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By the time you read this, 2011 will have arrived and already be a few days old. Normally, I start the year by making my readers make a resolution to break the slot habit.

I recently read that as of two years ago, there are about 750,000 slot machines – which of course means slots and video poker (see last week’s column for how much this irks me!). I’ve been trying to find a breakdown on how many are true slots and how many are video poker, but so far haven’t been successful.

Based on my own experiences in the casino, I’m going to say that 20-30% is video poker. This means there’s no less than 500,000 slot machines in the casino. Staggering!

About a year ago, I had read a small column in The Economist that said researchers had performed some studies on how ‘near wins’ were processed by the human brain. Much to their surprise, the human reaction was almost identical to actual wins.

That’s not to say that hitting 7-7-7 is going to elicit the same reaction as bar-bar-orange. But, perhaps it gives us some insight into the popularity of slot machines. If near misses generate some sort of ‘rush’ akin to winning, then it’s no wonder people find the slots so alluring.

Now, all games have near misses. We’ve all held a single high card in video poker only to be dealt three additional parts of the royal and have the fifth card be something so useless so as to make you wonder if you were dealt an actual card.

There you are working on a spade royal and up comes the four of hearts! Maybe you’ve played Three Card Poker and revealed your cards slowly (to yourself). You see jack of diamonds, queen of diamonds… seven of hearts.

We’ve all had hands like these and they probably do make us want to try again. You were so close that maybe next time you’ll get the 10 of diamonds as your third card or you’ll hit that royal.

Let’s be real here. Most games have a win frequency of about 20-25 percent. In video poker, a high pair is just a push. If you’re winning one out of four or five and losing the other three or four, you’re probably not getting a lot of enjoyment.

If one or two of those losing hands were ‘so close’ to being a winner, and this pushes some buttons in your brain, then you’re going to keep coming back. Fortunately for the casinos, this is just the way random cards work.

But, slots are not random cards. In fact, they’re not even completely random. To be more accurate, the reels are not independently random from each other. If there are three reels and 20 symbols on each reel, in theory there are 8,000 possible combinations.

There is not an equal probability that each of these 8,000 will appear. In fact, many of them may be programmed to be completely impossible. Instead, when slot machines are programmed, it is pre-determined with what frequency each of these 8,000 combinations will occur.

The one that pays the big jackpot might be programmed for one in a million (or even more rare). The single ‘cherry’ paying two coins might come up five percent of the time. Orange-banana-pear may be programmed to never show up because it is such an obvious loser they don’t want the player to get discouraged.

In the meantime, bar-bar-plum may be programmed to show up five percent of the time too – even though it is as useless as the fruit salad. But it will make the player think – “darn, just missed.”

So, I guess if you want the adrenaline rush of an inordinate number of near wins (which is another word for a loss), while having very little chance of actually winning – you should stick with slots. If, on the other hand, you are interested in having an adrenaline rush from actually winning once in a while, you may want to break that slot habit.

For years, my father tried to get people into video poker – which I certainly agree with too – but I’m a bit more lenient. I’m totally fine with you moving over to many of the fine table game offerings the casino has as well.

Over the years, the paybacks of table games have been increasing, as has the complexity of the strategy of many of them. In the end, Expert Strategy can help you with your choices – know which games to play, know the right strategy and know what to expect.

There is no Expert Strategy for slots – except to avoid them at all costs. By the time I write this column for 2012, let’s try to bring down the number of true slots in the casino. Make your New Year resolution and break the slot habit.

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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