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Best of John Robison

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Ask the Slot Expert: Predetermination and slot machines

14 July 2021

Question: I don't get it.

You are very knowledgeable when it comes to gambling and that's why your "page" is so successful and so many, like me, look forward to receiving your weekly newsletter. However, you seem to spend a lot -- I mean a lot -- of time addressing how the slot machines work.

This is a waste of time. Why not simply say: "The casino will always win in the end. No matter what bonus you get or when you push the buttons, or no matter what features you touch, none of this makes any difference. It is all PREDETERMINED. Pushing, pulling, tapping the bar faster or slower, rubbing the glass -- none, absolutely none of this makes a difference. It is all PREDETERMINED. These things may make you feel good, or give the impression you are somehow in control, but forget it, you are not. The machine does not know who you are, or care how much you put into the machine or if you are rich, poor, a good customer or visit once every 5 years, none of this matters, it is all PREDETERMINED."

You only have to do two things: Put your money in the machine and push buttons and hope you picked a lucky machine where the payout is very slightly higher than the rest of the machines.

So be it, my friend. Just remember before you go into any casino you are most likely not going to win and if you go for any other reason than to have fun, you are wasting your time and more importantly, your money.

You agree with me, don't you?

Answer: I agree with you on your main point, but not on the details. What exactly is predetermined?

Quantum Entanglement is basically (this description is necessarily basic because of my Science Channel-level of understanding) when changes to one subatomic particle are instantaneously reflected in another subatomic particle that is entangled with it. Einstein called it "spooky action at a distance."

Things get weird because the two particles can be separated by a great distance and the second particle will change before a beam of light sent from the first particle has reached it. Nothing travels faster than light, so what changed the second particle?

One possible explanation is that everything -- and I mean EVERYTHING -- in the universe is predetermined. The second particle changed because the universe knew how and when the two particles were going to change long before it ever happened.

You may think that your spur-of-the-moment decision to get onion-and-chive instead of your usual veggie cream cheese on your everything bagel was a decision you made in a split second, but the universe knew long ago what you were going to order. (Think of how much time we could save if restaurants could tap into the universe's database and automatically have our orders waiting for us at the time the universe knows we will arrive!)

You can't change what is going to happen. Anything you do to try to randomize an outcome, like throwing a die, has also been encoded in the fabric of the universe.

To quote Genesis (the band, not the Bible book): "The path is clear, though no eyes can see the course laid down long before." (Firth of Fifth)

Dudley Moore presented a PBS program about time that also discussed the possibility that everything that happens is predetermined. According to his Wikipedia page, the program is "It's About Time", a 1979 episode of the Horizon series on BBC Two. Strangely, the episode doesn't appear on the List of Horizon Episodes. It does appear on the List of Nova episodes, which says it was first broadcast in the United States on December 30, 1980.

I'll let the cosmologists deal with predetermination in the universe and look at predetermination on a slot machine.

First, my standard disclaimer. The following discussion applies to RNG-based machines. Class II machines in a Native American casino or Video Lottery Terminals in a state lottery-run casino may operate differently.

Very little on a slot machine is predetermined. The payouts for winning combinations, except for progressives, are predetermined. And the probabilities for hitting those winning combinations are predetermined by the reel layouts. And we know that the winning combinations will hit with those probabilities in the long run due to Random Sampling With Replacement and the Law of Large Numbers.

What isn't predetermined is the result of the next spin. The result is determined by numbers that the program running the slot machine gets from the RNG after the player hits the Spin button.

You wrote, "No matter...when you push the buttons...makes any difference."

Actually, when you push the button makes all the difference in the world. That's when the program polls the RNG to get the result of the spin. Pushing the button a fraction of a second earlier or later may turn your losing spin into a Megabucks winner.

The problem is that players have no legal means to know when it is a favorable time to hit the Spin button. (The Russian slot hackers a few years ago used inside knowledge of the programming of some slot machines to develop a system that signaled them when to hit the Spin button. They were caught.)

You're right that none of the actions some players use to influence the outcome of spins -- like rubbing the glass, playing faster or slower, bringing a good luck charm, putting pictures of the grandkids on the machine (maybe that's just a reminder not to play away the money that is supposed to go in their college funds) -- have any effect on the outcomes. But I wouldn't say that that is because the outcome is predetermined. Rather, it is because these actions have no influence whatsoever on the mechanism that is used to determine the outcomes, the RNG.

You're right that "the machine does not know who you are, or care how much you put into the machine or if you are rich, poor, a good customer or visit once every 5 years, none of this matters." But not because "it is all PREDETERMINED." But because none of those things have any effect on the RNG.

What about bonus rounds like the coin-picking bonus on 88 Fortunes and other Chinese-themed machines? The results of those events are predetermined. The program uses the RNG to determine which progressive you will hit. The outcome is predetermined because your choices don't matter. But like the outcome of a spin, the outcome isn't determined until the event is triggered. The length of time for "pre" isn't very long.

I don't consider writing about how slot machines work to be a waste of time. A basic understanding of how machines work can save players from making expensive mistakes.

The most important lesson I have is that machines are never due. A cold spell on a machine does not mean it's going to pay off soon. Not hitting a bonus after hundreds of spins does not mean the bonus is going to hit soon. Don't waste your money chasing after something that may not happen.

There used to be a clothing store, Sym's, in the New York area that had this motto: An educated consumer is our best customer.

An educated player may not be a casino's best customer, but being educated is better for the players and their wallets.

