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Best of Mark Pilarski

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Romancing the slots

14 July 2006

Dear Mark,

All too often I am able to line up two of the highest jackpot winning symbols but never the third. Sometimes the third will appear, but not directly on the line needed for me to win the machine's highest award. My question is: is the casino doing this to induce play, or is it just a coincidence? Sue L.

We've all been there, Sue; Treasure Chest, Treasure Chest, and then . . . why you blankety-blank!

What you are describing, Sue, — winning combinations appearing more often than would occur randomly — is called "near-miss" programming. Although I can't speak to the legality of "near-miss" programming for each and every gaming jurisdiction, I can state that it has been ruled illegal in both New Jersey and Nevada; and most states' Gaming Commissions tend to follow the big boys.

Because the reel display of modern slot machines is controlled by computer software, sure, a slot machine could be programmed to frequently display combinations that are close to winning combinations. Repeatedly displaying Treasure Chest, Treasure Chest, and a non-Treasure Chest can tease players into a playing frenzy because they think they're almost winning.

We need to also consider, Sue, with 20 symbols on a reel and possibly 256 stopping points, Treasure Chests can appear above or below the payline and seem as a "near-miss," but even so, slot machines cannot be specifically programmed to show "winning combinations" at a mathematically impossible frequency. The "near miss" must be just as likely to occur as any other equally randomly distributed combination.

Dear Mark,

Getting paid "to" one versus "for" one to the player means what? Steve S.

A payoff of "9-to-1" means the winner is paid nine chips for every chip bet; and since the winner keeps the chip wagered, he winds up with 10 chips in hand.

When the payoff is "9-for-1," the winner is paid nine chips for every chip wagered; however, Steve, the house keeps the originally wagered chip, leaving the winner with 9 chips in hand. Words to watch for!

Dear Mark,

After going through two rolls of quarters, I got up from a cold machine and moved one machine over. A lady then started playing on the machine I had just left hits a $10,000 jackpot on her first three quarters. Was I a day late and a dollar short? Del E.

Not even a second late and six bits short.

Most players, Del, falsely reason, "If I had played just three more quarters, that $10,000 jackpot would have been mine." But even gluing your hopeful fanny to that same machine's stool would not have given you that $10,000 jackpot. Why? Because the results of a modern slot machine's spin depend on exactly when the spin began.

The Random Number Generator (RGN) within the machine is constantly generating random numbers at a rate as high as a million per second. As soon as the lever is pulled (or the "Play" button pressed) the most recently generated random number is used to determine the outcome. Since results vary depending on exactly when the handle is yanked, an earlier or later pull by you would have created a completely different outcome.

Consequently, Del, it is highly unlikely that you would have received the same result if you had played three additional quarters. The only way you could have had the happy lady's booty was for her to say to you, "It's all yours, Buster" at the end of the down pull, and she gives you her seat while the reels were still spinning. Sure, it's a corny example, but I'm trying to drive home the point on how improbable the 10K was of being yours.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "Poker is the game closest to the western conception of life, where life and thought are recognized as intimately combined, where free will prevails over philosophies of fate or of chance, where men are considered moral agents and where — at least in the short run — the important thing is not what happens but what people think happens. —John Lukacs

Recent Articles
Best of Mark Pilarski
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.
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.