Slot results playing with our minds

Jul 16, 2013 3:00 AM

A few years ago, I wrote a column about a story I read in “The Economist” magazine. It described a study done testing the impact of near misses on a slot machine on the human brain.

What the researchers found out was that near misses generated almost an identical reaction in the brain as an actual win. So, if bar-bar-plum (a loser) can make the player feel almost as good as bar-bar-bar (a winner), all the manufacturers have to do is figure out how to make near misses show up a lot and players will feel like they are winning almost all the time.

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Fortunately, the regulations and the technology do not make this much of a challenge. Slot machines can legally be programmed to generate a disproportionate number of near misses relative to what might be considered random. So, while they might throw in some fruit salad once in a while as an ugly loser, most of your losses will appear to be “oh so close” to winners.

Now, a new study was released this week that says the bells and whistles used on slot machines make the player feel like he is winning even when he isn’t. The days of coins dropping out of the slot are virtually gone, so the casinos added sound effects to the machine.

When you used to hit a cherry, got two coins back and heard klink-klink, this was simply not the same as hearing 20 or 100 coins going klink-klink-klink. But, in the digital age, no one says the sound effect has to mimic the actual win. So, the casinos can have a simple 2-coin win sound a lot like a 10-coin win.

To prove the theory, the researchers had slot players play with sound and without sound. Those with sound had a stronger impression that they were winning, even when they weren’t.

While this latter concept can be used for video poker, it holds a little less water because in most varieties of vp there is no such thing as winning but really losing.

While many hands in video poker result in a push – which may feel like winning because your original wager is returned (i.e. Jacks or Better), there is generally no hand that returns only a portion of your original wager. With the new generation of slot machines it is not uncommon to wager dozens of coins.

Frequently, a win will result in getting only a fraction of your wager back. Did you really win? If you wager 20 coins and get back 5, is this a win or a loss? Admittedly, I am the first to argue that once you wager the money it is lost and any money you get back is a victory.

This seems much more applicable to table games where you play 30 to 40 hands/hour rather than a slot or video poker machine where you can play hundreds of hands per hour; and repeatedly wagering 20 and returning 5 can quickly wipe out your bankroll.

So, what is a player to do when faced with all of this psychological warfare used by the casinos? Ironically, you have to use your own type of science against them. The science of math. Yes, with the exception of some varieties of video poker, the math says in the long run you will lose.

I’ve written many times that you need to look at casino games as a form of entertainment. The question is, do you want your night of entertainment to cost $20-$40 or to cost $100-$200? I’m guessing you’ll get a lot more value for your money if you spend less money.

Most of the games in the casino are built to allow the player to win about a third of the time over a 3-hour session. This assumes you learn to play each game correctly and try to pick the right games/paytables to play.

While I strongly advocate for playing video poker, if you wind up playing a Jacks or Better that pays 6-5 (Full House/Flush), you’ll be playing a game that has a payback below 96% and your chances of winning will decrease considerably. In similar fashion, playing a full-pay game has limited value if you don’t learn the right strategy.

Casinos rely on these two factors for games like video poker. Slots have no strategy and inherently have lower paybacks, so they need to come up with ways to essentially fool the player into thinking he is doing better than he actually is.

Video poker doesn’t need to create artificial near misses. A deck of cards and a dealt hand do an amazing job of creating these in a natural random fashion.

To combat the near misses and the bells and whistles of the casino requires doing a little bit of homework to learn which games to play and to learn the right strategy for those games.

It requires some discipline to stick to those strategies and to seek out the right games. Math can be your rock to the casino’s “psychological warfare” scissors.

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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