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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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On the Slots, Avoid the Trap of the Small Bet and Next Pull

1 October 1996

Slot machines are captivating to cadres of solid citizens. The allure is that pocket change can buy a limo ride to Easy Street, and that a win is as apt to appear on the next try as any other.

Gaming gurus often counsel coin-droppers about the slots which shave the casino's edge. But the punting public rarely responds. Few folks fret over exact expectations of making money. Or over precise percentages of bets the internal computers are set to let the casinos keep. Most only care about the cost of betting the bonus-busting maximum number of coins and the size of the prize.

So slot players don't generally split hairs, say, between slots offering 499,999-to-1 odds against $100,000 jackpots for $0.75 bets and holding 12 percent, and units offering 749,999-to-1 odds against $250,000 jackpots for $3 bets and holding only 8 percent. Four factors complicate such comparisons, anyway. 1) Combinations of parameters are mind-boggling. 2) Machine performance profiles are usually more sensitive to numbers, amounts, and chances of intermediate payoffs than to jackpot characteristics. 3) Results are highly skewed so statistics, which are based on large samples, don't reliably anticipate specific returns even for frequent players. 4) Because jackpots are astronomical for bets players consider trivial, few people perceive much penalty for "taking a shot," notwithstanding odds or edge.

Many players of traditional table games thrive on distinctions like $15 on the pass line at craps versus $5 on the line with $10 odds, or hitting versus doubling on nine against a six at blackjack. Such alternatives win or lose different amounts under the same circumstances. And, even during relatively short sessions, one option is likely to prove far better than the other. But slot stuffers, by and large, don't want to be flustered by anything as philosophical as facts. You have a hunch you're going to win because you found a nickel by the tree where Fido was sniffing when you took him out that morning. So, why sweat technicalities like statistical average, fluctuation, and skew?

Slot players I meet seem to visit casinos with bankrolls set aside for entertainment, wanting to spend time investing the money in a chance for a big return. They usually lose it all in the quest. But the cash buys them an unparalleled leisure experience. This is no spectacle viewed vicariously from the sofa or the sidelines. It's real. Risk and reward. Agony and ecstasy. Defeat and victory. From the inside, not the outside looking in.

There's a trap, though. A snare into which a small fraction of casino-goers fall and near which others venture precariously.

Players are drawn to the trap by the wee wager needed for the giant jackpot. Nobody makes only one bet, though. So, we're not talking three coins in a quarter machine, a mere $0.75, to win $100,000. It's $25, $50, $500, or more at risk. A sum which may not be paltry when pitted against almost no chance at big bucks.

Players are held in the trap by the idea that a jackpot may be just a pull away. Regardless of how low a bankroll falls, one more try could represent not only recovery but riches. And, it seems downright un-American to quit with a piddling profit when a big score is impending. This reasoning creates incentive to go just a bit longer, then longer yet. True, a winning combination is as likely to appear on the next bet as any other. Still, the likelihood is minuscule. Any hand at video poker might be a royal flush; the odds against it are 649,739-to-1. Any hand might also be an ascending sequential royal in spades paying a bonus on top of the jackpot; the odds against it are 311,875,119-to-1.

Understanding odds and percentages can help players cautiously gravitate toward the gold. Understanding the trap can help keep them from frantically pursuing pots of pyrites. Both are useful. Which is moreso? Sumner A Ingmark, the bard of the one-arm bandits, answered thus:

Whenever I'm near the slots and stop,
I figure the odds then coins I drop.
Resolved that whene'er my bankroll's gone,
I won't get way down a spiral drawn.

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.