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Stubborn Myths

Some of the oldest myths concerning slot machines are still around, and are still the subject of “expert advice”

By Frank Legato


As you may know, every month, I do a humor column for our sister publication, Strictly Slots. Last month, I poked fun at a recent blog entry I found titled “Six Ways to Find the Best Slot Machine in a New Casino.”

I’d like to use this space to take a more serious look at this piece, which appeared in a blog called “Best US Casinos,” because it illustrates the fact that there is still a lot of misinformation about slot machines being presented as fact on the internet by so-called “experts.”

Three of the “six ways to find the best slot machine” are, in fact, based on the same myth—that the location of a slot machine on the floor can indicate whether or not a machine has a high payback percentage.

The first bit of advice in the piece is to choose the “hardest-to-find” slot machine. Another entry advises to look in the middle of a slot bank for the best machine; yet another says to look to the end of the bank for the hot slots.

Two of these three entries are based on practices that were prevalent 40 years ago—before slot machines were the most popular offering in the casino, before themes from popular culture became the norm, before certain features of the slot games became draws in themselves.

In the early 1980s, most slot machines looked like all other slot machines. Virtually all of them had three spinning mechanical reels operated by pulling a handle. The slot floor back then was a sea of sameness, other than perhaps big prizes on top of banks that served as top jackpots—a car, even a boat would be perched up there to attract players to the bank.

Back then, other than the big prizes, slot directors would attract players to the machines by having them see someone winning. That’s why higher paybacks could often be found at the end of the bank, in the most visible spot, or smack-dab in the middle of a bank of slots. Players would see other players winning money, and be drawn to the activity.

From the late 1990s on, slot games have been differentiated by the play experiences they offer customers. These days, players will seek out Game of Thrones because it is Game of Thrones; they will seek out Lightning Link because they love that hold-and-spin feature. The location of the machine in the bank or in the casino has no significance.

Additionally, over these same 30 years or so, it has become commonplace for slot managers to choose payback percentages according to the casino’s policy for each denomination. Slot machines are offered to casinos in a range of payback percentages, generally from around 85 percent to 98 percent or thereabouts. Slot managers have developed a policy to choose game programs returning 88–90 percent for penny games, 92–94 percent for quarter reelspinners, the high 90s for high-denomination reel-spinners, etc. The numbers will be higher in locals casinos like Station or Boyd properties, lower at places like the MGM Grand or Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip.

The officials will buy a similar percentage for all their penny games, all their dollar games and so forth. (This applies even for multi-denomination machines, which can have several payback programs in a single unit.) Where they are located on the floor is no longer a factor.

The third location-based advice—the one listed first in the article—simply doesn’t make sense, and was never a policy even 40 years ago. That would be the notion that the highest-paying machines are located where they are hard to find. Forty years ago, in fact, the exact opposite was true. Casinos would place the lowest-returning machines—nickel reel-spinners with the lowest payback allowable by law, 75 percent in Nevada—in the most inaccessible areas of the casino, the idea being to use the low-paying machines to get something, anything, out of an otherwise dead space. Why on earth would any casino make a game hard to find? Slots are there to be played.

The other half of the six items in the list are based on another myth—the idea that a hot slot machine can be identified by seeing people win. The article advises to “be a vulture”— meaning to circle around a player who is winning, and pounce on a game once the player cashes out.

It also advises what it calls the “Five-Minute Hop Method.” The author says he moves to another machine if he loses for five minutes. This is not necessarily bad advice from a budgeting standpoint, but it is based on the same incorrect premise as being a vulture. And as the last piece of advice, to “ask a slot attendant” where the hot machines are.

The reason all of these are based on misinformation is simple: A slot machine is a random device on which every spin is independent of any other spin. By law, all possible results on a slot machine, including the top jackpot, must be available on any given spin. Therefore, past results are no indication of future results.

You can lose for five minutes on a slot machine and win for an hour immediately thereafter. You can hover around behind someone who wins for an hour, sit down when he cashes out, and find yourself losing for the next hour. A slot attendant can tell you people have been winning on a machine for days, and you can still lose on it for days.

Slots are random devices meant to entertain the player. To find the highest paybacks, look to charts such as those in this magazine for long-term, historical results, and visit the casino offering the highest returns.

Most of all, pick the slot machine that you like, the game that entertains you. That’s what it’s all about.

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