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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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If Slots Return 93 Percent, Why Does Everyone Lose Everything?

20 August 2001

Your favorite slots are most likely configured to pay back from 85 percent to over 99 percent of the money bet. The 'percent return' isn't a factor artificially adjusted by issuing win or lose edicts from time to time, or through some fickle facet of fate that enforces the law of averages. Rather, it's inherent in the payouts for and chances of various winning results. As a simplistic example, say a machine is designed with probabilities of 25 percent to return one unit, 15 percent two units, and 10 percent four units. Payback is 25x1 + 15x2 + 10x4 or 95 percent.

With high percentage returns, it's natural to wonder why almost everyone you know almost always loses almost everything. There are several reasons, actually. They overlap to a degree but can be understood in terms of math, psychology, and marketing.

Mathematically, recognize that slot return is based on aggregate wager, not money squeezed from fanny packs and fed into the machines. Make believe you bet $1 per spin and know from experience that $100 usually buys you two to three hours of play before dwindling away. What total would you bet during such a session? You might get six spins per minute, adding up to 360 spins per hour or 900 spins in two and a half hours. Therefore, you bet $900 gross and lost $100 net. In the fullness of time, on $900 bet, the house returned $800. Your "actual" return rate was therefore the $800 you got back during the game divided by the $900 you bet. This equals 88.89 percent. You recovered 88.89 percent and still went bust. But you're talking about winning 88.89 percent of one thing - your $900 total bet, and losing 100 percent of something else - your $100 starting stake.

The psychology is often confused with greed. Or compulsion. Or imprudence. In reality, it's not necessarily this negative. Legions of slot loyalists view gambling as an opportunity to venture money they can readily accumulate and won't be hurt by losing, on an admitted longshot at winning an amount they realize they'll never be able to cobble together any other way. They're not in the casino to shove $100 into a dream machine and quit with a $50, $100, or even $500 musing. They can always get their hands on this kind of capital by working, saving, or cutting back on pedicures. They're gambling on that $100 becoming college tuition for the grandchildren, a paid-off mortgage, or a carefree retirement double-wide. A $100 start accordingly presupposes recycling incidental profits, with any "actual" return below 100 percent consuming the C-note during a long-enough stint.

As for the marketing, solid citizens have voted overwhelmingly with their billfolds for big bonanza slots. Since chances of winning are minuscule anyway, why not go for serious gold? Those deluxe motor coaches aren't packed with players eager to risk $100 on a $500 prize that won't change their lives, let alone cover past losses. Companies where machines are made, casinos where they're played, and billboards where they're advertised offer what the public demands. It would be silly to do otherwise.

Given this market environment, think of what return percentage would mean were everyone to go for all or nothing. It doesn't work quite this way, but imagine a $100 machine with a $1,000 jackpot. One stab, and win $1,000 or lose $100. If, on the average, one person hit for every 11 $100 starters, the return would be $1,000 out of $1,100 or 90.9 percent. With a more seductive $10,000 jackpot, if one person hit for every 110 $100 hopefuls, the return would be $10,000 out of $11,000, also 90.9 percent. At $50,000, the numbers go to 550 players starting with a total of $55,000 and one who wins $50,000 for the same 90.9 return percentage. You get the drift. Higher jackpots mean fewer winners, whose fortunes are financed not by the casino bosses but by more losers.

So, it's not only possible but probable to start with $100, get back 90 or 95 percent, and finish with nothing. But, maybe that's what Sumner A Ingmark, the Bobby Burns of bettors, meant by:

When what may at first seem fiction,
Does not prove to be restriction,
An appropriate depiction,
May dispel the contradiction.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.