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Deal me in: The rigged slot

21 September 2012

By Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: The following quote is from The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
Al wiped his hands on his apron. He looked at a paper pinned to the wall over the griddle. Three lines of marks in columns on the paper.

Al counted the longest line. He walked along the counter to the cash register, rang "No Sale," and took out a handful of nickels.

"What ya doin'?" Mae asked.

"Number three's ready to pay off," said Al. He went on the third slot machine and played his nickels in, and on the fifth spin of the wheels the three bars came up and the jackpot dumped out into the cup. Al gathered up the big handful of coins and went back of the counter. He dropped them in the drawer and slammed the cash register. Then he went back to his place and crossed out the line of dots. "Number three gets more play'n the others," he said. "Maybe I ought to shift 'em around." He lifted a lid and stirred the slowly simmering stew."

Is Steinbeck making a mistake about slot machines, or did slot machines in the 1930s have scheduled pay offs instead of being completely random? Bob H.

Slot machines of today, Bob, are a distant cousin of what Bavarian immigrant Charles Fey invented in 1895. It was Fey who linked the three reels to the slide payout mechanism, creating the first, reeled, mechanical slot machine. In a gesture of patriotism, he named it Liberty Bell.

The slots of yesteryear work the same as they do today where a stop on each reel has an equal chance, although today’s symbol combinations are controlled by a Random Number Generator instead of the action of spinning reels.

Old slot machines had as a central element, a metal shaft, which supported the reels. This shaft was connected to a handle mechanism, which after a coin detector initially registers that a coin has been inserted, unlocked a brake so that the handle could be pulled. The machine then used a braking system to halt the spinning reels, with the final resting position of the reels matched to a payout system. Slots had a certain number of reels with a specific number of symbols, and each symbol, on a legitimate machine, would have had an equal chance of coming up on a spin.

All this is not to say that slot operators in bars and restaurants didn't rig out machines to pay or stiff patrons. Mechanical slot machines of the past were easy to manipulate and thereby cheat naive players. Although the dialog above in Steinbeck's book lacks machine specificity, and my only recollection of the character Al was that of a cook at a restaurant who ordered Mae to give bread to a migrant family, it is within reason that Al could have known when a jimmied machine was going to pay off.

Speaking of a rigged machine, I own a slot machine from that era, a Mills Mystery, whose stops were fiddled with by a previous owner, and it now pays the highest jackpot on every yank of the handle. It’s stored in the attic because relatives want to keep the winnings.

Gambling wisdom of the Week: “For a loser, Vegas is the meanest town on earth.” ~Hunter S. Thompson
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.