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Ask the Slot Expert: Did the Mississippi Gaming Commission allow returns on slots to be changed after Katrina?

10 June 2020

Question: We gamble in the Mississippi/Louisiana area, mainly the Beau Rivage and Golden Nugget Lake Charles. Have comped rooms at both places till the end of June, that's great but.....

Wondering if the odds of return will change on High Limit machines, or any machines, because of such a long shut down. Helping the casinos regain lost revenue. Also is there any truth to the rumor that the Mississippi Gaming Commission allowed returns on slots to be changed after Katrina?

Answer: In past weeks I've talked about how I expect to see emails saying that slot paybacks have been lowered to make up for the months that the casinos were closed. The expectation is based on past experience. Every time a casino experiences some hardship, some players are sure that the casino has tightened its slots to make up for it.

The answer to your question about the Mississippi Gaming Commission is: not really. The statutes enabling gaming set the minimum and maximum payouts for slot machines. The commission just ensures that the paybacks on all machines in its jurisdiction fall into that range. Gaming commissions in general leave it up to individual casinos to determine the holds on their slot floors.

Under normal circumstances, a casino typically has to balance the books on a machine before changing its payback or removing it from the slot floor. I don't know what the procedure was to reconcile the many machines that ended up in the Gulf of Mexico after the hurricane.

When a casino wants to change the hold on its slot floor, it does it over time. The casino replaces machines that leave the slot floor with new machines that follow the new hold philosophy. After Katrina, almost all of the machines in the coastal casinos were damaged beyond repair by the storm surge. Casinos had to order new machines. They were able to replace their old machines with new ones all at once. If they wanted to change their holds, they could do it now.

So the answer is not really. The commission may have had to approve the replacement of a 5% hold machine with a 5.25% hold machine, but it was really approving the replacement, not the change in hold.

You can find historical reports on the Mississippi Gaming Commission's website. I looked at the Slot Win Percentages reports from July 2005 and July 2006. The overall win percentage for the Central Region actually fell from 6.75% to 6.46%. I don't think that small a change indicates any change in hold percentages, especially because the win percentages by denomination are pretty much the same.

The Coastal Region was much harder hit. The overall win percentage there increased from 5.93% to 7.17%. The win percentages increased for all denominations except $5 Progressive. The percentages increased by over one percentage point on dollar machines (4.23% to 5.68%) and almost one point on five-dollar machines (3.59% to 4.48%).

The number of machines went from 17,366 to 5,296, the coin-in fell from 1,407,272,261 to 867,537,926, and the win decreased from 83,388,688 to 62,278,231. One-third the number of machines received more than half the coin-in from the prior year and won about 80% of the prior win.

There is a lot of noise in this data. Clearly, not all of the casinos had reopened a year later. Some may never have reopened at all. I checked the month of July for 2007 through 2009. The number of machines rebounded to about 15,000 and the win percentage was about 7% except for July 2007, when it was 6.5%.

It does appear that the machines in the Coastal Region got a bit less generous after Katrina. The casinos were probably going to increase the hold on their slot floors anyway, but the mass replacement necessitated by the hurricane gave them the opportunity to do it in one fell swoop. In any case, the paybacks on the new machines were well within the statutory limits. The casinos are free to set their own marketing strategies within those limits. The gaming commission wouldn't have had to specifically allow returns to be changed.

Some casinos in Las Vegas have reopened. I sat out the first day, Thursday, but I received a report from a friend. She said that the two casinos she went to were both fairly crowded. I went out Friday morning. I was pleasantly surprised that the two casinos I visited, Red Rock and Suncoast, were both fairly empty.

Procedures at both casinos were almost identical, which isn't a surprise since the Nevada Gaming Commission issued guidelines for reopening and had to approve each casino's reopening plans. Both casinos did a temperature check (mandatory), but only Suncoast asked me if I had experienced any symptoms in the past few days.

After I passed the temperature check at Suncoast, I asked the guard at the thermal scanner if I could get some wallet-sized glossies. He said that they were just taking my temperature, not my picture. I was probably not the first person who tried to make that joke.

Both casinos followed the mandates to encourage guests to wear masks and to provide masks to guests who want them.

The guidelines allowed all machines to be operational, but the casinos had to remove half the slot chairs. A post on a message board said that not disabling every other machine defeated the purpose of distancing. Keeping all of the machines active, however, makes it possible for players to be able to play their favorite machines as long as another player isn't too near. It also makes it possible for players within the same bubble, like spouses, to play next to each other. If a security guard sees two players too close together, the guard is supposed to ask if they are together and then request that one person move if they are not. A player posted that someone was playing the middle machine in bank of three (which is not a polite thing to do with distancing in effect), so he sat down at an end machine. A guard came over, asked them if they were together, and then had the guy in the middle move to an end machine. If they weren't together, the guard said, there had to be a machine between them.

