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.