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Deal Me In: On the up-n-up

3 December 2010

By Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: You often talk about each pull of a slot machine having the same odds, regardless of its recent history. But somewhere along the line somebody has to make sure the machine does pay what it claims. Who does this? Richard M.

Because this column is syndicated nationwide, Richard, accept a generalized, in-a-nutshell answer to your question. Let's begin with some givens that I have written about time and again.

Since every machine offered to the player is mathematically in the casino's favor, casinos make their moolah by paying you less than the true odds. Second, many casinos are publicly-traded companies not interested in exposing their gaming license to loss with any suspicion of funny stuff going on. For those two reasons, Richard, there really isn't any need to cheat the general public beyond what the state allows.

Of course my narrative alone will not satisfy the hoi polloi, so every state has a gaming regulatory agency that provides casino patrons with protection from playing on a rigged machine.

Begin we must with the machine itself. Each new machine goes through roughly a six-month process to get approved. A state's gaming regulatory agency tests the machine to make sure that it operates randomly, inspects its source code for any possible problems, and then looks at the principles behind how the random generation occurs. The agency scrutinizes how it picks the cards it's going to show you or how it selects the reel stops on a slot machine. Then the machine is placed out in the field (casino) prior to final approval.

After so many months on the casino floor, the machine then gets presented to a gaming commission for their approval or denial. If the machine is approved, the manufacturer may modify it under the each state's regulations, and make variations to that machine. By variations I mean, pay table modifications, or in the case of video poker, swapping a Jacks-or-better for a Deuce's Wild.

Approval isn't necessarily needed to change a chip inside a machine to make it pay back less or more, just so long as approved chips are used, and the payback is within the minimum limit set by each state's law.

A state's gaming regulatory agency also conducts surprise field tests of "any and all" slot machines to make sure all the devices in use contain software programs or chips approved by their board. Randomly, a gaming agent will show up at a casino and say; "We're going to do your casino today and we want access to any machine of our choosing, now."

Agents in the field come armed with a laptop computer that has a database of all the chip signatures, and with each chip having a code number that contains all its attributes, including its percentages. They know on the spot if the chip is legit simply by inserting the chip into their specialized laptop; it reads the chip and all its contents to certify that it is an approved value chip. Hanky panky – even a slight twitch – and we're talking the possible loss of an expensive and hard-won gaming license.

It happened in 1983 in a casino that I was working in, the famed Lake Tahoe resort that Cal Neva that Frank Sinatra once owned, and where Marilyn Monroe spent her final weekend, and where its at-the-time owner, Ron Cloud, allegedly rigged the slot machines and strong-armed debtors. Life just couldn't get better for Yours Truly on its closure: Unemployment benefits, a season ski pass at Alpine Meadows and 155 consecutive days of skiing. Yes, every day was a picnic, every night a party, for me, that is, but not for Cloud.

Take into account, Richard, that this was an all-purpose answer. With each gaming jurisdiction's watchful eye, using different glasses, you can be assured that who's watching whom is watching out for you.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "A wager is a fool's argument." - English Saying
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.