During a visit to Hollywood Casino late last night, I was briefly amused and then saddened to overhear this in a conversation from a passing elderly couple:
“You play the penny slots when you want to spend a few hours playing. You don’t play them when you want to make money. When you want to make money, you play the quarter or fifty-cent slots.”
It really drove home the point that there are a lot of misguided souls out there who have no idea how a casino — especially an all-slot casino — works. While there are far more technical or insightful resources out there on how slot machines work, I want to at least make an effort to share some basic guidelines on slot machines. If you’re heading out for the first time this weekend, keep these in mind:
First off, your odds of winning are pre-set by the casino. Luck is never involved, only raw mathematics. Your odds do NOT vary by how “full” the machine is (how long it’s been since the machine has paid out), how idle the machine is, how much you’ve bet, or how long you’ve been playing. Period. However, you can capitalize on the fact that casinos will often vary the odds by machine (for example, one machine has a 30% chance of paying out, while every other machine in the cluster has a 10% chance of paying out). If the person next to you has been winning every few rounds, take their machine when they leave. You’re not guaranteed a win, but you may have found your neighborhood loose machine.
Second, statistics are fun little things that most people completely misunderstand. For example, a slot machine where “one in 100 people win the jackpot” is far different from a slot machine where you have “a one in 100 chance of winning the jackpot”. In the former, your odds are excellent — play 100 times, and you’re guaranteed a win! In the latter, your odds are terrible — play 100 times, and you have a 99% chance of losing each time. Slot machines are always the latter. Here’s the part that confuses some people: If you play 100 spins, you *are* more likely to have won than if you play 1 spin. This is because you took 100 chances, each with a 1% probability of winning. But the odds of each *individual spin* remain firmly fixed.
Think of it this way: The odds of being killed in a traffic accident are roughly one in 6500. That doesn’t mean that if you drive 6499 times, your next trip will result in your death.
Third, the odds remain fixed throughout the night. In both New Jersey and Nevada, the odds on a machine can not be changed mid-play. The casino can’t drop your odds simply because you’ve just won a big payout. In fact, in Nevada, the machine’s odds can only be changed once the machine is idle for four hours. Then, the machine must be taken out of service for two hours while it displays a message that the odds are being changed. After they’ve changed, it must remain out of service (still displaying the message) for at least two hours. I haven’t reviewed Pennsylvania’s law on this, so if anyone has any insight, I’d appreciate any feedback or corrections.
Fourth, the casinos have a lot of tricks up their sleeves to make you think you’re close to winning. Near-misses, for example — if a jackpot is won by spinning four red 7s, the slot machine may very well “choose” to show you four red 7s just below the pay line. If you’re playing half the lines on a multi-line game, the machine may put the winning combination for the mega jackpot on one of the lines that you didn’t play. Of course, had you actually played those lines, the winning combination would be nowhere to be found; whatever the machine shows on non-paying lines is unregulated in Pennsylvania. This practice has been outlawed in Nevada and New Jersey.
Fifth — and this is the big one — lock in a budget. This sounds like the single most obvious bit of common sense ever handed out. But if it were, nobody would ever have “lost everything” at a casino. Do you think that anyone’s ever walked onto a slots floor and thought “You know, I feel like handing over $800 to Penn National today”? No, they thought they had a system, or they had the house beat, or they knew something that everyone else didn’t. Set an absolute, unconditional, no-questions-asked limit and stick to it. Once you spend your limit, leave. Your pride will be under assault by the casino; you may have an urge to “prove” to them that they didn’t clean you out. They are absolutely, positively, 100% banking on this. One of my coworkers mentioned that he blew past his $50 limit because he was “on a winning streak”. It’s not that losing all your money is some new, as-of-yet unheard-of definition of “a winning streak” — it’s just that he fell victim to the lights, sounds, smells, and psychological warfare of the casino.
And if you think that that last statement is hyperbole, feel free to explain why gambling is so profitable.
After reading all that, you might get the idea that I’m against Hollylwood casino or anti-slots in some way. Quite the opposite is true; I happen to live about five minutes from the place, and I’m all for it. I go into the place fully aware that I’m going to lose money, enjoy myself for a while, and walk out exactly where I expected to be. But there is so much misinformation out there (Google “slot machine strategy”) and so many locals who haven’t ever been to a casino that I had to at least put this out there.
If nothing else, remember what casinos say to people who have “strategies” or have “everything figured out”: