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Ask the Slot Expert: Magic tricks and slots -- the truth about how they work is dull

21 October 2020

Magic tricks and slot machines have something in common. Though they both appear to be governed by some mysterious process, the truth about how they operate is actually quite pedestrian. One magician said, "You really don't want to know how a trick works. It's so mundane, you'll be disappointed."

Consider a trick performed by Magical Katrina on season 7 episode 11 of Penn & Teller Fool Us. She invited Penn to join her on the stage at a table covered by a red tablecloth. She showed Penn a deck of cards with pictures of a person on them and asked Penn to pick out one for her to date.

There was a lot of padding in the selection process -- first separating the pictures into No and Maybe stacks and then spreading out the Maybe's to have Penn pick one -- to stretch out the trick and give a chance for some banter. After Penn made his selection, she said that she had also picked out the person she thought she should date. She put a green checkmark on the back of that card and a black X on the backs of all of the other cards. She showed the black X's on the backs of the cards Penn rejected. Then she pushed the card that Penn chose over to him and he picked it up to show the green checkmark on the back.

How did she know which card Penn would choose? One possibility is that she can see the future. Probably not, but more likely than the theory that she can travel through time.

Another possibility is that she forced Penn to pick that card. A force is when what seems like a free choice isn't really a free choice. The outcome is preordained. When Penn makes Star Wars references in the debrief after a trick, he means that something has been forced during the trick.

There are many tutorials on the Internet showing the ways a magician can force a card pick. For this trick, however, Penn had a free choice. It didn't matter which card he chose.

So, Katrina didn't know beforehand which card Penn would pick and she didn't force a card on him. The only explanation left is that she somehow drew a green checkmark on the card after Penn chose it.

She was very careful not to show us the backs of the cards until after Penn made his choice. While telling us that she put an X on the back of each rejected card, she slid the chosen card from in front of Penn to in front of her.

During the debrief, Penn said that he didn't know how the trick was done when he left the stage to rejoin Teller. Teller, who didn't participate in the trick, was able to concentrate on the mechanics of the trick and not on the story. He told Penn how he thought it was done.

Penn complimented Katrina on her performance and said that he hoped some of her enthusiasm would rub off onto him.

Watch closely when Katrina slides the chosen card on the table. She didn't pick up the card to move it, she slid it. And she seems to be putting a lot of pressure on the card and ensuring that it maintains contact with the table as she slides it. And take a close look at the X's on the backs of the rejected cards. The two lines don't cross in their middles. The intersection is very low. And the two lower limbs of the X seem fainter than the two upper limbs. A black X could be concealing a green checkmark underneath.

At the beginning of the trick, all of the cards had a green checkmark hidden by a black X on their backs. After Penn chose a card, she slid the card on the tablecloth, rubbing off the black X. They didn't reveal the substance used, but I suspect it was something like the ink in a dry erase marker. There was no telltale smudge on the red tablecloth.

There's never a preternatural explanation for how a magic trick works. All tricks depend on science or physical dexterity to work. On a Class III slot machine, likewise, the results are not determined by some grand convulated process but by simple mathematics.

Some players are convinced that the results on a machine depend on whether you use a players card, whether you put in cash or a ticket, how long you play it, or whether you play "stale" credits that have been on the machine for a while or "fresh" credits from recently inserted bills or tickets. Some players think that the casino can loosen machines for players they like and tighten them to win more money during busy times. Some players think that a machine that has paid in the past will have to turn stingy in the future to make up for past generosity. Some players think that a machine that hasn't paid in a while is "due".

None of those theories are true. The truth about how a machine determines its results is much duller.

A mathematical formula in the programming of the machine, the Random Number Generator (RNG), is continuously calculating numbers. The formula has no outside influences. Whether the player is using a card, whether the player is playing from cash or from a ticket, whether the player is playing from free play or credits, who the player is, how busy the casino is -- none of these things are parameters in the formula.

When the machine needs to know where a reel should stop, it gets the latest number calculated by the RNG. That number tells the program running the machine where to stop the reel. It gets a number for each reel.

The actual process for how a machine determines its results is much duller -- and simpler -- than jackot buttons, varying long-term paybacks based on external factors, and varying results based on past performance.

If you believed in occult theories of slot machine operation, the truth can be disappointing.


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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