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Pennsylvania looks at airport slots

By Frank Legato


standbyThere is a bill before lawmakers in my erstwhile home state of Pennsylvania that would legalize slot machines at the airports. The idea is that you have these thousands of people waiting around every day for hours at a time at airports, and for crying out loud, they’re not gambling.

It’s a shocking state of affairs.

Listen, I like playing slot machines as much as the next guy, and God knows I welcome any excuse to hang out in the Scranton airport. But I would never put money into an airport slot machine. In fact, I travel a lot to Las Vegas and Reno, both of which require walking past rows and rows of airport slot machines. I never touch them, because if there’s anything three decades of writing about these contraptions has taught me, it’s that airports set the payback percentages on “Suck.” You’ve got to be ridiculously lucky to hit a jackpot on an airport slot machine. Read a book.

OK, I did play a machine at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas once. It was a video poker machine, which, as you may know, reveals its payback percentage if you know your pay tables. This was a 7/5 Bonus Poker machine (7-for-1 payout on the full house; 5-for-1 on the flush)—not the best, but still a return of over 96 percent, and I felt lucky. It was a dollar machine, so I threw a $20 bill in. First hand: Four aces, dealt, for $400. I knew how friggin’ lucky I was. I cashed out immediately.

Of course, this was back in the pre-ticket days. You youngsters out there may not know it, but in those days, to cash out this win, you had to wait until 400 metal dollar tokens clanged into a metal hopper tray. Almost every time, the hopper emptied before your jackpot was complete, so you had to call an attendant, who would bring a sack of coins over and put them into the machine.

Ah, yes, the classic slot experience. You waited forever for a passing attendant to glance over and notice the flashing light on top of your machine, and it seemed you always, always had to go to the bathroom when the “Hopper Empty” light went on. It was like that flashing light signaled your bladder. Then, after an absolutely excruciating waiting period, the attendant finally came with the coins, and you scooped up the filthy money with your bare hands, waited in line, and finally left with folding money and paws that looked like you just installed a carburetor.

What fun. You kids with your fancy tickets just don’t know what you’re missing.

Anyway, in this case, my plane was boarding, so I was faced with a decision: Take part of my winnings and leave the credits on the machine, or wait to make sure I got every penny of my winnings, even if it meant missing my flight. Naturally, I waited.

Hey, not even a choice.

But don’t try this at home, kids, or at your local airport. For one thing, good luck finding even a 7/5 Bonus Poker game at an airport. They’ll be 6/5 if you’re lucky, and some of them even manipulate other parts of the pay schedule, like dumbing down the four-of-a-kind pay-off, to bring the return down near that “Suck” setting at which all the regular slots are set.

But, hey, now you’ll be able to grease down a cheese-steak while playing slots at the Philly airport. I don’t know about you, but that’s my idea of heaven.

In other slot news, the folks at the National Institutes of Health announced they’re shutting down all chimpanzee research. The agency is sending the last 50 of its research chimps to follow 300 sent into retirement in a sanctuary last year.

How on earth are we going to find out how slot players think if there are no chimpanzees to do slot experiments? Every decent bit of slot machine research has involved chimps mimicking human behavior at machines. Sure, a lot of researchers are using rats to study slot-player behavior nowadays, but come on—a rat is not a chimpanzee. Go ahead and try to put a pair of overalls on a rat. See if he looks cute.

The NIH is going to spend the next couple of years relocating the chimps. Most are going to Louisiana, where there is a 200-acre“ federal chimpanzee sanctuary,” which I definitely have to visit. They also have casinos in Louisiana. And believe me, these chimps can spin those reels.

They even win at the airport.

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