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Would that jackpot have been mine?

21 July 2009

A number of years ago, I was playing video poker at the Stardust in Las Vegas. A gentleman next to me was having a tough time, going through three \$20 bills on a quarter game in nothing flat.

He decided to see if he could change his luck, so he moved down one machine to try again. A woman took his place. On her first hand, she drew a royal flush — about a 1 in 40,000 shot, but if you play enough, you see a lot of strange things happen.

Her excitement was balanced by her predecessor's disappointment. He groaned and said, "I should have stayed where I was."

Would he have drawn the royal had he stayed put? Probably not. His timing would have been just a little different than hers was, and that most likely have yielded different results.

Over the years, countless readers have asked about another player hitting "their" jackpot. Would the result have been the same if they'd just stayed put?

The latest to touch on the issue is Larry, a Colorado reader, who e-mailed that in a recent column, "you seemed to indicate that I could be sitting at a machine and leave when another player sits down and hits a good return. It seemed you were saying that that machine did not pay off, that it was based on play at all machines. I think you indicated that if I stayed, I would not have necessarily hit. Is this right, or did I misunderstand?"

Larry didn't quite have it right. Other machines have no effect on the reel combinations you see on a slot machine or the cards you're dealt on a video poker game. On the Class III electronic games we see in commercial casinos, each machine has its own random number generator, and it's the RNG that determines what you see on the reels. Play on other machines does not affect the outcome on yours.

The random number generator runs continuously, even when the machine is not in use. It runs through dozens of random numbers per second, each corresponding to a reel combination.

Every split second difference in your timing in starting the reels spinning takes the RNG to a different point, giving you a different result. The combination you see on the reels will be different if you hit the button ... now ... as opposed to ... now. If you stop to tip the cocktail waitress, or glance at your neighbor's machine, or count to "1" before hitting the button, you'll get a different result.

It's the same thing when another player takes a machine you just left. In the minutes or seconds between your stopping play and another player beginning, the random number generator keeps running. The numbers that correspond to the combinations you would have hit on the next few plays pass without ever seeing the light of screen. The new player has different timing, and different results.

Those results won't necessarily be better than yours, nor worse. Just different.

The odds are as long against the new player hitting the top jackpot as they were against you before you left. You're probably not going to see a successor win the big bucks. But if the outside chance of that happening bothers you, there's one sure way to avoid the sight: Leave that section of the casino when you change games. Don't even look. What happens after you're gone has no relationship to what happened while you were there.

** ** ** **

After I e-mailed Larry an answer to his question, he responded by writing, "This really says what gambling is: luck!"

With respect to slot machines, that's certainly true. There's nothing you can do to change the outcome on a slot game. The same goes for many table games, notably roulette. Past results on the wheel have no bearing on future outcomes, and whether you win or lose all comes down to chance.

Some casino games incorporate elements of skill. On electronic games, video poker is a game where strategy makes a difference. Elements of chance are very strong, and you can't control which cards are dealt. But in the long run, a player who knows when to hold 'em will do better than a player who doesn't.

On the tables, blackjack has several levels of skill. A player who knows basic strategy for hitting, standing, doubling down and splitting pairs will win more often than a player who doesn't. And a player who can count cards, raising and lowering wagers in accordance with the count, can actually get a mathematical edge over the house.

Skill makes a lesser difference in card games such as Caribbean Stud, Three Card Poker and Let It Ride. You'll do better if you learn basic strategies for those games, but skill doesn't make as large a difference as it does in blackjack.

Every casino game involves chance. Luck, if you will. But at certain games, a little skill and knowledge can help keep your bankroll intact.

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John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.