimes they write just to tell their stories. And sometimes they write to tell stories of slot-playing experiences that sparked their questions. Let’s look at some of the recent questions that have arrived via email so we can enjoy the stories and try to answer the questions.

BARRY: My wife and I were playing penny slots together, and she was playing Goldfish. It’s a game she’s liked for a long time, and she usually gets a bonus often.

This day, not so much. She was going dozens of spins at a time with no bonus, and that game is no fun without bonuses. The lady next to her was getting bonuses all the time.

After a while the other lady left and my wife moved onto the machine that was getting all the bonuses. Naturally, they mostly stopped. She got a few, and that was more than she was getting on her other machine, but not as many as the other lady.

My question is, did the other lady use up all the bonuses for a while? Did the machine have to recharge?

Answer: There is no recharge time or built-in makeup time on slot machines. Results are random and the odds are the same on every spin.

It’s only natural your wife wanted to move to machine that had been hot, but both the cold streak your wife experienced and the hot streak the other player had are part of normal probability. Whether you’ve gone 100 spins in a row without a bonus event or just had one on the last spin or had five bonuses in the last 10 plays, the odds are the same on the next spin.

JASON: I laugh about all the penny slots that are in the casinos nowadays. Years ago, before there were any video slots, I used to play penny three-reel slots in an area called the Copper Mine at the back of one of the old joints. I think it was the El Cortez. I remember taking 15 pennies to the change booth and the guy giving me a sneer as he handed over a nickel and a dime, but it was time to go and I didn’t want to be carrying pennies.

Anyway, my question isn’t about pennies, it’s about nickels. Big difference! In that same era, I was passing time on a nickel three-reel slot. My wife and I usually played quarters but I had time to kill while she was shopping and didn’t want to spend big, so I dropped to the cheap seats.

My machine was paying off pretty good. Nothing big, but 20 nickels here and 10 nickels there pretty often. Every win dropped coins in a metal tray back then, and the lady next to me was noticing and obviously jealous. She wasn’t winning so much, and she was taking it much more seriously than I was.

My wife found me, and we moved on to do something else. The other lady immediately moved to take my machine.

I guess I’ve been holding this question for decades, but was her moving to my machine the right thing? We didn’t wait to see if she had any luck.

Answer: The answer is the same as to Barry’s question, really, just on wins and losses on the main game instead of on bonus events. Moving to the machine that had been paying off was a natural reaction. Whether it did any good is problematic.

The only thing we can say with certainty about any hot streak is “there has been a hot streak.” It tells you nothing about what is to come. On any machine, video or stepper, the odds are the same on every spin. Hot streaks grow out of normal probability, but so do cold streaks.

The most likely circumstance was that the machine you left would pay at its normal percentage from that point forward. Since your machine had been unusually hot, it’s most likely that it cooled off some for the next player.

But there are no guarantees in the short term. The game could have stayed hot, it could have gone ice cold and, most likely, it could have yielded results somewhere in between.

NICK: My brother and I have been playing slots for years, and we’ve been having the same argument about what “random” means all this time. It started back in three-reel days and it’s continued through video slots, although we notice it more on three reel games.

It really started in playing the Red, White and Blue 7s game. We’d play, our wives would play. A lot of the time, all four of us would play together. All of us won nice progressive jackpots at one time or another.

But one thing we all noticed was that the 7s passed by a lot more than they landed on the line. That’s what brought on the long-running discussion with Tim, my brother, on whether the games were really random.

He says that if you have a reel with nine 7s and one lemon, that means for the game to be truly random a 7 should come up nine times out of 10. I disagree. I say the game can be random, but still have the lemon come up more often than the 7.

Can you elaborate?

Answer: Let’s start by saying the answer here applies mainly to three-reel stepper slots. On video slots, gamemakers can design reel strips as long as they need to be to place symbols in the desired proportions.

On slots with mechanical reels, making the odds of the game work to bring about the desired frequency of payoffs and jackpot size makes it necessary to make the reels behave as if they have a different proportion of symbols than the really do.

That’s done with a random number generator and virtual reels. If 90 percent of the symbols are 7s, as in your example, and the designer wants 7 to come up only 10 percent of the time, then only 10 percent of the random numbers are assigned to the 7s.

To stay with your example, the designer has to work with a reel that has nine 7s and one lemon. One way to change the proportions while keeping results random is to work with a set of 100 numbers. The programmer can tell the game, “Any time the RNG generates number 1, show the first 7. If it shows 2, show the second 7.”

The programmer can go down the list and assign one number to each 7. Then he can assign the remaining 91 numbers to the lemon.

Results are random because you never know what number the RNG is going to spit out. On any given spin, the chances of each number being generated are equal – there is a 1 in 100 chance of it landing on 1, 1 in 100 of landing on 53, 1 in 100 of landing on 97 and so on.

However, because 91 numbers have been assigned to the lemon and only one to each 7, there will be a 7 on the payline only 9 percent of the time and a lemon on 91 percent.

Results are random, but the odds defined by the random number associations will lead to far more lemons than 7s on the payline.


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