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They're So Sure!

26 March 2000

My flight from Phoenix to Atlanta had just taken off, and I'd had been chatting with my seatmate about blackjack and slot machines when the fellow sitting behind us chimed in with his two cents worth.

"I heard what you were saying about those slot machines being ready to hit and you're exactly right," my new "friend" said. "I know some people at the factory where they make them, and if a machine pays off too much, they just switch the computer chips so they don't."

Like most of us, I'm fond of hearing that I'm exactly right. Unfortunately, this fellow hadn't quite heard what I'd been saying and if true, his affirmation would have proven me exactly wrong. His two cents made no sense.

The whole discussion started when I learned the fellow in my row, Rich Lovejoy, was a hi-tech guy. He asked what I did and a discussion about the intersection of technology and gambling quickly ensued. I told him I'd recently heard some strange things about modern slot machines and the computer chips employed within them, things that ran counter to everything I had ever learned or intuited about slots.

I told Rich that I had just received a tip about a team which supposedly had been beating up on casinos regularly, by heavily tipping/bribing casino employees to check casino records and reveal which slots had not paid off recently. The "theory" (to which I most definitely do NOT yet subscribe) was simple. Because the machines were pre-set to pay back a certain percentage (let's say 94%), the team would find one that had been paying something less (let's say 84%), and then monopolize it until the "law of averages" caught up and the machine paid the "inevitable" 104% that would balance things out.

My eyebrows shot up so high they almost fell off the back of my head when I first heard this. It runs contrary to all scientific slot theory; while any number of purveyors of worthless information had taught their students theories like this, I'd never before heard it from a reliable source.

Modern slots employ computer chip random number generators (RNG's) which are programmed at the factory to hit at certain percentages over the long haul. This team's "theory" was that this percentage was carved in stone (or in this case silicon), and that a machine which had randomly fallen behind expectations would not-so-randomly know this and start paying back faster.

"Law of Averages" theories like this have caused the ruin of more gamblers than any other system, except possibly the suicidal Martingale "double up after losing bets" systems. Nonetheless, because computers and programmers were involved, rather than dice or roulette wheels, I tried to keep an open mind.

I asked my friend straight out: "Are you saying the RNG's are not accurately named, that they are not RANDOM number generators but have 'memory' which tells them to start paying more if they fall behind?" And he said yes, that's right.

I'm still FAR from convinced, and have some calls in to highly placed officials at various slot manufacturers. I'll have the correct answer for you soon enough. But what amused me was how certain the fellow in the row behind us was.

"Oh, yeah, absolutely, they just change the chips if the machines aren't paying enough," he said. WRONG. First of all, the computer chips represent a big portion of a slot's cost, and casinos aren't going to keep three or four different chips around for each slot; it would just be too expensive. Second, why would a casino change computer chips because it was taking in too much money on a slot machine?

My back row friend offered some other fascinating "theories."

"I play for comps, mostly," he said. "I'm not trying to win (cough), just trying to get the free stuff my wife likes. When I try to win, I play for 15 minutes, then quit. That's the only way you can win, 15 minutes at a time. I'm a big player and I know. I bet $500 a roll, which is the only way you can know anything about gambling. You can't know these things if you don't gamble real big. Those people who read books and bet small, they might as well just give the casinos their money."

It's a good thing I have a pretty good poker face, because my back-seat driver was proving to be a gold mine of misinformation, and I was pretty sure that if I laughed in his face I'd lose any more good quotes. Besides, I saw no need to insult a stranger whose intentions, at least, seemed good.

I was starting to feel like I'd wandered into a replay of National Lampoon's Las Vegas Vacation, a terrific movie for gamblers because Chevy Chase (as Clark Griswold) makes pretty much all of the classic gambling mistakes. They could re-name the movie "Things Not to Do In Las Vegas" and it would be a great educational video.

Those of you who've read Casino Gambling the Smart Way already know my strong beliefs about how risking big money just to earn comps is penny-wise and pound foolish; I won't repeat them here.

As to the next "theory," why would 15-minute sessions mean anything about your results? You play for 15 minutes, walk around, and then play for another 15 minutes? How do the cards or dice know you took a break? Life is one long session. There ARE good reasons to take occasional breaks: enjoying your win, avoiding "going on tilt" during a losing streak, gambling less. But there's no arbitrary number like 15 minutes or an hour and forty-three minutes which yields magical results.

I started wondering what would have happened if my back-seat friend had been confidently sharing his theories with a relative novice. Confidence is convincing; confidence sells. If I hadn't had 30 years of gambling experience telling me otherwise, I could easily have been led to believe I had stumbled into a gold mine of gambling secrets rather than a gold mine of comedic relief.

If you like gambling and talk about it with enough people, you will hear many such self-confident statements made by people who no doubt believe they know what's going on, and who are probably very sincere in their efforts to "help" you. Do yourself a favor. The next time you start hearing something from someone who hasn't written well-received books or hasn't won lots of money gambling, take the advice just as seriously as you would take brain surgery advice from Jethro Bodine, the idiot nephew on The Beverly Hillbillies. Smile and thank them politely, and remember that free advice is usually worth a lot less than you pay for it.

Andrew N.S. Glazer
Andrew N. S. Glazer was a blackjack, backgammon and poker pro whom Newsweek Magazine called a "poker scholar." He also was the weekly gaming columnist for The Detroit Free Press, and a regular contributor to Chance Magazine, and the top gaming information websites.

Books by Andrew N.S. Glazer:

Andrew N.S. Glazer
Andrew N. S. Glazer was a blackjack, backgammon and poker pro whom Newsweek Magazine called a "poker scholar." He also was the weekly gaming columnist for The Detroit Free Press, and a regular contributor to Chance Magazine, and the top gaming information websites.

Books by Andrew N.S. Glazer: