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Just how 'random' is it?

Apr 29, 2008 7:10 PM

Cluster Keno by L. J. Zahm | Our discussion last week about the keno machines’ payback percentage drew a number of comments from readers.

One reader wrote that, he has learned through discussions with experts that a machine "will pay a jackpot only after a certain amount of money is held. There is no randomness whatsoever."

Another reader said he believed keno games work similar to stepper slots, in which a computer picks the game’s outcome then proceeds to line up the reels to reflect its choice.

"You seem to theorize that keno machines are more like slot machines and have a random number generator … (and) I believe that when the RNG has selected a particular winning payoff that it will post the winning numbers to create that payoff and find those number of numbers as they can be anywhere and not clustered."

In other words, I surmise, the computer chip or program randomly determines an outcome (two cherries, one seven, all blanks, two bars, etc.) and then "sets" the reels to reflect that outcome.

This would seem to defy normal probabilities or the notion of "random" outcomes. But if the keno game were just an output device for a computer program similar to a slot program, it would make perfect sense.

One of the most technical explanations of how a video keno game works was delivered to me from someone who claims to have received the information from a former technician of a major slot manufacturer.

Now, I don’t endorse this explanation or suggest that it is a true reflection of how keno machines work. But I thought it might prove interesting, if not worthwhile, to this discussion. Here is the explanation, in his own words:

These machines are designed and programmed to do one thing. Pay the house a certain pre-determined percentage of every dollar gambled, and I have been assured that if the machine has not registered enough intake of money to enable it to pay out a major jackpot, it will not hit no matter how many times or how often you re-set your numbers. These machines have a three-phase program written into them.

Phase one … there isn’t enough money to pay a jackpot. This is when the machine will somehow manage to miss your numbers most of the time, hitting small pays just often enough to keep the "it’s due" type of player feeding it.

Phase two is the real kicker. When the machine has enough money to pay out a jackpot without hurting the house "hold" it actually switches over to a second program that is truly run via a random number generator. At this point the machine is actually running an honest RNG program, and your numbers may or may not hit depending on how lucky you are. This is when your true odds of hitting a jackpot based on the number of spots picked come into play. The more numbers picked, the longer the odds. (One note here: Almost all these machines except those connected to a progressive jackpot, pay the same maximum jackpot for an eight, nine or 10 spot. So why play a 10 spot when an 8 spot pays the same and your odds of hitting one are much better?)

The third phase programmed into the game is the one you hope you’re lucky enough to have running when you put your money in and pick your numbers. Everyone from the Gaming Control Board to the manufacturer will deny this even under the pain of death, but just remember it is a computer and it can be programmed to do anything you want it to do. And it is the only way that a machine manufacturer can guarantee the house that they will make their percentage in profit. When these machines switch over to the third tier of the program, it reads that the machine is holding far in excess of what it is programmed to earn for the house, usually from 15 percent to 18 percent. It’s just way too close to the maximum 25 percent hold mandated by state gaming regulations. Now it doesn’t matter what numbers you pick, they are going to hit!

Interesting stuff, wouldn’t you say? Beyond that, I don’t have a clue whether this is an accurate explanation of a video keno program. And, of course, the game manufacturers aren’t talking.

At this point and for our purposes, it doesn’t matter. What’s important is playing the game a certain way, which hopefully results in some nice payoffs.

Perhaps the issue is the definition of "random." But then we enter the Bill Clinton-like realm in which he debated the definition of "is."

We’ll stay away from that slippery slope.