It was right here in Las Vegas, long ago, that I first realized the futility of gambling. I had never gambled at all before then. So, wandering through the blare and glare of a casino on my first night in town, I decided to take the plunge. I walked up to a slot machine, fished two quarters out of my pocket and dropped one in. I pulled the big crank handle on the side of the machine and the cylinders in the window began to spin. When they clicked to a halt I saw that I had won — nothing. Being a natural tightwad, this gave me pause. Nevertheless, I dropped my remaining quarter in and pulled the handle again. Click, click, click — nothing.
The lesson here seemed starkly obvious. I could also have learned it by pumping a hundred dollars' worth of quarters into a slot — there are people who do this — but for me, the loss of 50 cents seemed sufficient illustration of an ancient truth. I understand that gambling can be a lot of fun if you set a firm limit on what you're willing to lose, and get up and walk away when it's been reached. But I've always thought there are other ways to have fun that are more fun, or at least give a better return.
Slot machines may have the worst odds of any casino game — which is why they account for as much as 70 per cent of casino profits. (Blackjack and craps are said to offer the best odds, relatively speaking — the casino still has the edge, but a lesser one.) Back in the good old bad old days of the 1960s, when Las Vegas really could mount a claim to being Sin City — when cigar smoke hazed the high-stakes poker tables and strip clubs had no competition from the topless disco pool scenes at some of today's big hotels — slots were strictly an electro-mechanical affair: you really did have to pull that crank to set the tumblers spinning, and big wins were announced by an avalanche of coins clattering into a tray at the bottom of the machine. That's all changed now.
Today's slots are run by computers using Random Number Generator software. These programs control winning combinations by churning out thousands of random numbers every second. Thus, there is no longer (if there ever was) such a thing as a "hot" slot, or one that's primed to pay out simply because it's been a while since it last did so. The possibility of hitting a jackpot changes with every passing millisecond; and so when the person who sat down at the machine you just abandoned scores a big hit, that doesn't mean you would have scored it if you'd only stayed put. Slot machines are the epitome of dumb luck.
They do have to pay out occasionally, of course. But as Robert C. Hannum, a casino-math expert at the University of Denver, explained in an interview in the "Pittsburgh Tribune-Review" a few years ago, while low-paying combinations are programmed to hit with relative frequency — to keep the ever-hopeful player playing — the odds of scoring one of the casinos' loudly-ballyhooed giant jackpots can be on an order of millions to one. Which may be why, according to William N. Thompson, a professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas who has written extensively about gambling, the average slot machine can be expected to net at least $100,000 annually even after paying out all jackpots and other winnings.
Still, it's true that some slots are a little hotter than others. Nevada gaming law requires that machines be programmed to pay out at least 75 per cent of what players put into them. However, always seeking a competitive edge, casinos can and do use slots programmed to pay out as much as 90 per cent or even more. Finding these "loose" slots can be an expensive undertaking — they don't have signs on them. There's a popular notion that the loosest slots are often positioned near a casino's entrance. And a Website run by the Phoenician Casino tantalizingly suggests that patrons seek them out near change booths or casino snack bars (where the bells and whistles of a jackpot hit will serve to remind diners that they should gobble up and get back to gambling). A gaming staffer at the hotel where I'm staying says it's likely that there'll be at least one hot slot located in any bar area, and that the odds are good you'll find some at Vegas' McCarran Airport, too — a token of welcome for arriving fun-lovers, and a final fond memory for those departing.
While a lot has changed about Vegas slot culture, nothing has really changed. This morning I made what I'm pretty sure will be my last visit to a casino gaming floor. For research purposes, I took along a $10 bill that I felt comfortable about either setting afire or feeding into a slot machine. Today's slots are designed to accept bills in denominations ranging from $1 on up — "on up" being implicitly preferred. There are no more coin slot machines, and thus no more clattering coin showers whenever a combination hits. (Instead, there is now a tinny recording of that sound, which seems to me uncool somehow). There are no more crank handles on the sides of the machines, either; now you just hit a button to set the (video) cylinders rolling, thus hopefully triggering an obsessive-compulsive frenzy in the gambler that compels faster playing.
I changed my $10 bill into ones with a strolling casino change lady who seemed a little irritated by the small-timery of the transaction. Then I picked a slot at random — four plays for a dollar — and started sliding ones into it. I slapped the button 25 times without winning a thing. (There were a number of "near wins," as they're called — two matching symbols out of three — but as the programming of these is illegal, I'm sure they were just coincidences.) On my twenty-fifth hit, I won $1.25. Not in cash — the machine spits out a paper voucher, which, conveniently, can be fed right back in. I scored three more payout vouchers: one for $2.25, one for $2.75, one for $4.50, and one, rather ridiculously, for 25 cents. I kept feeding them back in.
The vouchers kept me going, although not in anything like a frenzy. Finally, after about 20 minutes, all I had left was the one for 25 cents. I slid it into the slot. Might I hit a winning combo one more time, if only for some piddling amount? Or maybe even score one of those out-of-the-blue jackpots you hear so much about? This is Vegas; anything's possible, right? I hit the button. The bars and cherries started to spin and blur. Then they slowed: click, click, click.
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