Video keno customers say slots are tightest ever

May 5, 2009 5:06 PM
Cluster Keno by L. J. Zahm |

Slot customers complain that taxable jackpots have disappeared

Over the past 20 years, I’ve played a lot of video keno in Las Vegas, usually at the "locals" casinos such as Arizona Charlie’s, Palace Station, Gold Coast and El Cortez, just to name a few.

Lately, I’ve been talking to casino workers – mostly cocktail servers whom I’ve known for years – about the health of the casinos, and what players are saying.

As you’d expect, they say that business is down, which properly reflects the depressed state of the economy and slowdown in consumer spending.

They also say that the biggest complaint of regular customers is that it has become nearly impossible nowadays to win, or at least win anything significant.

By "significant," I mean taxable jackpots of $1,200 or more, those that require the filing of a W-2G.

I have no reason to doubt what they’re saying. Over the past year or so, I’ve seen my W-2G production drop off as well.

Official slot revenue statistics, as compiled by the state’s Gaming Control Board, shed little light on this issue. Slot machines (including video poker, video keno, etc.) in Nevada are slightly tighter today than they have been historically, but only by a tiny margin, less than 1 percent from two years ago (although penny slots are quite a bit tighter).

However, aggregate slot revenue statistics don’t tell the complete story. They don’t indicate (although I wish they did) whether there’s been a significant drop-off in W-2G jackpots.

To me, this statistic would be revealing. That’s what we keno players shoot for, and it would be helpful to know if they’ve somehow dried up, for whatever reasons.

I’m sure other machine players would also like to know which machines dispense the most W2-G jackpots. Our paper has requested that information from the casinos, but they say those kinds of things are "proprietary" and not open to public dissemination.

Perhaps you can’t blame them. If the public knew, for instance, that 83 percent of all the taxable jackpots were paid on video poker machines – or video keno machines – or Wheel of Fortune machines – or whatever machine you mention, why would you want to play anything else?

Besides a breakdown of W-2G jackpots, statewide gaming statistics don’t reveal any changes in hit frequencies and other "cryptic" characteristics of slot machine payback.

Getting back to customer complaints of the machines no longer paying off, there might be an explanation: maybe the payouts have been altered so that there are a greater number of low-end payouts, and fewer top awards. We’ve actually seen this with the "bonus" keno games we’ve been discussing for the past few weeks in this column.

Specifically, the popular Cleopatra Keno, as well as Power Keno, Diamond Keno and Triple Power Keno, offer pay tables that are woefully below the payoffs of standard keno games.

For instance, hitting 7-out-of-7 on a standard keno machine (as well as on a Four Card Keno and 20-Card Keno machine) pays 7,000-for-1. Thus, a dollar bet is worth $7,000.

But on a Cleopatra Keno machine, that same dollar bet returns a paltry $500, which is doubled to $1,000 if you’re lucky enough to be in the game’s bonus round. Neither of which is enough to trigger a W-2G.

The numbers are equally as dismal for catching 8-out-of-9, which should pay $4,700 for a $1 bet. That jackpot is reduced to a mere $200 on the Cleopatra Keno game or $400 in the bonus round.

Apparently, the only way the casino (or manufacturer) can get away with offering such a low-paying jackpot table is by making it up with the small awards.

And that’s what they’ve done, at least in the case of Cleopatra Keno and the other "bonus" type keno games. Most of those games offer a 2-for-1 payback on hitting, say, 4-out-of-9, which normally returns only 1-for-1 on a regular keno machine.

That extra one credit may not sound like much, but considering how frequently the machine hits 4-out-of-9, it adds up enough to somehow balance the pathetic payoffs at the top levels.

Theoretically, the odds of catching 7-of-7 or 8-of-9 or any other keno award should be constant – Nevada gaming regulations require machines that duplicate "live" games (such as cards, dice and keno balls, for instance) to offer the same odds as their casino counterparts.

But what is apparent, at least with these "bonus" keno games, is that the payback can be altered to snuff out higher jackpots, while at least maintaining a relatively constant, overall payback percentage, which must meet a minimum amount, according to Nevada gaming law.

Could this be what’s going on throughout the slot industry?

We’ll continue next week with a closer look at gaming machines’ so-called random number generators and how they’re not really random, at least based on the opinions of some experts.

Question? Comment? E-mail me at: LJ Zahm