Slot machines do produce jackpots

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This past weekend, I had a conversation with a guest at my home about whether or not the machines are rigged. For those who read my column, you know my take on this. I firmly believe that no casino game is rigged. 

I’m sure there are oddball instances where someone has tried, but on the whole, the games play exactly as advertised. My guest told me he once asked a friend who ran a casino (I believe on a cruise ship) the same question and he also answered that the games are not rigged. But I could see he was skeptical. 

That led me to ask him a question. “What is your definition of rigged?” His response was the player couldn’t win.

This began a conversation about overall game design, both table and machine. Yes, virtually every casino game has a house edge (certain variations of video poker being the lone exception). They are built specifically this way. I think I would know as I’ve helped build countless games for the table games half of the casino. I’ve never built one yet that has a player advantage. 

Some games have relatively small house advantages such as video poker, blackjack and Ultimate Texas Hold’em. Some have slightly larger house advantages, such as many other variations of video poker, Let It Ride and Three Card Poker. Some games have absolutely huge house advantages, such as Keno, numerous sidebets, many of the craps proposition bets and, of course, slot machines. 

None of these house advantages are accidental. By my definition, none of these are rigged. The closest to rigged, in my opinion, are slot machines because they are allowed to create near-misses on purpose and what you see is not what you get. But, in my mind, a rigged machine would make sure that a jackpot is never hit and that the machine could be purposefully set to run hot or cold on the command of the casino.

This is not what happens. The slot machines are very specifically programmed for a certain overall payback. To obtain this, all of the possible final outcomes are assigned a probability of occurring and a Random Number Generator decides which will show up when the player pulls the handle (or nowadays, presses the button). So long as the outcome is determined by the Random Number Generator in accordance with the approved specifications of the machine, to me it is not a rigged machine.

Further, we know that people do hit jackpots on slot machines. I can’t really explain why it seems to always be someone who has been playing for five minutes instead of five hours, but I’m guessing that really isn’t the case. It just seems like it because those are the stories we remember the most. 

If it seems most people are losing and we attempt to explain this by saying the machine is rigged, then we are ignoring the obvious mathematical fact. The longer one plays a negative game (one with a house advantage), the more likely the player is going to wind up losing. The more he plays, the more likely his overall play will result in a real payback that approximates the theoretical playback.

With an average payback of about 93% for slots, it won’t take long for him to wind up on the losing side of things, even if he is playing hotter than the machine is programmed for.

For the games with higher paybacks, regrettably, the same is still true. The only difference is that while he is “hot,” he may be on the winning side of things. 

This is the advantage to playing games with higher paybacks. That, and as you approach that theoretical payback you will still wind up having lost far less money than by playing games with lower paybacks.

That said, you have to remember, most games that give you better paybacks require you to learn the right strategy. Any deviation from the right strategy can only mean a decrease in the payback over the long haul. 

So, you can choose to play Blackjack Switch with its 99.5% payback, but if you don’t know when to switch hands and you don’t know when to hit/stick (which is vastly different than regular blackjack), then you may be playing a game only 95% based on how you are playing it. 

Slot machines completely remove this element of skill from play. The bad news is that the average payback is 93%. The good news is that no matter how “bad” you play, the payback will still average 93%. 

The fact that games have a house advantage does not mean they are rigged. No casino has ever claimed their games are all “even” where the player has as much chance of winning as he does losing. The fact that they offer games at 99.5-plus% and throw in some cash back is as good as we can do.

If, however, you believe the games are in some way rigged and either do not play the way they are supposed to, or that the casino can at will order a machine to pay or not pay to a particular player, I would ask you one simple question, “Why would you play at all if you think the games are rigged in this manner?”

Elliot Frome is a second generation gaming analyst and author. His math credits include Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Mississippi Stud, House Money and many other games. His website is www.gambatria.com. Contact Elliot at [email protected].

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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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