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Ask the Slot Expert: Majority of respondents in Las Vegas Advisor poll back restricting smoking in casinos

26 August 2020

Question: First, thank you for all of the great columns you've written over the years. I'm an avid video poker player and have learned a lot about strategy from you.

I live near Chicago and my wife and I visit Las Vegas twice each year and since I retired I add a couple of more solo trips, too. We also visit casinos in Indiana and Michigan on a regular basis for mid-week getaways. What we'll miss about Las Vegas is the breakfast buffets, which I doubt will reopen in any format until this virus is eradicated. Maybe it will mean more trips to The Peppermill for breakfast and Battista's for dinner. As a former cigarette smoker (15 years quit) I enjoy camping out at a machine or bank of machines for an hour or so to enjoy a cigar and a couple of beers while playing some VP. I'm guessing with smoking restrictions those days are over, too.

We won't be making our trips to Las Vegas this year but hopefully by next year we'll have a better handle on this virus and we can visit again to see if we'll enjoy the "new normal" Las Vegas casino experience. If not, I'll always have the memories of the 50+ times I visited Vegas over the years.

Answer: Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you stopped smoking cigarettes, but not pleased at all that you've switched to cigars.

The Palms used to have a cigar-smoking visitor who played near the high-paying video poker machines -- when it used to have high-paying video poker machines. He didn't play the good machines, just near them. My friends and I never saw him, but we sure smelled him. A good cigar can pollute a large area.

At another casino -- which I won't name because it is open now and this particular gentlemen is a regular there -- a fellow would hold court in the morning at his usual table near the sports book, entertaining friends or working on his sports bets, frequently smoking a cigar.

I liked to play at a bank of video poker machines twenty or so feet away. But when he was enjoying his cigar, that area was unplayable for me. I don't have a problem now because the casino changed the video poker machines to keno and I have no reason the play there anymore.

Smoking is still allowed in Nevada's casinos, though the policy is at odds with the numerous signs saying that visitors should wear masks, not to mention the announcements every 15 minutes or so reminding visitors to wear masks.

The Las Vegas Advisor recently ran a poll asking whether smoking should be banned in casinos. Here are links to the results and an article about the poll.

I admit that I never had anything to do with survey question design when I worked for a market research company, but I think the LVA tried to get too much information from one poll question. In surveys I've taken, some of these answers would have been in follow-up questions. But LVA had only one shot, and they did say in the preamble to the results that they intended to get "specific personal preferences" from the respondents.

Nevertheless, I don't think they should have included the answer choice "Cigarette (and cigar) smoking is a scourge on the Earth; the entire practice, along with the tobacco companies, should be outlawed." And I don't believe most of the people who responded "I will patronize only casinos that have banned smoking."

There's also another problem in that the question posed was "Should smoking be prohibited in casinos around the country where it's still permitted?" and then there are two Las Vegas-specific answers.

If I was interested only in how people felt about smoking in casinos and not so much why they felt that way, I would have given these answer choices: Ban completely; allowed only in separate, enclosed areas; greatly increase the non-smoking areas on the slot floor so non-smoking becomes the default and smoking the exception; keep it the way it is.

With the way the answers were worded, you have to add multiple choices together to answer the question. The top three answers that received the most votes (for a total of 57%) all favored restrictions on smoking. Adding in other answers with a negative view on smoking, you get 66% of respondents favoring an outright ban with another 15% for a separate area, giving a total of 71% (or 72% as in the article if your percentages are to one decimal place) of respondents favoring some sort of restriction on smoking in casinos.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the amount of time it will take to process the expected flood of mail-in ballots this election. I have experience with using document scanners and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) and Intelligent Character Recognition (ICR) software to extract data from forms.

For over 10 years, I worked for a company that provided marketing support to pharmaceutical manufacturers. One marketing function we helped support was prescription drug sampling.

You may have noticed an unusually well dressed person waiting at your doctor's office. He or she is a pharmaceutical sales rep. These reps are waiting to tell your doctor about their company's latest wonder drugs and encourage your doctor to prescribe them. They want to leave samples of the drugs with your doctor so your doctor can get you started on the drugs without waiting to have your prescription filled.

The content of the samples is exactly the same as the content in what your pharmacy gives you, but the packaging is different. The package says something like "For Sample Use Only" and sample pills have some sort of mark on them to distinguish them from the retail pills.

Some reps have gone into business selling some of their samples on the black market, a process known as diversion. To make diversion more difficult, reps fill out a multi-part form each time they leave a sample. The form indicates the names of the drugs left, the lot numbers left, and the quantity of each drug/lot left. Doctors have to sign the form to acknowledge receipt of the samples. Reps leave one part of the form with the doctor, keep one part for themselves, and send one part to us for processing.

We extracted the sampling data from the form to calculate the number of samples the rep gave out. We also knew how many samples the reps were shipped, so we could calculate the number of samples they should have on hand and compare those figures with their inventory forms, which we also received. Small discrepancies were allowed -- nobody's perfect -- but too large a discrepancy triggered an investigation.

