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December 13, 2017

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5 slot myths: Why what you think you know is wrong

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Steve Marcus

People look over “The Voice”-themed slot machines at the IGT booth during the Global Gaming Expo (G2E) convention at the Sands Expo and Convention Center Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016.

Slot players are simply wrong.

Talk to people who study, market and design slot machines, and you quickly realize that many of the ideas players have about their inner workings and how jackpots are paid are myths.

The Las Vegas Sun spoke to three experts to learn the top myths about slots and what the truth really is.

Players can discern when slots are loose

In other words, players can tell when the house edge (or hold percentage) is larger for some slots or some casinos, and smaller for others. It’s an important concept because casinos boast of having loose slots and many gamblers have strong ideas about where to find the loosest slots.

There’s no independent way to confirm if marketing claims about loose slots are true. The Gaming Control Board does not release the house edges for individual slot machines or specific casinos. As a result, gut feeling is the only publicly available measure.

But can gamblers actually figure out when slots are loose?

A 2012 academic study, published in UNLV’s Gaming Research & Review Journal, found that players are largely unable to discern between slots with different hold percentages.

In the study, conducted by Anthony F. Lucas and A.K. Singh, professors at UNLV’s William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration, 10,000 virtual players made wagers on two slot games that were almost identical other than the hold percentage.

The study measured the actual payback percentages, or what the virtual players actually won to see if there was a difference in a series of different playing scenarios.

Because the entire study was virtual, taking place inside a computer, it was as if each player recorded and tracked the results of each spin, rather than relying on memory.

The study found that the vast majority of virtual players were unable to detect a difference in the payback percentages in any of the two-game pairings.

While he doesn’t dispute the study’s findings, another gaming expert said debate on the issue has not been resolved.

“There are multiple schools of thought with regard to hold percentage and players’ ability to determine the hold in an individual session,” said Steve Walther, senior director, Marketing & Product Management at Konami Gaming.

“As games become more complex, the types of winning combinations have grown exponentially. When old games only had a certain number of slots on a wheel, maybe it was easier. Now, being able to feel the hold in a single session could be very difficult. However, other schools of thought are different for repeat gamblers and those schools say maybe they can notice.”

However, Lucas and Singh addressed the concept of the perception of repeat visitors in the study, pointing out that all gamblers can do is consider the outcomes of some number of single trips.

Slot machines adjust themselves based on how many times players win or lose

Olaf Vancura has been the vice president of game development for slot maker Mikohn Gaming (which eventually became part of IGT) and other gaming companies. Along with his business experience, he’s an engineer with advanced degrees in physics.

He says players may believe slots may adjust themselves, but in fact they don’t.

“I guess the No. 1 myth is that slot machines keep track of wins and losses and will compensate to get to a win,” Olaf said. “But in the U.S., this is is illegal. Slots aren’t allowed to make adjustments. They cannot and do not. Each win is a separate event.”

Casinos remotely change how games pay out while you are playing them

In some cases, a portion of the inner workings of a slot machine is handled on a central server — a computer sitting in a special room full of other high-tech equipment. In other cases, the workings of the game are determined by a computer in the slot machine cabinet.

But in no case can casinos change the workings of a slot machine on the fly.

“There is all sorts of lore out there,” Walther said. “If you push buttons in a certain combination, if animals look at you funny, there are all sorts of myths. And one is that there is a magical control center that can update games at a touch of a button.”

Olaf concurred.

“Some people believe a slot director off in a back room somewhere is sitting at a computer and can change the machine right out from under you,” he said. “So if you are playing a good machine that you were doing well at, someone can tighten it down and you will run into a cold streak.”

Olaf explained that this behavior is also prohibited by gaming regulations. When casinos remotely update some aspects of some machines, they are required to put a notice on the screen informing players.

“It’s not possible for the casino to pull the rug out from under you,” Olaf said.

Someone else won that jackpot that should have been yours

It has happened to more than a few players. They leave a machine only to have someone else immediately sit down and hit a jackpot. If they had only played one more spin, they think, the jackpot would have been theirs.

Except it wouldn’t.

“Today’s slot machines don’t work that way,” Olaf said. “They are based on RNGs or random number generators.”

These RNGs are bits of software code that run constantly, Olaf said, generating the random numbers that, in turn, help determine the results of the slot. Pushing the button at any one point in time, he said, produces a different number than pushing it at any other point in time.

It is true that in some cases these numbers repeat, and cheaters have used complex computer programs to predict the repeating patterns. But for the average player, the results really are random.

“Different manufacturers have different rates,” Olaf said. “But a good rule of thumb is that the RNGs are running hundreds of times per second. So unless you had initiated that same spin at precisely the same instant, you would not have won the jackpot. If you’re even a tenth of a second off, you will get a completely different outcome.”

Celebrity-based slots pay less

This myth might actually have some basis in reality, Olaf said.

“I would say it’s generally true,” he said. “There are a few reasons for that, but the easiest to understand is comparing it to clothes. If I buy a white T-shirt I might pay, I don’t know, $5 for it. But if I buy a white T-shirt with a Nike swoosh on it, I’ll pay more. The same is true for slots.”

Because people are attracted to celebrities, TV shows and movies, a successfully themed slot might have a hold percentage of 12 percent while another non-celebrity themed slot could have 10 percent, Olaf said.

The myths and the mystique

One of the biggest myths concerning slots is why there is any mystery about them at all. After all, game play is determined by math and the business rules are governed by Nevada’s strict gaming regulations.

But the uncertainty about how slots and other games work may be one reason why they have been so successful.

“We don’t always want to dispel all the myths because there’s a mystique around gambling,” Walther said. “The machine can’t be controlled from any external source. But the player has to approach the machine at just the right time and push the button at just the right time. So there’s got to be a bit of luck involved in that, and that is all controlled by the player.”

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