Red Rock removed some of their positive expectation video poker machines near an entrance. All of the machines in that area were removed to make room for a temperature check queue. Red Rock had removed some of the positive machines a few months ago. While these newly removed machines may have been removed eventually anyway, their removal now probably has more to do with needing the room for the temperature check than downgrading the video poker offerings. We'll have a better idea which if the machines reappear when the area goes back to machines or if they reappear somewhere else on the slot floor. Maybe they were innocent bystanders or maybe this gave Red Rock a reason to push ahead their removal.

All of the NSU machines I usually play were still at both casinos, so I didn't notice an adverse change in video poker inventory.

Not so lucky with the slot clubs, however. Station Casinos, Red Rock's parent, followed Boyd's lead and doubled the dollars per point on video poker from $1 to $2. We were able to guess that was going to happen because the calendar in the mail showed every day in June has a multiplier. The more frequent multiplier is 3x slots 6x vp (Hmm, vp higher than slots?) and the days with a bonus multiplier are all 10x all games. The 3x/6x was a clear indication that the dollars per point were doubled on video poker.

Positive expectation players really lose out. They go from $12 to point to no points whatsoever.

Tier credits still accrue at $1 per credit. Stations used to have 3x points every day, so if 3x/6x becomes the new standard, the only downgrade in the club that affects me will be the bonus multiplier on video poker going from 6x to, effectively, 5x -- which is something Stations tried to do a few months ago before it reverted to 6x. Maybe Stations is hoping it can sneak 5x back in this way.

Both casinos had extra hand sanitizer stations or wipe dispensers. I saw multiple employees at Red Rock sanitizing machines. It was gift day at Red Rock. I thought gifts might go the way of the buffets for the time being because gift giveaways encourage people to spend time in a line. I wasn't planning on picking up the gift, especially after I saw the line of people not socially distancing going towards the buffet, where Red Rock distributes gifts now. There was no one in line when I was ready to leave, so I was able to pick up a nice set of three small glass food storage containers.

Suncoast was busy too. All of the machines had brand new card readers with full color displays. The new system requires a few extra steps to redeem free play or points for free play and the displays show session points instead of total points earned that day. They seem to have set the timeout a little too low. My card went invalid near the end of a bonus round that was not particularly long.

In my unscientific geusstimate, I'd say that 75% of the players wore masks. Everyone at the machines were following the distancing guidelines.

All in all, I thought the casinos did everything they were required to do but not everything they could have done to reduce the risk of infection for guests and employees.

News reports today (June 9) say that Nevada has seen an upward trend in the number of new cases for the past two weeks. This upward trend coincides with increased testing, so some part of the increase is merely due to performing more tests. Hospitalizations have increased for the fourth day in a row. That statistic, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the number of tests performed.

We always knew that the number of new cases per day would increase once restrictions were relaxed. The goal of flattening the curve was to ensure the hospitals were not overwhelmed.

A recent article in The New York Times ('Cruise Ships on Land': As Las Vegas Reopens, a Huge Test for Casinos) described a rule about how COVID-19 cases are reported that may cause Las Vegas to appear safer than it really is.

In March the Mirage hosted more than 1000 people for the Women of Power Summit. One of the speakers, who was from New York, was already infected when she arrived on March 6. Two days later she was in the hospital. She eventually recovered while she was still in Las Vegas. Her case does not appear in Nevada's case totals because she is not a resident of Nevada. Nevada's total does not include non-residents, even if they get sick while here or after returning home.

The resident-based tally is used by many states to avoid counting the same case multiple times, but "it can obscure whether a venue with super-spreading potential is becoming a hot spot, particularly in tourist destinations where visitors from around the world gather en masse."

Some states, like Florida, keep a public log of visitors who test positive while within their borders. Nevada does not. Worse, the database used in Nevada can track cases to certain workplaces (like nursing homes, prisons and preschools), but according to the article it does not allow officials to sort cases by casino. MGM did its own contact tracing and found three employees who had been in contact with the woman were infected, but that cluster wasn't readily apparent to the health officials.

Workplace might be available in the case history. The Times asked Dr. Fermin Leguen, the acting chief health officer for the Southern Nevada Health District, to review the case histories to find cases involving casinos employees from the beginning of the outbreak through April 2, to include the two-week incubation period after shutdown on March 18. He said there were at least 27 cases.

Dr. Leguen also said that the district uses the CDC's COVID-19 Case Report Form, which does not ask for a patient's workplace. That seems like a glaring omission to me.

For the foreseeable future, I'm going to do what many of my friends and many of you are doing -- limit my casino visits and limit the amount of time I spend in the casino.

Drop me a line to share your experiences as casinos reopen and anything you're doing differently now.

John Robison

John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots
John Robison
John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots