Sit and Spin

How slot machines give gamblers the business

Now that the casinos have you betting more than ever, two other questions arise: First, what will be the machine's payback percentage—that is, how much will the casino keep of every dollar you play? And second, with what frequency will the machine pay off your portion? There's no guesswork involved in these formulas, and certainly no "luck." Nowadays every machine on every casino floor in America is a sophisticated, powerful digital processor whose outcomes and paybacks are quite precisely determined long before any player walks up to play. "It's true," writes Frank Legato, the author of How to Win Millions Playing Slot Machines!... or Lose Trying, who—despite the title of his book—knocks down every hoary myth about how to win at slots. "Regardless of which mechanical apparatus is added; regardless of how many funny cartoons there are; regardless of whether they play the song from a TV show, give the player a board game to play, play the overture from Les Misérables, or get down on one knee and sing 'Mammy,' all modern slot machines are computers."

And at the steely, unforgiving heart of every device clicks an ultra-fast silicon-age random-number generator, or RNG. Each and every second, even when the machine is otherwise idle, the RNG and its elaborate software cycle through a mind-twisting 200 million numbers. When a player drops in the first coin and pushes the "spin" button or pulls the lever, one of those numbers is frozen and is instantly communicated to the spinning reels, whether they be mechanical or virtual. The alignment of cherries, pears, carrots, Tabasco bottles, and singing bunnies is merely a visual representation of the predetermined outcome.

By law each RNG is preset to pay back to players a certain percentage of the money taken in. In Atlantic City there's an 83 percent minimum payback (or a 17 percent "hold" for the casino, if you prefer). In Nevada it's 75 percent. But most casinos set their machines in the low-to-mid 90s. A 90 percent payback may sound generous, but, as Legato points out, even a machine that paid back 100 percent—over the long run—would be a "break even" machine, offering players as much chance to lose as to win.

And "the long run" is a very long run—namely, infinity. Marten Jensen, the so-called "Doctor of Gambling," points out in his Beat the Slots that even an apparently low-stakes slot session can chew right through a hefty bankroll. Jensen calculates that playing only 25 cents per spin on a machine with a 90 percent payback will cost a gambler $12 an hour. Play the more common bet nowadays of $5 a spin and the average loss will be $240 an hour. Any wonder that dollar-slot players who roll up to the casinos in their RVs are treated with the same deference once granted to C-note-betting blackjack enthusiasts?

There is no way to gain an edge on slot machines—no possible strategy for beating them other than simply not playing them. So-called "hot" and "cold" machines are simply a fantasy of suckers. The only real choice a player has—over the long run—is how to lose his or her money.

Slot-machine makers offer two basic choices—though they're hardly advertised. You can choose either a "low hit frequency" machine, which pays off infrequently but pays off big (sometimes with what are called "life-changing" jackpots), or a "high hit frequency" machine, which almost constantly trickles back part of what you put in but offers little chance of a big payoff. In other words, you can play a boring machine with the slim chance of getting rich, or have some fun with almost no chance of wealth.

Inside MGM-Mirage's Beau Rivage casino, on the now ravaged Biloxi shoreline, I had a nasty encounter with the ultimate low-hit-frequency machine, one with an elusive, life-changing score: Megabucks, made by the industry giant International Game Technology, of Reno, Nevada. A raging national success, Megabucks machines are linked by network in order to pool payoffs in always increasing mega-jackpots. The night I played at Beau Rivage, the jackpot was more than $3.2 million—very much like a state lottery with a "spin" button attached. I fed just one $20 bill into the Megabucks slot. Unwilling to play at the $3 level required to win the mega-jackpot, I chose to play two nickels on each of the twelve available pay lines, a relatively modest $1.20 bet per spin. Sitting at the machine, with its fifteen buttons on the console and its five whirring video columns on the computer screen, I felt as if I were trying to fly a small helicopter. An odd combination of symbols blurred before me with each spin—cherries and grapes and pears were mixed in with Rolex watches, cameras, and passports, suggesting some sort of fantasy journey to a foreign fruit orchard—and each spin was punctuated with a short, dramatic musical riff. A fast grind it was, very fast: my twenty bucks disappeared in exactly four and a half minutes of play.

Enough. I downgraded the challenge to finding a machine that would simply be fun to play and, yes, would offer me some extended TOD.

I searched the Beau Rivage for a more generous RNG, one of those high-hit-frequency machines intended to rekindle the fire in my Boomer soul. I settled on Mr. Cashman, a machine built by Aristocrat Technologies, of Sydney, Australia. Here was the opposite of the Megabucks machine. Mr. Cashman promised low jackpots but plenty of action, and an almost certain dribble of partial payback. I must, however, disclose my extreme initial disdain. I m not squeamish about gambling. Rather, I m a gambling snob. I pride myself on being a fairly accomplished blackjack player, one who relies on skill and strategy, and Mr. Cashman seemed to be about the most infantile, intellectually insulting device I had ever seen. Its five video reels featured primitively rendered zebras, rhinos, and lions mixed in with leopard-skin-covered block letters. The whole thing looked like a digital kindergarten phonetics workbook.

It was one of those new "penny" machines that allowed a play of 500 credits per spin—a crudely disguised and ultimately bankroll-busting $5 machine. Refusing to be completely suckered, I played a miserly sixty cents per spin, hoping to make my $20 buy-in last beyond a few minutes.

Presented by

Marc Cooper is a contributing editor of The Nation, a columnist for LA Weekly, and a senior fellow at the Institute for Justice and Journalism at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His most recent book is The Last Honest Place in America: Paradise and Perdition in the New Las Vegas.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In