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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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The New Nickel Slots Give You Some Strategic Options

6 March 2002

Nickel slot machines are the hottest new wrinkles in the casinos. If your friendly neighborhood gambling joint hasn't already refurbished a whole gallery for these li'l devils, it presumably has construction underway or blueprints on the drawing boards. And, not a musky corner with tattered carpets where they squeeze the last ounce of blood from the great unwashed and other low rollers. You'll find nickel slots in elegant salons, fit for fine folks who are close personal friends of their favorite hosts.

Slot buffs not yet in the know about novo-nickel niceties may doubt the very idea of upscale ambience for downsized wagers. The change follows from computers and video screens that let solid citizens preload credits by feeding in folding money and betting as much, in typical versions, as 10 coins on each of nine play lines. That's 90 times five cents, or $4.50 a pop. It's therefore true that patrons can wile away the hours in posh punting parlors on small bankrolls at a nickel a spin (a rate at which the bosses can't earn enough to buy their silk suits). But few bettors do.

Another factor helps make these machines attractive. Think about multi-coin play on traditional slots. On the models you probably prefer, the chance of a hit isn't affected by how much you bet. Just the amount you win. With one coin, 3-for-1 gets you three; with two coins, it gets you six. Lines on the new nickel devices, by and large, are independent. You might risk one coin on each of nine lines, winning three and losing six. This round might yield a net profit, a push, or a loss, depending on what the three wins return. But even if you pick up four units and drop six, losing a net of two, the machine flashes "winner! winner!" and increments your credit meter. Voila! The illusion that you've scored.

Sure, you can go whole hog on the nickel slots and bet $4.50 every try. Then you won't kick yourself when a line you skipped would have paid off royally. And you'll earn whatever bonus goes with a maxi-coin jackpot on one or a combination of your lines. But, barring some remarkable luck, a stake that experience tells you will buy a day of action on a two-coin quarter machine at $0.50 will evaporate quickly at $4.50. Undoubtedly leaving you wondering how you can win almost every round and still go broke.

It would make more sense to bet less. Say, roughly the same total per spin you found comfortable on the ho-hum machines you once considered the cat's meow. You're then faced with a choice between concentrating more money on fewer lines, or the converse.

To keep the comparison straightforward while bracketing the possibilities, consider a nickel on each of nine lines versus half a buck on one line. The slightly different totals, $0.45 and $0.50, have a minor impact on your prospects. The real contrast involves the swings you can expect your bankroll to undergo during a session with nine separate low bets as opposed to one high wager. Here, the approaches diverge markedly.

No single parameter characterizes all nickel slots because even machines that look identical can be set up differently. As a good rule of thumb, though, estimate that the bankroll fluctuations betting 10 coins on one line will be three to four times greater than those with one coin on each of nine lines.

The classic gambling dilemma holds. You'd prefer small swings when the game is running cold, big jumps when it's sizzling, but can't have it both ways. With the alternatives given, spreading rather than concentrating the money will make the same bankroll last three to four times as long when fate is frowning on your fight, but will earn only a third to a quarter as much when fortune is favoring your future. Another way to picture the give 'n take is that spreading offers a three or four times better chance of winning a third or fourth as much, or vice versa.

Players aware of the trade-offs can choose betting strategies on these machines that match their gambling goals. While keeping in mind, of course, this caveat from the poet Sumner A Ingmark:

Man-made systems have their quirks,
Nothing real always works.

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.