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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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State Regulations Put the Lie to Slot Machine Myths

6 April 1998

People believe absurd things about slot machines. That they can be set to pay giant jackpots at specified times or after the casinos have accumulated certain amounts of money. That they run in hot and cold cycles. That they can be sent remote commands from secret control rooms, accessible only by the biggest and most trusted of the casino bosses. That they are programmed for small hits after strings of losses, to tease players into staying longer. That appropriate machines come up with winning symbols on upper paylines or option-buys when not enough coins have been bet for these to be in action. That insiders know when a bank of progressive machines is due to hit so they and their cronies can grab all the seats and pump in the coins until one of them wins.

None of this, or anything like it, is true. Not because it's impossible to design a machine that could do any or all of these things. But because the casino industry is closely regulated, the state gaming commissions prohibit any such shenanigans, and violations of the restrictions could result in the offenders being heavily fined or losing their valuable operating licenses.

Here are examples of the regulations governing slot machines in Nevada. They're not much different in other jurisdictions.

The authorities' primary concern is that slot machines function as games of chance. In particular, outcomes cannot be predetermined in any automatic or manual way. The umbrella regulation ensuring this condition is that the devices "must use a random selection process to determine the outcome of each play."

Under this rule, arrangements of "elements which produce winning or losing game outcomes must be available for random selection at the initiation of each play." If the machine represents real elements - such as cards in poker or blackjack, balls in keno, or dice in craps - "the mathematical probability of a symbol or other element" in the slot outcome and the actual game must be equal. An illustration would be that a standard deck of 52 cards contains four aces; the chance of an ace as the first card dealt in a poker hand, real or in a video implementation, is 4/52 or 7.7 percent. If the machine doesn't portray an actual situation, say it's a four-reel slot, "the probability of a symbol appearing at a position in any game outcome must be constant." Here's an example: if the odds against a star appearing on the second reel are 20-to-1, the value is fixed when the machine is certified and can't be changed without going through a new approval procedure.

Cycles and streaks are also covered by the regulation. The rule states that results of the random selection process "must not produce detectable patterns of game elements" and must not result in any recognizable "dependency upon previous game outcome, the amount wagered, or upon the style or method of play."

No modification of results after the initial random selection process is permitted, either. The rule stipulates that once an outcome is selected for a play, it is displayed directly. "The gaming device must not make a variable secondary decision which affects the result shown to the player."

Finally, the regulations prevent machines from artificially enforcing the law of averages. They can neither enter a hot mode - perhaps enabling or even scheduling a jackpot - after keeping too much money, nor go into a cold phase after paying out too much. This is achieved by forbidding "internal computation of the hold percentage" - the fraction of the money played that's kept by the house - then using such information to "alter pay tables or any function of the device."

Why do otherwise sophisticated solid citizens, folks who can carry two heaping platters to their tables at any casino buffet in town without dropping a single Swedish meatball on the floor, could hold such notions? Perhaps the poet laureate of the casino scene, Sumner A Ingmark, knew the answer when he wrote:


I believe what my eyes want to see,
And whate'er my fond hope wants to be,
When the experts proclaim otherwise,
It's 'cause someone pays them to tell lies.

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.