We had scanners that took images of the forms and OCR software to extract the data from the forms. I designed the templates used by the OCR software to process each unique form we received. All of the drugs the salesforce was pushing were printed on the form, so the reps wouldn't have to write them in. Our clients typically introduced new sets of forms every six months or every quarter to remove discontinued drugs or formulations and add new drugs or formulations. Some of these forms were very dense, listing a dozen or more drugs that a rep was handling, making it difficult for the reps to write legibly on any particular drug's line.

We had to follow the regulations in 21 CFR Part 11. The data on the form had to be double-key verified to reduce the likelihood of a data entry error. Single-key verification is when a field on a form is displayed to a data entry operator and the operator keys what he or she sees.

Double-key verification requires two passes over each field. One way to do double-key verification is for one operator to key what he sees (the first pass) and then later display the same field to another operator so she can key what she sees (the second pass). If both operators key the same value, the form field passes verification. If not, some process is triggered to determine what is in the field.

We used our software to do the first pass. The software used its ICR engine to read what the rep wrote and then data entry operators keyed what they saw. If the two values matched, the software presented the next field that needed verification to the operator. If not, the software would stay on that field until the operator keyed the exact same value twice in a row.

There were many properties that could be set on a field to improve the software's ability to read what was in a field. We even used a special version of red ink on the forms so the grid lines where the reps wrote would not appear in the image and make it more difficult for the software to interpret a rep's handwriting.

I went through this lengthy explanation to be able to say that processing a mail-in ballot is far simpler than processing one of these sampling forms. With the exception of write-ins, the fields are mark-sense fields, which are processed using Optical Mark Recognition (OMR) software. The OMR engine senses whether there is a mark in a defined region on a form.

We had some mark-sense zones on the forms we processed. I would define a mark-sense zone and the individual marks within the zone. On a ballot, a mark-sense zone would be a race and the oval, square, or circle next to each candidate in the race would be that candidate's mark. I configured the zone to say how many marks within it were allowed. For most races that would be one, but some local races have ballots that tell you to vote for two or more.

I looked at some of the vote tabulating machines made by Election Systems & Software. Its high-speed tabulators (DS450 and DS850) process each ballot and send it to one of three output bins: Counted, Requires Further Review, and Write-In. The DS450 can process 72 ballots per minute and the DS850 300. (The scanners I used imaged about 70 forms per minute and there was still much more processing -- both machine and human -- to be done afterwards.)

This gives you an idea about how quickly ballots can be processed. It's true (I'd say even likely) that some states may not be able to release results on election night. You can check this table on the National Conference of State Legislators website to see when states can begin processing (which means different things in different states) and counting mail-in votes. Pay particular attention to the entries for Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, whose residents vote primarily by mail.

The 2020 Presidential Election calendar is also relevant. On December 14, members of the electoral college meet in state capitals to formally vote. The results are formally counted and announced on January 6. Everyone wants to know the results soon after the polls close, but states have about five weeks between election day and when the electors vote to certify their elections -- although states may currently have statutes requiring elections to be certified sooner.

It's getting more difficult to get a spot on a good video poker machine now. I guess more people are coming back to the casinos, though I really haven't noticed any difference in the number of cars in the parking garage.

Players clubs have really cut back. I used to be able to play NSU at breakeven every day of the week (3 points per dollar played or $0.33 per point), no matter what promotions were held that day. Now some casinos are cutting back on points if there's a gift or kiosk game that day. Add in the doubling of dollars per point for video poker (0.5 points per dollar played or $2 per point) and a day without a point multiplier is like a day without sunshine.

Have your player clubs cut back on benefits? Have your casinos gotten more crowded? Are you having difficulty getting a seat at the good video poker machines now? Let me know.

Last week I gave the instructions for a remote card trick that Penn did at the end of a recent Penn & Teller show. I asked if you could figure out why the trick worked. No one sent in an answer with the correct solution, so I'll give you another week.

Here are the instructions for the trick:

  1. Get a deck of cards.
  2. Take out the four aces and 16 other cards.
  3. Turn the aces face up and the other cards face down.
  4. Distribute the aces randomly among the other cards.
  5. Do an overhand shuffle (you know how to do it even if you don't know what it's called).
  6. Count 10 cards into a pile.
  7. Put the remaining cards in another pile. You have two piles of 10 cards now.
  8. Turn one pile over.
  9. Perfectly interlace the cards (take a card from one pile, then a card from the other pile, and so on) back into one pile.
  10. Cut the cards.
  11. Deal the cards into four hands of five cards each.
  12. Combine piles 1 and 3 by putting one pile on top of the other.
  13. Do the same for piles 2 and 4. You have two piles now.
  14. Turn one of the piles over.
  15. Shuffle the two piles together.
  16. Spread out the cards.
  17. The aces will be face up and the other cards face down, or vice versa.

Get out a deck of cards -- I know you have one -- and do the trick. I had to do it three or four times before I finally slapped myself on the forehead and said, "Of course, that's why it works." If you want a hint, pay attention to the order of the cards and think about when it is irrelevant and when it is critical.

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