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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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What Secrets Do Slot Teams Know?

4 May 1998

A few weeks ago, I got buttonholed by a bloke who believes the casino bosses know - perhaps decide - when certain slot machines are ready to pay. And they clue-in their confederates.

"'Tain't so," I huffed. "'Tis so" he puffed, noting that every so often, teams take over a bank of slots and play until a member hits the jackpot, never letting an outsider get a machine. "Tell me they ain't doing it on inside info," he demanded.

They ain't. Crews occasionally commandeer carrousels of machines. And there's a logical reason. But it's unrelated to payday intelligence gained from casino personnel, mail order hot-slot detectors, or the like. It's information, open to anyone willing to do the arithmetic, involving edge shifting to the player.

When slot teams swoop in for the kill, the prey is invariably a group of video poker machines in a progressive link.

Why video poker? Because chances of winning combinations, from high pairs to royals or other jackpot hands, can be figured from the composition of the deck out of which cards are drawn. In reel-type slots, edge can't be calculated because the chances associated with winning sets of symbols aren't public knowledge.

Why progressive links? Because jackpots sometimes become high enough that the game has a theoretical payback above 100 percent, giving players an edge. Other than under special circumstances, a casino wouldn't set a fixed jackpot for over 100 percent payback since it would lose money on the game. Progressives, however, hold more than the normal amount from each solid citizen along the way, adding the excess to the jackpot. If the total reaches the point at which edge shifts to the player, the casino has long since made its money. And, the more rounds registered before the jackpot hits, the more the casino earns - even though the prize and corresponding edge for current contenders continue to grow.

As a simplified example showing how this works, picture an animal crackers machine with four successful combinations: cats, dogs, cows, and pigs. Say the chances of each are known - as they would be in video poker from the make-up of the deck. The returns associated with the winners will be displayed on the header board. Assume the figures are as follows:
winning chance of return
combination winning (%)

 

winning
combination
chance of
winning (%)
return
cats
20
1
dogs
15
2
cows
10
3
pigs
2
Progressive


To find the theoretical payback, multiply each chance of winning by the corresponding return and add the results. You'll deserve an A in algebra if you find the answer is 100 percent when pigs pay 10. The payback is under 100 percent - the machine has an edge - for less loot; it's over 100 percent - the player has an edge - for higher hauls.

When edge favors the players, the machines are no more poised to pay than usual. It's not the chance of scoring that rises and makes the expectation positive. It's the amount of the jackpot.

This has several unhappy implications for those who dream of teams. First, crews may run out of cash without copping the accumulated capital. Second, teams may put more into the machines than they recover even if participants bag the biggie. Third, unless every slot in a link is occupied by members, interlopers may hit the jackpot after teams have invested heavily in a game - at which point the edge shifts back to the house.

So slot teams aren't using inside information that machines are ready to roll over. Nor are they ensuring themselves a profit. They're applying the laws of probability to determine when they have an edge. And they're hoping for the best. A situation foreseen by the philosopher-poet, Sumner A Ingmark, when he wrote:


Many a loser to ruin is lured,
By the false promise of triumph assured.

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.