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Ask the Slot Expert: How do you track the number of hands you play in a session?

6 September 2023

Question: I truly enjoy your articles about slots, and in particular, video poker.

I noticed that in many of your articles you talk about about the number of hands you play. How do you track this during your sessions? I am not aware of any way to track this through your players card or on the machines themselves. I assume you're not actually counting as you go.

Please advise. I'd love to know how to accurately count the number of hands that I play in a session.

Also, if you play a multi-line game (which I know you advise against) do you (and the casino) count a triple play as three hands, for example?

Answer: Thanks for the kind words.

Let's step into the Wayback Machine and go back to the early days of slot clubs. Like the Nav system in my car, which lets me enter either an exact address or a point of interest, the Wayback Machine lets me enter a time of interest if I don't know the date I want. Let's set the dial to "first slot club."

I expected to be taken back to the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas in 1984, but the machine took me to Atlantic City in 1982. I'm standing on the slot floor in the Atlantic City Sands holding an invitation to a party for members of the Galaxy Slot Club and wearing a gold pin on my collar.

According to Jeff Compton in The Las Vegas Advisor Guide to Slot Clubs, "the Sands identified its top slot players, invited them to special events and parties, and gave them gold lapel pins to signify them as casino VIPs." The club had 600 members after the first year.

This isn't where I expected to be. Let me hit the "next track" button to see where the Wayback Machine takes me next.

I'm still in Atlantic City, but now I'm in the Marina District and not on the boardwalk. It's 1983. I'm sitting in front of a slot machine in Harrah's. I have a pile of arcade tickets in front of me. The ticket dispenser attached to the side of the machine spits out a ticket after every $100 I play in the machine.

Well, this was the system I expected to see, but not the place I expected to see it. Let me hit "next track" one more time.

Now I'm in Las Vegas. Downtown at the Golden Nugget, 1984. I look around the slot floor. The machines have ticket dispensers similar to the one I saw at Harrah's attached to them.

This is where I expected to land when I asked to be taken to the first slot club. I thought it was in Las Vegas, but it was really in Atlantic City.

I'm kinda surprised that I had this history wrong. Compton's Guide to Slot Clubs was my bible for slot clubs in Las Vegas. I remember poring over its pages on the individual slot clubs so I knew all the ins and outs when I went to join them. I guess I only read Jeff's short (in 1995) history of slot clubs in his first chapter called, appropriately enough, "The Short History of Slot Clubs" once.

Jeff's book was, unfortunately, out of date as soon as the ink was dry. Casinos were scrambling to set up their slot clubs when he did the research for his book and some of the procedures he described were no longer in use when I went to sign up.

Here's how Jeff described enrolling in the Desert Inn's slot club:

The Celebrity Club, which opened in early 1995, fits right in with the casino's low-key ambience. This club doesn't have a booth; it operates from several elegant desks unobtrusively located on the west wall of the casino. You're invited to sit down while a well-dressed employee fills out the forms, as if you were opening a new money-market account.

Remember that the copyright date on the book is 1995 and the club opened in early 1995. Jeff must have joined it in its very early days.

By the time I went to sign up in late 1995 or 1996 (I don't remember), the elegant desks were gone and you enrolled at a pedestrian window at the slot club area.

The next paragraph says that the DI pays 1% cash back on dollar slots and video poker. Oh, those were the days.

Despite the fact that writing a book about slot club operations, policies and percentages is like trying to hit a moving target, Jeff's book was my inspiration to write Inside Atlantic City's Slot Clubs a year or so later.

Note a key difference between the club at the AC Sands and the ones at Harrah's and Golden Nugget. The Sands' club didn't attempt to mechanically track a member's play. It was up to casino personnel to identify valuable players. At Harrah's and Golden Nugget, the number of tickets you had indicated how much you had played.

In theory, at least. Anthony Curtis wrote about people who would "acquire" tickets that other players didn't take, maybe because they didn't know what they were for. I'm putting the best spin on this situation that I can because I "acquired" any stray tickets I saw. I never went there just to pick up tickets. I always played, and I gave a good home to any abandoned tickets I saw.

