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When I tell people I help develop new games for the casino industry by doing the math behind them, I’m invariably asked if I work mostly on slot machines.

Ironically, I’ve never worked on the math behind slot machines. I try to explain that in my opinion slot math is among the easiest math in the casino.

Developing a casino game is really two parts. The first is the creative half, which determines the specifics of the game. The second part is the math behind the game, which can frequently cause some changes in the first part. This dependency mostly evaporates with slot machines. Virtually every slot machine is a clone of another game from a math perspective.

I’m a big fan of science fiction. So, if I wanted to invent a slot machine based on Star Trek, I merely need to come up with 20 to 30 symbols that are identified with the shows. Maybe I use the characters (Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, etc…) or I use the different shows (the original Star Trek and The Next Generation). It really doesn’t matter.

Most importantly, I simply have to decide what determines a winning hand. I list out all the winning hands on a spreadsheet. I add the amount each of these winning hands should pay. I then determine the frequency each of these hands occurs. I do a few simple computations and play with the numbers to get a payback to my liking and I’m done.

Now I’d like to create a slot machine based on Star Wars. I don’t need to change any of the numbers. I just simply need to swap out Mr. Spock for Hans Solo and Captain Kirk for Luke and I’m done. In theory, every single slot machine could be based on a single spreadsheet of probabilities and payouts.

How can this be done? Because essentially, slot machines are “rigged.” No, not in the cheating sense. They don’t know who’s playing, so it’s not like someone with a Player Card is going to lose and someone without one is going to win.

Nor can it tell the difference between a local and a tourist. When I say it is “rigged,” I mean that nothing about a slot machine conforms to the notion of what you see is what you get. When you spin the wheels, you may see more Captain Kirks than any other single symbol, but that doesn’t mean the probability of lining them up is any higher.

In that little spreadsheet I mentioned earlier, I need to list out all the losing hands, too. The slot could simply be programmed to randomly pick a losing hand a certain percent of the time, but what fun would that be?

Instead it is programmed to give you Captain Kirk, Captain Kirk, Tribble more times than you can count. Just for good measure there will be a Captain Kirk above or below that Tribble 50% of the time. Oh, you were so close to winning!

In reality, you were just as far away as if the screen showed, Klingon, Romulan and Ferengi!

To put it in more familiar terms, just because the screen showed you 7-7-orange with a 7 just below the orange doesn’t mean you were any closer to winning than if it showed Orange-Plum-Banana. If you kept drawing the fruit salad, you might get bored and leave. But by showing you 7-7-orange, you get a false sense that you just missed.

I would love to hear from those of you who are reading this column who continue to play slot machines. Why do you do this? The average slot machine in Las Vegas pays about 92.3%, which makes it about the worse play in the casino.

I suppose it is fun to sit down and play a slot machine with your favorite TV show on it, but is it really worth all you are losing? Wouldn’t it make more sense to learn to play video poker or blackjack and simply buy the complete series of your favorite show on Amazon with the money you’re saving?

Maybe Ballys and IGT should introduce video poker themed to TV shows and movies. They simply need to make the deck take on the theme of whatever show we are talking about. Imagine Batman Joker Poker where the Joker is the actual Joker from the show. Batman can be the King and Robin can be the Jack. Batwoman can be the Queen!

These characters won’t change the game any, which is what happens in the slot versions, too. Maybe we can get more people to give up slots and become video poker players if we simply put their favorite characters on the cards!

As we head into 2012, I don’t really care what gets you to break the slot habit, I simply implore you to do so. In the end, I think you’ll have a lot more fun and your wallet will definitely thank you!


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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