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Slot Machines

A casino gambling machine with three or more reels which spin when a button is pushed.

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The psychology is amazing...

  • Jun 23, 2010
  • by
In a casino, the only games worth playing are Blackjack and Poker - the first due to the state maintained between each round, unlike games such as roulette, and the latter due to the fact that the house doesn't take a cut and it's somewhat down to the skill of the players.

Slot machines, on the other hand, are mathematically even worse than playing Craps. The software on a slot machine in many jurisdictions is based purely on a random number generator, where the casino sets a payout ratio and the machine figures out the rest. For all the technical wizardry and graphics, the seed of each spin is random. This creates an immediate collision course between math and human psychology, so you see some interesting behaviors.

The first, and most prevalent behavior from what I've casually observed, is the belief in a machine being "hot". A sequence of payouts - just maybe two or three - creates the impression that the computer is ready to "pay out big", having hit some magical internal number. This is like the coin-toss experiment, where a coin is tossed fairly several times and each time lands on tails. When people are asked to bet after seeing this, they usually pick heads on the basis that the less dominant side needs to catch up somehow, regardless of the fact that there's no state between each toss. The same is true of the slot machine - it's not maintaining any state between each spin, and the sequence of wins is as random as the sequence of tails on the coin toss experiment.

The second, and possibly my favorite, is where a player has lost all of his or her money, and vulture-like slot jockeys leap at the machine as soon as they leave, believing that it's ready to pay having been fed. This is an extension of the first behavior, but again shows how people believe there is some secret logic or agenda to the machine's operation. It's completely disprovable in fact, since first you can find gaming code on the net that demonstrates the random element, and second comes back to the probability sequence problem.

In probability, if you have two outcomes - a win or a lose - the following sequences all have the same probability over ten games:


In the second sequence, it appears random, whereas all the rest seem to possess some other-worldly intelligence. Hence when you witness the final example above, it's would seem like the machine is ready to pay out.

Third on my list is the changing bet phenomenon. When people win, they tend to increase their bet on the next game, on the basis that they'll win bigger next time. But given the distribution of wins and losses, this only results in a faster loss for the player compared with a constant bet. It's the same issue with selecting more paylines, which is a common staple on most modern slots - the probability of winning isn't increased at all by playing more lines - you're just playing more games simultaneously and most often will lose your money more quickly.

Finally, there's the "bad accounting" factor. Given that many slots are set to pay between 70 and 102% of income, statistically it's really unlikely to make any money. But players blow through $20, $50 and $100 at various intervals, and when they win $500, conveniently forget that it cost them $1000 to get there - they only remember the last cash injection. This is key to the myth that keeps Vegas alive, since almost everyone knows a friend who won some kind of jackpot and the place clearly wouldn't be in business if all these people were net winners.

Of course, it's all fun really, providing you keep a handle on a your Probability 101 class and avoid the sticky superstitions that pervade gamblers. But at the end of the day, in a 70% payout ratio casino, you'll start with $100 and end up with roughly  $70 after some period of time. And as you replay and replay, and lose 30% session after session, you'll end up with nothing. It's software, it's math, it doesn't do anything other than calculate randomness and that, of course, fools everyone.

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June 30, 2010
Great review! I prefer blackjack. More social than slots, more relaxing than craps, and $20 can last a while.
June 29, 2010
Whoa, good to know!  I don't gamble very often at all, but when I do happen to be in a casino, slot machines are my go-to, only because I don't know how to play anything else :P  I always stop playing while I'm ahead though.  Thanks for sharing this review and that gaming code!
June 29, 2010
Thanks! I'm just lucky though, so none of this applies. :-)
More Slot Machines reviews
review by . September 03, 2009
Slot Machine
Some people really like to play the slots. When visiting a casino, I am always struck by the solitary gamblers sitting in front of these machines looking slightly mesmerized. I myself have never been a fan. I did enjoy the noises and lights that contributed to the background ambiance in a casino, but actually playing them has little appeal. I like casino gambling, but it is the social element that makes it so fun. Sitting with friends (or even strangers) at a blackjack or craps table is infinitely …
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James Beswick ()
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About this game


A slot machine (American English), fruit machine (British English), poker machine (Australian English) or simply slot (American English) is a casino gambling machine with three or more reels which spin when a button is pushed. Slot machines are also known as one-armed bandits because slot machines were originally operated by a lever on the side of the machine (the one arm) instead of a button on the front panel, and because of their ability to leave the gamer penniless. Many modern machines still have a legacy lever in addition to the button.

Slot machines include a currency detector that validates the coin or money inserted to play. The machine pays off based on patterns of symbols visible on the front of the machine when it stops. Modern computer technology has resulted in many variations on the slot machine concept. Slot machines are the most popular gambling method in casinos and constitute about 70 percent of the average casino's income. It is estimated that thirty percent or more of the profits from gambling machines come from problem gamblers.
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