Where in a casino do you find the loose slot machines?

Jun 28, 2011 3:00 AM

Ever hear the advice that you should always play the machines nearest the entrances and walkways on a casino floor? This advice assumes high visibility machines are set looser to make them hit and pay more regularly, drawing passersby into the maze of slot machines with hopes of frequent jackpots.

How about the advice to never play machines by the restrooms? The thought here is people are forced to sit at these games while waiting for people they’re with to use the bathroom. Invariably many of them will stick a few credits in to play as they wait, so the casinos set them as tight as they can because they know they’ll be played regardless.

Both of these bits of advice make some sense if you think about it, and I’m not going to completely dispute their validity. It is entirely possible there are slot managers out there who use thought processes like this when mapping out their slot floors and deciding on settings for machines. I doubt it’s done commonly enough for players to worry about following either piece of advice religiously, but I’m sure it happens from time to time.

Location is only one part of the puzzle when it comes to deciding how loose or tight to set a machine though, and it isn’t always the biggest part. More often than not, the denomination of the machine and the popularity of the game are at least as important as the machine location is, if not more so.

Managers also take into account the finances of the machine. Machines are either owned by the casino or, in some cases, are part of what is called a participation agreement.

In a participation agreement, the machine is owned by the manufacturer and is basically leased to the casino for a share of the profits. For the casino, a participation game represents less risk because they don’t have to buy the game up front with the hope it will perform well. It also means less reward because they have to share profits with a partner – the manufacturer. Because of this tradeoff, participation deals are usually only made on newer and unproven machines.

If a casino wants to realize a 5% hold on an owned machine, they just set it as close to a 95% payback as they can. On a participation machine, they must take into account the portion of the profits that will be paid to the manufacturer. This can be a flat fee or a percentage of the net win, and most percentage deals nowadays have a flat fee minimum payment that must be paid by the casino, preventing the casino from setting the machine too loose.

As a result of this profit sharing, participation machines are usually set tighter than owned machines. Unfortunately there’s no way for a player to tell which machines are owned by the casino and which aren’t, so this fact is of little use.

It’s also safe to say lower denomination games are traditionally set tighter than higher denominations. Video poker and keno players can easily see this simply by looking at the paytables on different denominations of the same game. The dollar Bonus Poker player will almost always get more for full houses and flushes than will the nickel Bonus Poker player, and the quarter keno player is usually much better off than the penny keno player when they hit 5-out-of-5, for instance.

The same can usually be said for slots, with higher denominations being set to a higher payback percentage. There’s no way to compare the complex paytables of most slot machines though, and few dollar slot machines are also available as nickel denominations anyway. Slots are anyone’s guess, but players can pretty safely bank on the fact that higher denominations pay back higher percentages. This is fairly universal in the industry.

And it is certainly possible some casinos set machines tighter or looser depending on location. For example, bar machines in Las Vegas Strip resorts are often set tighter than floor models simply because bar players get faster and more frequent drink service. Some machines with a view of a stage or within earshot of the nightclub might be set a little tighter to help pay for the entertainment, too.

The point here is many variables are taken into account by managers when setting hold and payback percentages on machines. Location often takes a back seat to denomination, popularity and the structure of any participation deal. When location is taken into account, it’s more often the finances of the location (like drink service or entertainment value) than it is the proximity to entrances or restroom facilities.

If you’re a video poker or keno player, a little time spent comparing paytables will tell you if the casino is using any of these variables to set certain machines tighter or looser than others. If you’re a slot player it’s mostly luck and guesswork anyway, but you might be well advised to keep away from those machines by the restrooms after all… just in case.

(Editor’s Note: Brad Fredella is general manager of Stetson’s Saloon and Casino in Henderson, Nev.)