Nearly winning provides same thrill
June 13, 2017 2:30 AM
by Elliot Frome
Many years ago, I read an article that described a test run on humans with regards to gambling. The experiment was to determine exactly what in the human brain causes people to want to gamble.
This was not necessarily about problem gambling, but simply trying to figure out what chemical reactions happen that cause many people to get excited about winning. One of the surprises that came out of this study is the chemical reaction between winning and nearly winning was not that far apart.
This might make sense in real life situations. You and your friend are bowling and he beats you by four pins, and still you’re excited about it. After all, he might normally beat you by 30 pins, so you came oh so close to beating him. You’ll get him next time. Losing the World Series is undoubtedly a let down, but at some point many players must realize it was exciting to just get there.
But gambling would seem to be black and white. You either win or lose money (okay, sometimes you push, too!). I don’t recall ever being the least bit excited when my double down to a 20 lost to a dealer 21 – especially the type where he took five cards to get to 21!
But, what goes on in my brain when I hold a suited J-K and draw the 10-A of the same suit, along with a 7 of a different suit? Let’s face it, there is a little bit of a rush there. The cards are usually dealt too fast to truly allow the order to matter. Maybe the 7 came out first, but you see the 4-Card Royal Flush at the end and your brain thinks “just missed!”
It turns out it is this rush that makes people want to gamble. So, what was learned was not only the rush of winning but of nearly doing so keeps the player playing. I’m not sure which came first, the actual experiment or the general sense this was always true. But, slot machine designers seem to have known this for a long time.
From a gambling perspective, slot machines are assuredly random, but from a transparency standpoint, not as much. If you play a single spin or play for an hour on a slot machine, you are as likely to win as any other person. In that sense, it is completely random.
What is not so random is the specific way you will lose. There might be 20 symbols on each of three reels. In theory, this should mean 8,000 possible combinations (20 x 20 x 20). But, 75% (or more) of these combinations may never show up due to programming.
It’s completely legal and does not directly impact the likelihood of you winning or losing. After all, one losing hand is the same as the next, right? If 90% of all combinations are losers, do you really care which one it is? Your first reaction is probably – “nope.”
Your subconscious, however, disagrees. Getting three unrelated symbols that don’t pay much even if they bunch together does not register with your brain nearly as much as 7-7-Peach. Two 7’s! I almost won is what your brain screams.
Somewhere inside, a part of you figures you just need one more 7 to win big bucks – maybe next time. The problem is 7-7-Peach is set to come up far more often than Lemon-Lemon-Peach, even if the probability of each might appear to be the same. The slot designers know that 7-7-Peach keeps you at the machine, so that combination is programmed to occur far more often than 1 in 8000.
Video poker is not allowed to do the same. Nor, amazingly enough, is it necessary. No machine can purposefully deal out that suited 10-A to go with that suited J-K I mentioned earlier. But, it will happen a certain amount of the time. And since J-K, Q-K and J-Q all result in the same 4-Card Royal and there are three cards drawn, the 4-Card Royal will happen enough times to give that player that rush of the near miss.
Video poker machines must deal each card with the same probability as any other card. So, a loss is a loss is a loss, but you will get your appropriate number of Razgus(five cards that make a garbage hand).
Unlike slots, I could even tell you the exact probability that any and every hand will occur. It can be all calculated mathematically. This is what allows us to create a strategy for video poker and what makes video poker such an amazing game. You get your near miss rush just by the nature of a 52-card deck and the rank of hands. No artificial randomness needed!