Las Vegas Sun

February 27, 2024

Pennies ready to pop

The world's largest slot maker says one of its penny machines is statistically overdue to pay out a jackpot of nearly $16 million.

What does this mean for high-rolling penny players?

Not much.

Each passing day, of course, means that the jackpot is one more day closer to hitting. But nobody knows when that day will come, and it's no more likely to be today or tomorrow than it was yesterday or on your birthday.

But that hasn't stopped the game's manufacturer from hyping the growing jackpot and trying to entice more gamblers to play the equivalent of 300 pennies at a time that's required to go after the top prize.

Some experts say the company's efforts to publicize the game are ethically, if not legally, problematic. Slot maker International Game Technology defends its marketing strategy, saying it's a matter of understanding theoretical math.

The odds of winning a jackpot are the same for each spin, regardless of how big or small the prize or how long it has been played without hitting the top prize. While casinos have some control in setting how much slots will theoretically pay out over a long period of time, each pull of the slot has a random outcome as required by law.

IGT, which created the Megabucks franchise 20 years ago, hasn't let that fact get in the way of an effective marketing pitch.

The company's mathematicians say they have come up with a formula that indicates the point after which a jackpot will usually hit. Their logic is based on when the jackpot has hit in the past, how often the company's 600-plus Megabucks machines are played and how much is wagered on the top prize.

By IGT's math, that point would have been reached at around $14 million.

Gambling expert Anthony Curtis, publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor, calls the formula "meaningless."

"If you're facing a 20-million-to-1 shot last week you're still facing a 20-million-to-1 shot this week," Curtis said.

Statistician and slot consultant Michael Shackleford, who runs the Web site, said the promotion is troublesome and reinforces a common myth about slot machines.

"I think the term 'overdue' implies that it's ripe and ready to fall off the tree," he said. "But that's not the case. Slot machines don't know the last time they hit. Even if it's been 10 years since the last hit, the odds are the same on every single play."

Penny Megabucks is a progressive slot machine, which means a percentage of each wager from each Nevada machine is fed into a prize pool that grows over time. At $15.8 million as of Tuesday, the jackpot would be the largest penny jackpot in U.S. history.

IGT's dollar Megabucks machine paid out the largest slot jackpot in history, nearly $40 million, in 2003.

In trying to promote its penny jackpot, IGT is walking a fine line. Nevada law prohibits advertising that is "false or materially misleading."

The state's top gaming regulator wouldn't pass judgment on the advertisement, which he hasn't yet seen. As a rule, Gaming Control Board Chairman Dennis Neilander said, companies are required to provide a valid mathematical formula or other information to back up their promotional claims.

For example, casinos can claim they have the "loosest slots" if they are basing that claim on comprehensive gambler surveys, he said.

IGT Vice President of Marketing Ed Rogich defended the use of the phrase "statistically overdue" in promoting the penny jackpot, saying the conclusion is based on a theoretical hit cycle, or mathematical analysis of jackpot hits.

IGT typically begins marketing its big slot jackpots when they reach more than $15 million - a psychological threshold that prompts more casual players to open their wallets and regulars to bet more often, the company says.

The more they bet, the faster the jackpot grows. Within a week, the $15 million prize grew by more than $700,000.

While IGT doesn't reveal odds for Megabucks, one expert has pegged the odds of winning the dollar machine at one in nearly 50 million plays.

That's something to keep in mind, as is a flier being distributed this week in casinos nationwide by the industry's lobbying arm.

The pamphlet, part of the American Gaming Association's annual Responsible Gaming Education Week, tells gamblers how much they can expect to lose for every $10 bet on various games, including slots.

In a section entitled "Superstitions and False Beliefs," the pamphlet, in bold letters, reminds players that "slot machines are not any more or less likely to hit a jackpot just because they haven't hit for a while."

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