By John Grochowski
Carrie has been playing slot machines for longer than she cares to remember. She and her husband Bill had already been annual Las Vegas visitors for nearly a decade when I met them in the early 1980s, several years before my own first Vegas visit.
“There was no video then, just the three-reel games,” she told me one day when she phoned to talk about slots and comps. “Blazing 7s, that was the one I liked to play. I still do, although most of the time I play penny video games now. I like all the free spins and the bonus games.
“But sometimes there’s nothing like good old Blazing 7s. I play the pennies more, but I hit more good-sized jackpots on Blazing 7s, usually quarters.”
That’s in the way the games are designed. Video slots are designed to take your money a little at a time, giving more frequent small payoffs and extending your play through bonus events. Three-reel slots are designed to yield more frequent large jackpots, at the cost of more frequent long losing streaks.
There are different levels of volatility both on three-reel games and on five-reel video slots. The rise of penny games meant gamemakers had to design extra volatility into the slots to offer customers payoffs worth playing for. A pick’em bonus bringing 80 coins isn’t going to impress the player if that translates into 80 cents.
Still, even free-spin penny games offer more frequent small pays and less volatility than most three-reel games.
Carrie’s old favorite, Blazing 7s, is designed with modest top jackpots, starting around $250 on a quarter machine and $1,000 on a dollar game, which hit more often than the top jackpots on higher-paying games.
“That’s what I’ve noticed,” she said. “I’ve hit the triple Blazing 7s way more than I’ve hit Triple Diamonds or anything else. But what I really wanted to talk about was comps and players cards.”
What about them?
“Well, my husband isn’t the slot fanatic like me. He plays video poker. We go to the casino together once a week, and we gamble about the same amount. But when we see if we have any free play or to get buffet comps, I always have more than he does. I get more offers in the mail, too.”
Are you sure you’re playing the same amount?
“If anything, I’m playing a little bit less. He bets five quarters at a time at video poker, so $1.25 a hand. I suppose I bet about the same on pennies. I cover all the lines, and how much I bet per line depends on how I’m doing. Sometimes I’ll bet 2 cents a line, sometimes 10, but it probably averages about 5. On a 25-line game, that’s $1.25, just like Bill’s video poker.
“But when I switch over to quarter Blazing 7s, then I’m betting three quarters at a time, 75 cents. So, on the whole, I probably bet a little less.”
I suggested we assume Carrie and Bill wager the same amount per day. Then Carrie would get more in comps because most casinos nowadays rate slot play higher than video poker play. One of my regular haunts gives $1 in free play per 100 points earned. Slot players get one point per $4 in play, but for video poker players, it’s one point per $8 played.
“Why is that?”
Because slot play is more valuable to the casino than video poker play. Some video poker games return 99 percent or more with expert play, and even an average player will get back 95 percent or so. A penny slot player is looking at returns of to 85 to 90 percent.
Even on the quarter Blazing 7s games Carrie likes, she’s a more valuable player to the house than Bill is, if he plays video poker well. Depending on jurisdiction and individual casino, quarter games usually return about 90 to 93 percent. Let’s say Bill and Carrie each made 500 wagers per hour. That would mean Carrie, betting three quarters on Blazing 7s, wagered $375, and Bill, betting five quarters on video poker, bet $625.
If Carrie was getting a 93 percent payback – toward the high end for quarter slots – her average hourly loss would be $26.25. If Bill recognizes the good games and plays well enough to get a 99 percent return, his average hourly loss is only $6.25. If he plays at a below average level and gets back only 96 percent, his $25 hourly loss is still less than Carrie’s.
“Bill’s pretty good, I think,” Carrie said. “He pores over video poker books and practices on the computer, so he’s probably at the good end. But what about the average return on a penny game?”
With an average bet of $1.25 and an hourly wager of $625, a penny game returning 88 percent would eat into your bankroll at about $75 an hour. Even if you bet only one cent for each of 25 lines, for an average bet of $125 an hour, your average loss comes to $15 – more than double the average loss of a good video poker player on a 99-percent game.
Even if you play the same amount, the casino expects to keep more money from you than from Bill. So, they’ll spend more to keep you coming back.
“And that’s why I get more free play and comps than Bill does,” Carrie said. “I get it now. Bill won’t like it, but I guess he’ll just have to keep eating on my comps.”