One time my dispenser ran out of tickets. The slot tech had to put a new wheel of carnival coupons in it. He threaded the tickets through the path and hit the "advance" button a few times to make sure the tickets were threaded properly. Then he locked the dispenser and left. I think he made a funny comment about the 10 or so tickets he left sticking out of the dispenser, but I can't remember what it was.

The challenge with tracking play in the early days of slot clubs is that the machines back then weren't designed to share that data. The slot club quickly advanced from tickets to players cards and a device attached to the side of a machine, but the machine had no way to tell the club hardware how much you played. The machine did increment the Coin-In meter for every coin you dropped into the machine or played off of the credit meter, so the slot club hardware had to wired to that meter and use the pulses that the machine generated to increment the meter to determine how much you played.

Atlantic City's slot clubs at the time must have been designed by former CIA operatives. They tried to keep everything a secret. The card reader displays for some clubs showed the incredibly informative message "ACCEPTED" as you played with your card in the reader.

The display for another club was more helpful. It displayed how many coins you still had to play to earn another slot club point. I assumed that the more coins it took to earn a point on a machine, the higher its long-term payback. If I was trying to choose a machine to play, I would sometimes see how many coins each needed to earn a point and then play the machine with the highest requirement.

Why the history lesson on slot clubs?

Because tracking play, not necessarily hands, was critical to my estimates for cash back percentages in the secretive Atlantic City slot clubs, and the way a slot club works may make tracking play trivial.

In a secretive slot club, the only way to track play is to count each play. To do this, I used a handheld tally counter. Every time I hit the Spin button with my right hand, I clicked the tally counter I held in my left hand. Tracking video poker was a bit tricky with the counter in my left hand, but I worked it out.

Tracking play is much easier now. Almost every slot club awards points based on how much you play and displays the number of points you've earned in the session. Divide the number of points earned by points earned per play to get the number of plays.

The math is easy at casinos that award one point per dollar played at video poker. If I earn 1000 points playing dollar video poker at $5 per hand, I played 200 hands.

The two big locals chains in Las Vegas now award one point for every $2 played on video poker, so those same 1000 points represent 400 hands now.

To address your multi-hand query, let me explain why I track hands. I have a spreadsheet that tells me how many NSU hands I've played, the expected number of royals and sets of deuces I should have hit, how many royals and deuces I've actually hit, how many I'm owed and how much I'm owed.

I do the calculations for NSU only. I know of only one multi-hand NSU machine in Las Vegas, and I classified my play on it as an unspecified video poker game when I entered the play in my database, so I've never dealt with handling multi-hand machines for my calculations.

As far as the casino is concerned, a play on a multi-hand video poker machine or on a slot machine that has multiple games per play, is one play no matter how many hands or reel sets are involved. Some video poker players tried to argue that each hand was separate when a play triggered a tax form in the aggregate but no individual hand won $1200 or more. The laughter only recently died down.

The casino cares about the number of games played only and it doesn't care whether a game consists of one hand or 100.

Unlike the casino, if I were to track expected versus actual high-value hands for multi-hand video poker, I would count the actual number of hands played, 3 for Triple Play, 5 for Five Play, and so on.

Even though I've written about having a hand goal for a session, my real goal is to play a certain amount of action to keep me on pace to requalify for an upper tier in the slot club.

To sum up, use slot club points earned to determine the number of hands you played. If that doesn't work, you'll have to go old school and the handheld tally counter is your friend.

I don't necessarily advise against playing multi-hand machines. If you can find good paytables on them, you can smooth out your bankroll swings somewhat by playing more hands on a lower-denomination machine as compared with betting the same dollar amount on one hand on a higher-denomination machine. Multi-hand machines with good paytable are few and far between in Las Vegas today.


If you would like to see more non-smoking areas on slot floors in Las Vegas, please sign my petition on change.org.


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