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The Psychology of Slots

Tactics that casinos use to keep you playing

by Basil Nestor


Are you playing the slots or are they playing you? It’s a fair question. Sometimes it seems as if slot machines are programmed to enthrall you in intricate mind games, paying out just enough to keep you hooked, but never letting you get too far ahead.

Technically, this is true, but not in the ways that you might imagine. Most jurisdictions have laws that prohibit games from intentionally teasing you based on your input. For example, a slot machine cannot deliberately display a three-credit jackpot as a tease when you play only two credits.

Likewise, a “near-miss” combination must be actually a near miss; it cannot be programmed to occur more frequently than what the virtual reels normally would allow. Ditto for a near-miss in video poker. And the results of one trial cannot be affected by a previous trial, so the machine cannot deliberately pay out a lot to hook you and then go cold. Each trial must be an honest game.

Slot Machine

But just because the game is honest doesn’t mean that it isn’t seductively messing with your head in other ways. Obviously, the casino has an advantage in win frequency, so any large payout may tempt you to play through a dry spell. And of course, the casino is presenting the game in an environment that also is calculated to influence your spending. These tactics for presentation are quite sophisticated, and you should know what they are.

This knowledge is valuable not necessarily because you should avoid the seduction, but rather because you should be able to squeeze the most pleasurable seduction from every dollar you risk, while you also squeeze up payback. Happily, both can be had at the same time. And oddly enough, there are some casinos that fail at both simultaneously; they offer inept seduction and horrible paybacks. So learning the inside tricks can help you choose better games.

It’s All About You, Baby!
The first rule for a casino when it comes to slots is to follow the law. The second rule is that there are no more rules except what works. It’s a bit like creating an Oscar-winning movie or a hit TV show. Nobody really knows how to bottle the magic. Casino executives and slot manufacturers desperately wish that they could create games guaranteed to beguile you. Sometimes they do, but usually it is hit and miss. Most slot games are not so successful. And many of the hottest titles fade in popularity after just a year or two.

Wendy Hamilton is the assistant general manager at Philadelphia Park Casino (before that she worked at Harrah’s properties), and she cheerfully admits that people in the casino industry simply follow the trends and offer what is popular.

Hamilton says, “In the last 10 years, there was a move from stepper play [reels] to low-denom video play nickels and then pennies. And now that low-denom piece has moved back over to reels, and low-denom penny and nickel stepper games are extremely popular. I can’t sit here and tell you I know why that happens. But we do our homework on the back end and ask, ‘What is it that people are enjoying? Where are we at full occupancy or utilization that we should do more?’ In other words, we follow the preferences. We don’t create them. … It’s a little bit of throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks.”

Ed Rogich, vice president of marketing for IGT, says it even more bluntly. “Players vote with their money on the casino floor every day. The casino operators are counting the votes. At the end of the day, if we [IGT] don’t win the election, we better come up with a new candidate, which means we have to come out with a new game to replace it.”

What this means is that players have an enormous amount of control over the inventory of a casino. Your action has an effect. So if a game bores you, or it doesn’t pay, don’t be tolerant. Don’t stay with a game simply in the hopes that it will improve. Give a slot machine a fair trial of $10 or $20, and then move on if you’re not pleased. Once you have moved, then stay away. Don’t return to that game out of boredom or idle curiosity. Remember, the more you spend on bad games, the more they linger.

Also, it is helpful to speak with a slots supervisor or VP of slots and tell that person the games you prefer. A friendly letter or e-mail to a supervisor with a copy sent to the president of the casino adds another layer of input. Dialog makes a big difference. Slot games such as Silver Strike have survived and thrived primarily because fans have been vocal in keeping the games available.

The Secrets of Casino Design
The rules for designing casinos are the same as the rules for designing games. First, the casino managers must follow the law, then they do anything that works.

Hamilton confesses, “Yes, it is true that we love to put loud frequently-paying games on the fringes [at locations of high visibility]. We always still do that. It’s not a trick. Of course you are going to do that. It’s how you make a casino feel really exciting. But other than that, it’s just about giving people flexibility to make their own choices about getting their own game in the kind of environment they prefer.”

She says this begins with the layout, and she suggests that players look for casinos that engage them aesthetically.

“If they [casino designers] build something that involves more curves, more intimate areas versus just a cornfield of slot machines, that feels like more fun, and it’s more interesting, and there are more things to explore. As long as it is well-signed and I can find what I’m looking for, when I don’t want to wander to find it, then that is terrific.

“Paths are very important. If you want to wander and explore a place, it is just more fun to follow a curved path, irregular sized banks, not every one with twelve slot machines.”

But layout is just the beginning. Hamilton’s biggest mantra is convenience. She calls it a “global change” in the casino industry, and (not surprisingly) she points to various services at Philadelphia Park as models of this change. For example, players can order drinks directly from their slot machines. No more waiting for a server to wander by. The time between the order and the delivery is about four minutes.

Similarly, slot technicians are notified automatically via a handset when a machine locks up (when the slot requires a hand-pay, needs tickets, and so forth). Players don’t have to stand around waiting to catch a slot technician’s eye.

In addition, the casino has kiosks where players can notify the valet to have a car ready. And of course, there are numerous ticket-redemption machines on the floor so that players don’t have to stand at the cage.

It all sounds inviting. Clearly, these are the sort of amenities that can put players in a benevolent mood to spend. But what about the Svengali-like tactics of using particular colors on machines and in casino designs, or using scents in the air or sounds to influence play. Hamilton dismisses these approaches as being somewhat superfluous.

“You could say at one time or another that the artwork on this game drove people to play it when it first came out. You could argue it did or it didn’t. But when someone plays a game once, they come back to it based on how the game played, not the color of the glass.

“What we do know, if there is a psychology here, is that people want to feel comfortable, and they don’t want to wait for anything. So you need to have enough of what you know they love, so they never have to wait for their game. And you want to make sure you have great staff to service them so that they are very comfortable while they are playing. That is the real trick. You have to make people want to be there.”

Thus the criteria for choosing a casino is similar to the criteria for playing a game. You vote with your dollars. If it feels as if you’re getting a good value, then you probably are. And yet, one wonders… Can it be this simple? Are these obvious good-service methods the limits of a casino’s tricks?

“If I walk into a place and I know they have the latest product, a crystal-uniformed staff, and a clean facility, I know they care about my experience, and that is someone I know I can count on,” says Hamilton. “I don’t think there is anything shadier than that.”

Perhaps. Let’s ponder that while we’re ordering drinks directly from the slot machine.

Basil Nestor is author of The Unofficial Guide to Casino Gambling, The Smarter Bet Guide to Slots and Video Poker, and other comprehensive gambling guides. Got a question? Visit and drop him a line.

The Psychology of Slots.

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