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Simply Unpredictable

Why you CAN’T make a living playing slots

By Frank Legato


In the 29 years I’ve been writing about slots and casinos, I’ve met many professional gamblers. Some of them write in this very magazine, offering an array of tips on how to get the edge at their particular games.

In all those years, though, I’ve never met a professional slot player. There is a good reason. There aren’t any.

The reason there are no professional slot players is the very nature of slot machine results—they are unpredictable. This fact about slot machines has prevented the formulation of any reliable strategy to beat the slots in anything resembling a consistent manner.

In the casino games for which there are professional players, the central feature of each game is that there is a way to reverse the inherent house advantage into a player advantage. In blackjack, card counting does that. In craps, the skill of a “controlled roll” does that. In video poker, it’s a matter of learning perfect strategy and finding a game like Deuces Wild with the pay table returning more than 100 percent, and adding cash-back awards on to that. In poker, where it’s player vs. player, consistent success is a matter of pure skill.

Not so with a slot machine. A slot machine is pure luck. Oh, the manufacturers can manipulate the payback percentages to a likely theoretical number, but even that cannot be counted on any given night. Even if a slot machine is programmed to return a theoretical 99 percent, that one percent house edge is enough to assure that the casino will eventually win—particularly since slots with a one or two percent house edge are only found in $25, $100 or higher denominations.

We’ve gone over this before, but if our reader mail is any indication, the way a slot machine works is a subject that is always worth repeating in this space.

When creating the game program for a slot machine, the programmer maps out the symbols that will be included in what is known as the slot’s “virtual reels.” The virtual reel system, first patented in 1984, is a computer simulation that effectively removes any restriction on how many symbols can be included on each reel. Physically, each reel has 22 spots for symbols or blanks—known as “stops” in the trade, since they are the spots on which each reel stops. Virtual reels can have as many stops as the programmer wants, so the odds can be manipulated to make large jackpots less likely.

Although five-reel, multi-line video slots work the same way, the system is easiest to understand using a traditional three-reel game as a model. Each of the 22 symbols on each reel is assigned a number by the programmer. Then, the programmer duplicates some or all of the symbols—reel spot No. 23, 24 and so on. More numbers are assigned to the lower-paying symbols and the blanks; fewer numbers (or a single number) are assigned to the high jackpot symbols.

Once each symbol and blank has been assigned numbers, the set of numbers is linked with a random number generator (RNG)—a software program that simply generates all the numbers in the set in a random sequence.

That last part is key—it is a random sequence that cannot be predicted by the player. The RNG is constantly running any time the slot machine is powered up, generating more than a hundred numbers per second. When the player presses the spin button or pulls the handle, the computer freezes the numbers generated at that instant, and converts them into the corresponding reel stops, creating the result of the spin.

In the old days, players could take the value of each possible reel result and, using the constant of 22 reel stops, calculate the odds and probable frequency of certain combinations—when a jackpot would be “due.” With the virtual reel system, the entire set of results will have been generated several times between spins. There is no way for a player to know where the virtual reels will stop, and there is no strategy that will assure a player of consistent success.

That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to win. Particularly in the higher denominations, maintaining a bankroll to wait out the odds can mean successful slot sessions now and then. You just can’t predict the “now” or the “then.” That means you could be hot one night and cold for three weeks.

It’s simply not a reliable living. And it’s why, no matter what you’ve been told by someone, a slot machine is luck and pure luck.

Here’s hoping yours is good.


This Just In…

From the “new places to play” front: On March 4, Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati opened to the public, after thousands of players stood in line for hours. The new casino has all the standard Caesars Entertainment amenities, including the Total Rewards players club, along with 2,000 slot machines, 31 poker tables and 87 other table games.


Quick Tip

There’s no “payout switch.”  Despite repeated explanations such as the above, many players still believe the casino can “flip a switch” to make you start losing if you’re winning too much on a slot machine.

It doesn’t happen.  Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the slot machines out on the floors are still analog devices. That means they are self-contained computers that are designed at the factory with all game aspects—including payback percentage—burned on an internal program chip—an unalterable program chip. Once the game’s on the floor, a door has to be opened and a chip changed to alter the payback percentage, and a regulatory official has to be present in most of the major jurisdictions.

Even the new server-based games that can be changed from a remote location—they are still in the experimental stage, for the most part—cannot be changed while someone is playing. The new regulations set up for these games require them to be idle for a period before anything can be changed. Slot managers don’t watch you so they can lower percentages if you win. Slot managers watch their daily, weekly and monthly revenue, and change out entire games that are not earning.

So don’t worry about a payout switch. Just have fun.


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