Sit and Spin

How slot machines give gamblers the business

An Aristocrat sales rep had told me earlier in the week that Mr. Cashman's appeal was that its bonus rounds were completely random—you never knew when Mr. Cashman himself was going to pop up and bestow a favor. And lo, on only my fifth spin a catchy digital crescendo announced that Mr. Cashman was about to visit me with one of those random bonuses. A smiling, anthropomorphic golden coin, part Pac-Man and part Planters peanut man, decked out in a top hat and tap shoes, danced onto my screen, superimposing himself on the video reels. He tipped his hat and then proceeded to "spin" two of my five reels for me, producing 40 bonus credits—the most amusing forty cents I have ever won.

I was hooked. As the reels spun to the sound of galloping hooves (go figure!), I was treated to a rat-a-tat of little but near-constant "winning" hits, returning eight, twenty, thirty credits at a time. (So that you can keep the ledg er straight: I was getting back eight, twenty, or thirty cents on bets of sixty cents—in other words, I was slowly losing.) When I turned up a bonus peacock after matching two 9s with a zebra, the machine seemed to pour out credits—hundreds of them. But it was harder to figure out exactly why I had won than it is to count the cards in a game of six-deck blackjack. No matter, I was having too much fun. After a full hour of play, five variously entertaining appearances by Mr. Cashman, and the occasional windfall, I had amassed 2,668 credits. Sated and delighted, I cashed out my $6.68 in winnings and felt like Donald Trump. It was infinitely more entertaining to play the quick-hit, low-payout Mr. Cashman than it was to labor over the parsimonious Megabucks and its elusive, if not totally illusory, multimillion-dollar jackpot. I loved Mr. Cashman. What more could I ask? I got plenty of TOD and six bucks in winnings.

This new generation of gambling machines has, predictably, produced a new generation of gambling addicts: not players who thrive on the adrenaline rush of a high-wager roll of the dice or turn of a card but, rather, zoned-out "escape" players who yearn for the smooth numbness produced by the endlessly spinning reels. Industry critics say that the lion's share of slot-machine profits come, also predictably, from a relatively small percentage of the players—the compulsive and the addicted. Gambling researchers describe these slot zombies as being fearful that another player will sit down on a neighboring stool and distract them by trying to talk to them.

In his Designing Casinos to Dominate the Competition, an exhaustive 600-page, eight-pound study of every major casino in Nevada, the former casino executive Bill Friedman recognizes the cocooning allure of machine gambling, implicitly arguing that the snugger and more isolating a casino space is, the more inviting it is to machine players. The most productive joints, he writes, are "segmented into ... separated gambling areas that ... create intimate playing settings." Never mind elaborate theme d cor. Friedman contends that the perfect gambling environment is a low-ceilinged, dimly lit maze of nooks and crannies that encourage players to curl up by themselves in front of their favorite machines, much as they do in front of the home TV—unmolested, unobserved, and entranced. Who fifty years ago would have figured that television was a gateway drug that would lead to gambling addiction? (Of course, it has also led to adolescent video games like Grand Theft Auto, which—in a sign of the times—some consider to be much more pernicious than mere gambling devices. Note that the former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed has lobbied for slot-machine interests, whereas Senator Hillary Clinton recently denounced the more prurient aspects of Grand Theft Auto.)

In this world of quiet but desperate gambling-machine dependence, video poker is the undisputed crack cocaine. Its rapid-fire reinforcement schedule (clinical jargon for fast pacing and frequent payoffs) is an accelerant to addiction. Experts say that whereas horse-race betting, for instance, can take ten or fifteen years to mature into a pathological addiction, getting hooked on video poker often takes only a few months. Around since 1978, and now making up about a quarter of gambling machines, video poker is alluring in that—unlike other gambling devices—it involves a measure of skill; you are playing live poker against a computer, and it actually matters which buttons you push. Since 1981, when the gambling theorist and poker master David Sklansky wrote an article in Casino and Sports outlining how an experienced and skillful player can gain a slight (very slight) odds advantage over the house, beating the machine has been an obsession for millions. However, since video poker is governed by RNGs set for paybacks similar to those of slot machines, the best even a topnotch gambler can achieve—playing computer perfect on the most generously set machine—is a less than one percent advantage.

In his straightforward Video Poker Optimum Play the retired computer expert and part-time poker-dealer instructor Dan Paymar starkly outlines the matter. "Suppose you're playing 600 hands per hour on a five-coin $1 Deuces Wild at 100.75% average payback," he says of one of the machines known to pay back more than they take in. "At five dollars per play, you're wagering $3,000 per hour. Over the long term, you can expect to gain an average of .75% of your wagers, or $22.50 per hour ..." In other words, if you are willing to risk $24,000 a day, "over the long term" you might make a little more than $150 a day. You might.

Wage slavery, by comparison, suddenly seems like a hell of a good deal.

If video poker is the crack cocaine of machines, then the Multi-Strike game is the mound of snow that Tony Montana sticks his face in at the end of Scarface. A few weeks after the Biloxi exhibition I played a session of Multi-Strike in a San Diego area Indian casino. A clever, rather insidious contraption, it lets the user play not one but four hands of poker each round, each hand paying odds twice as high as the previous. As with an arcade game, however, the player has to continue winning in order to advance. Get to the fourth hand and the payout is eight times as high as in the first hand.

I found myself immediately entranced by the digital music that accompanied my play. I could aurally "read" my progress—the musical riffs, and my level of tension, escalated one key each time I got bumped up to the next hand. I was finished piddling around. Playing twenty dollars per round, five bucks on each of the four hands dealt out, I harbored a certain giddy anticipation of making it to the fourth hand, hitting a royal flush, and bagging $32,000. The beauty of Multi-Strike, at least from the casino point of view, is that although it theoretically pays back the same as any other video-poker machine, its play is so complicated, there is so much happening on the screen, the betting must be so strategic, that it requires NASA-level concentration to play perfectly.

Several days before my Multi-Strike session I started reading a stack of articles and tip sheets on how to compete with its computerized brain. But within the first few minutes of real-life play I was hopelessly adrift, mesmerized by the complexity of decisions I had to make, distracted by the fetching music, confused by the differing strategies needed for each succeeding hand.

My reverie of a five-figure win faded quickly. No single round paid me more than $180 (against a $20 bet). After twenty minutes I walked away $400 poorer, with a pounding headache and a pain in my stomach. I might as well have blown through a pile of coke. But I wasn't about to go cold turkey. I knew instinctively the only effective antidote for such a foul mood: I needed a half hour of mindless entertainment with the smiling and much more generous Mr. Cashman.

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.
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