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Let’s start off with a reality check. If there was a way to consistently beat the slots, they wouldn’t be the primary source of income for most casinos in the United States. Of course we’ve all seen pictures of lucky winners holding oversized checks payable for oversized amounts, but when you consider how many millions of people play the slots everyday, it’s no wonder that a few hit it big. But to think that there’s a legal way to guarantee you’ll be a winner is just not realistic.

The Myths

There are a lot of myths about slots that need to be dispelled right here. One of my favorites is that if the coins from a particular machine are warm when they come out, that means the machine is a) ready to hit because it hasn’t paid for a while or b) isn’t ready to hit because it’s a ‘tight’ machine as evidenced by the fact that it hasn’t paid any coins. Isn’t that silly? The coins get warm because of all the lights in the machine and if no one has played if for a while they’ll be even warmer. But how does that indicate the ‘ripeness’ of the machine?

I also like the ‘location’ theories. That school of thought teaches that the casino managers put ‘loose’ machines in strategic spots to lure players into playing the other, tighter machines in the same locale. That may be true, but what’s ‘strategic’ to one casino manager may not be to another. “Never play a slot on the end of an aisle”, I was once told. I don’t know if that’s good advice or not. What you need to remember is that casino personnel read those books, too. They also subscribe to the same magazines and they visit this, and other, web sites. If the general rule is that the slot on the end of an aisle should be ‘tight’, I guarantee you that half the slot supervisors out there will put loose ones on the end as soon as possible. I approach this whole location argument from the point of operating my own casino; what would my slot strategy be? Just one thing: I’d put a tight machine on either side of a loose machine to get the $$$ from those of you who just have to play two at a time. Not losing fast enough? I’ll help you.

From Loose to Tight, Overnight?

That’s another good topic to discuss: how quickly a machine can be converted from ‘loose’ to ‘tight’. I heard a player recently tell her friend that she had won big on a machine the night before, so there was no way she was going to play the same machine, because “They” will have made it tight today. Lady, don’t flatter yourself; the casino doesn’t see you as a Wrecking Crew. Another beauty was told to a video poker pal of mine by her boyfriend. In those areas where we have riverboats, most operate on a two-hour cruise schedule. His observation was that the casino only allows you to win just as the cruise is ending so that you’ll stay on for the next one. He honestly believes that there’s a big switch somewhere which loosens and tightens the slots at will. Folks, that’s simply not the case. Slots are electronic devices controlled by a computer chip which is, in most jurisdictions, sealed in such a way to prevent tampering and to show any investigating authorities (like the local Gaming Commission) that the chip in there is the same one which the casino registered with that device. They take a certain amount of time and paperwork to change, so it’s not something which is done on a wholesale basis overnight. Sure, machine payout levels do get changed, but it’s not done everyday and it certainly isn’t done because you won last night. Most of the ‘hot’ or ‘cold’ tendencies you observe in a slot machine are merely random sequences within the framework of a long term payout schedule. It’s like flipping a coin; one expects heads to come up half the time, but would you be surprised to see heads five or six times in a row? Of course not; that’s a bit of randomness in an otherwise predictable pattern. Now, consider a coin where heads (a winner) is expected 46% of the time and tails (a loser) is expected 54% of the time. That payout schedule gives the ‘house’ an 8% edge, which is not unlike the edge many casinos have in their quarter slots. With such a ratio, would you be surprised to see 7 or 8 losers in a row? I hope not.

The Speed of Money

“But”, I hear you say, “if the casino is keeping just 8%, I should be able to play my $50 and walk away with about $46 which is 92% of $50.” Ah, grasshopper that would be true if you only played the $50. But you play much more that that because you keep rebetting your $$$! If a machine takes 3 quarters and you play at a rate of 500 hands an hour, you’re betting 500 X $.75 = $375 an hour! If the casino’s edge is 8%, they will, on average keep .08 X $375 = $30 AN HOUR. So, after the first hour of play, your $50 is now $20 and you probably won’t make it through the second hour. There will be times, of course, when you will win. The randomness of the machine allows for winning streaks, but there will also be times when the $50 doesn’t last for a hundred spins. That’s all just the ‘coin-flipping’ part. What the casinos bank on is getting “X” dollars run through a machine per hour and their edge guarantees them the win, in the long run. Along the way they gladly pay a few big winners, but for the most part they grind $30 or $40 out of a LOT of other players and it all adds up. Remember, banks (admittedly not the smartest institutions in the world) routinely lend money to casinos, but have you seen any advertising “Slot Loans” lately? The casinos have an unbeatable edge in slots and there’s nothing you or I can do to overcome it.

Not the Same, Tired Advice

That said, there are a few things you can do to reduce the casino’s edge, but they may not save you any $$$. As I’m writing this, I have before me the June issue of Casino Player magazine. In their ‘Slot Chart’, they show the average payouts for slot machines all over the U.S. For example, the Alton Belle Casino in Alton, IL had an average payback of 93.9% on quarter slots. The nickel slots paid back 91.2%, the dollars 95.3% and the five dollar slots paid back 97.6%. The universal rule is that higher denomination slots pay back more. Talk about a Catch 22! Bet bigger and lose less from a percentage point of view, but probably more from an absolute $$$ point of view. A lot of books on slots give you the advice to “play the highest stakes you can afford”, because of that percentage variation. What’s that advice worth? Let’s see. Say you play quarter slots like the example above. At a rate of 3 quarters per spin and 500 spins an hour, you’ll bet $375 an hour. At an average payback of 93.9%, the house expects to make .061 X $375 = $16.26 an hour from the average quarter player. If you bet just one coin at a dollar game, you’ll be betting $500 an hour and the Alton Belle will keep 4.7% of that or $500 X .047 = $23.50. And that’s a good deal? Percentages are fine, but you make your car payment with $$$, not %%%.

Are Slot Clubs Really Worth Anything?

“Yes, but”, I hear you saying, “what about the slot club? My favorite slot book says it helps me get back some of the casino edge.” Well, that’s true, as far as it goes. Most slot clubs have a ‘cash rebate’ which may range from .2% up to 1% of your total ‘action’. About .35% is a good average, so let’s work with that. If you bet a dollar on each spin and play 500 spins an hour, your total action is obviously $500 an hour. If the slot club has a cash ‘rebate’ factor of .35% you’ll get back .0035 X $500 = $1.75 an hour. WOW!!!!! Lose an average of $23.50 an hour and get back a buck seventy-five.

Now, I don’t want to downplay the importance of slot clubs, because in the cases of games where the house edge is very small (yes, I’ll be telling you about those games later), the slot club cash rebate can turn a losing session into a winner. But let’s face it: a rebate of $1.75 is no reason to buck a house edge of 6%. As you’ll see in this series, you can do a lot better.

Some Final Thoughts

Hopefully our little discussion here has dissuaded you from playing the slots. There are no magic formulas, but I will give you some good advice if you won’t quit. At least play machines that have the highest progressive jackpot. I see players at banks of slots where each has an individual jackpot of some sort and oftentimes the one with the biggest is idle, while players are at the ones with lower amounts on them. They are undoubtedly thinking that the jackpot on that one machine is higher because it’s a ‘tight’ machine, and they may be right. But total return is what matters if you play the slots, so at least go for the biggest payback. One interesting thing I noticed about a bank of slots near one of my favorite video poker machines was that the jackpot seldom got over $400. One day I saw one, idle of course, with a jackpot of $550 on it. I took a roll of quarters and hit it after I put just $5 in. Luck? Probably, but I still kept the $$$.