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The misconception about how slot machines work is truly staggering.

Recently I had a conversation about the current generation of video slots with some friends. As I’ve stated many times before in my column, there seems to be near unanimous consensus that many of these video slots are so confusing even knowledgeable people can’t figure out when they won and lost.

This, in my opinion, takes away from whatever “fun” slots can be. It does not change their very nature.

One of my friends in this conversation remarked how with the older mechanical slots, at least you know what your chances are of getting a particular symbol! I had to explain to this person this was not the case at all!

While the new video slots may have 30 or 40 different symbols on a “reel,” and the older mechanical ones may have only 10 or 15, this doesn’t really change a thing about how they operate. It only gives them fewer combinations to show the player, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the odds of any particular set of symbols being the final “hand.”

Let me make sure everyone understands this completely. Let’s take an older mechanical slot that has 12 different symbols on it. For argument sake, let’s say they are Red 7, White 7, Blue 7, Triple Bar, Double Bar, Single Bar, Cherry, Plum, Orange, Lemon, Bell and space/nothing. If these symbols appear on each reel exactly once, there are 12 x 12 x 12 possible combinations of symbols, or 1,728 combinations.

Assuming each symbol appears with the same probability, you’d get three Red 7s on average once in 1,728 spins. Of course, you’d also get three oranges just as often, which makes it difficult to pay five for one and 1,000 for the other!

So, very quickly we learn the odds of each symbol appearing are not the same. Perhaps the Cherry is programmed (YES, even on mechanical slots) to appear 20 times more often than a Red 7. Well, this by itself is not very surprising.

Of course, since no one but the casino and/or the manufacturer know the specific programming, the player has no way of knowing what the odds of anything are.

But, it doesn’t stop there.

The symbols on the reels are not programmed independently. Rather, each of the 1,728 possible combinations is assigned a probability of occurring (many of the combinations may have zero chance of occurring). In this manner, the casino can control the result completely!

It is much more compelling for the player to get Bar, Bar, Plum instead of Plum, Bar, Bar. Once the player sees Plum, Bar he knows he has lost. But, with Bar, Bar his adrenaline starts pumping. When that Plum shows up, the sense of just barely missing is in full force and the player is compelled to try again because he “just barely missed!”

Yes, I’m saying what you think I’m saying. Near misses are programmed into slot machines. I read an article a couple of years ago in The Economist that discussed how scientific testing shows that near misses can trigger a similar neurological response to actually winning.

So, by feeding you all those near misses, the casino is almost tricking you into feeling like you won. Let me also be clear about another point. This is absolutely and completely legal.

In reality, playing a slot machine is no different than buying a lottery scratch off ticket. Whether you’ve won or lost is determined the moment you say “spin.” You’ll get a few wins. You’ll get some ugly losses. Mostly, you’ll get a lot of just barely missed.

When we compare this to video poker, we find out there is very little similarity. Yes, the five-card deal is determined the moment you say “deal,” but the probability of each card being dealt is the same as every other card.

From there, you have 32 different ways you can play the hand, and the resulting draw will be based on randomness. Each of the remaining 47 cards has the same probability as the others of showing up in the draw. Because of this, the “near misses” you get in video poker are not pre-determined, but rather part of the excitement of a five-card draw poker game.

This is just one of the many reasons my father, Lenny Frome, felt video poker should officially be declared America’s National Game of Chance. There’s nothing rigged about it. There are no purposeful near misses.

Everything about the game is known and offers high paybacks for those who learn the strategy required to play.

About the Author

Elliot Frome

Elliot Frome’s roots run deep into gaming theory and analysis. His father, Lenny, was a pioneer in developing video poker strategy in the 1980s and is credited with raising its popularity to dizzying heights. Elliot is a second generation gaming author and analyst with nearly 20 years of programming experience.

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