I'm with you on hoping "you picked a lucky machine" but not on its payout being "very slightly higher than the rest of the machines."

In the past, some slot directors may have used a strategy of mixing long-term paybacks on machines. Frank Scoblete writes about one such slot director, Mr. Handle, in Break the One-Armed Bandits.

But that book was published in 1994. If you compare pictures of slot floors today with those nearly 30 years ago, you'll see many changes. Slot directors today generally decide on a hold percentage for each denomination and order machines that hold close to that percentage.

In any case, even if you do happen to pick a machine that pays back a slightly higher percentage than the floor average, no one plays long enough for long-term payback to have a greater effect on their results than randomness.

Speaking of randomness, if you do a search-and-replace to change "PREDETERMINED" to "RANDOM" we would be in near-complete agreement.

Let me end with Robison's Rules of Slot Play:

  1. In the long run, a machine will hold (pay back) a percentage of the money played through it that is very close to the long-term percentage calculated on the PAR sheet.
  2. There is nothing players can do legally to change Rule 1.

For weeks in spring, the local Las Vegas news reported steadily declining test positivity rates in Clark County. Then all pandemic restrictions were lifted on June 1, and the positivity rate has been climbing ever since. From a low of around 3%, we're now near 11% and the White House COVID-19 Team has labeled Clark County as a "sustained hotspot". (Clark County labeled ‘sustained hotspot’ by White House COVID-19 Team, Nevada reaches 10% test positivity) Many of our statistics are back where they were in February.

The county interviews new cases to find out what type of establishments they've visited before being diagnosed to determine possible exposure sites. They don't know where the cases actually contracted the virus, only that they visited these establishments before becoming sick and may have been exposed to the virus there. (Latest data shows where Clark County residents may have gotten COVID)

The data is published on this page COVID-19 Case and Vaccine Data on the Southern Nevada Health District's website. On the top 10 list of Places of Possible Exposure, casino comes in at number 7, just behind grocery store. That makes sense. Contrary to what some people think, not everyone who lives in Las Vegas gambles, but everyone has to go to the grocery store. Food Establishment (number 2), Hotel/Motel, Medical Facility and Work were also reported more frequently than casino.

The number 1 answer, by far, is: Other. The catch-all for places that don't fit into one of the other place types. Given that the list includes school, air travel, long-term care facility, general store/shop, gas station, convenience store, bar, gym, church, correctional facility, social event/party, laboratory, mall, bank, bus/train, sports event, pool, daycare, library, public demonstration, water park, concert, hair salon, home, community, time with visitors from out of state, and other places with large groups of people, I am really at a loss for what is left that doesn't fit into one of those types. Strip clubs?

Based on this data, it looks like we're pretty safe in the casino and grocery store, but we should really be trying to minimize our visits to Other.

It reminds me of the old joke about mosquitoes. Only the female mosquito bites, and only the male mosquito buzzes. So if you hear buzzing, you can relax. But if you hear ...[silence]... be ready to swat. (Actually, both genders of mosquitoes buzz, but let's not let facts get in the way of a good joke.)(

The Southern Nevada Health District website also reports that about 42% of Clark County's residents are fully vaccinated. So shouldn't half the people I see be wearing masks?

Asa Hutchinson, Governor of Arkansas, recently said on This Week with George Stephanopolous that he agreed with the CDC statement that fully vaccinated people did not need to wear masks. He said that it gives the unvaccinated an incentive to get vaccinated.

I think the statement had the opposite effect. It gave the unvaccinated a free pass to ditch their masks. On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog and nobody knows whether you've really been vaccinated.

I offer Exhibit A: The people I saw at my local Walgreen's waiting for their vaccine -- and not wearing a mask.

Here are the latest figures from https://www.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases_totalcases.

Totals Weekly Increases
US NV US NV
Date Cases  Deaths  Cases  Deaths  Cases  Deaths  Cases  Deaths 
 07/13   33,726,363   605,140   339,745   5,730   181,047   1,959   4,982   33 
 07/06   33,545,316   603,181   334,763   5,697   75,104   1,373   2,234   27 
 06/29   33,470,212   601,808   332,529   5,670   87,507   2,057   3,020   24 
 06/22   33,382,705   599,751   329,509   5,646   75,420   2,157   1,930   22 
 06/15   33,303,285   597,594   327,579   5,624   95,797   2,293   1,560   17 
 06/08   33,207,488   595,301   326,019   5,607   114,250   3,762   2,271   21 
 06/01   33,039,238   591,539   323,748   5,586   123,333   3,709   991   27 
 05/25   32,969,905   587,830   322,757   5,559   174,125   4,234   1,676   26 
 05/18   32,795,780   583,596   321,081   5,533   223,966   4,230   2,301   27 
 05/11   32,571,814   579,366   318,780   5,506   303,856   4,687   2,541   33 
 05/04   32,267,958   574,679   316,239   5,473   343,348   4,908   2,559   40 
 04/27   31,924,610   569,771   313,680   5,433   383,163   4,958   2,747   65 
 04/20   31,541,447   564,813   310,933   5,368   464,556   5,072   2,590   36 
 04/13   31,076,891   559,741   308,343   5,332   480,061   5,321   2,986   57 
 04/06   30,596,830   554,420   305,357   5,275   448,935   7,124   3,084   38 
 03/30   30,147,895   547,296   302,273   5,237   439,510   6,793   939   63 
 03/23   29,708,385   540,503   301,334   5,174   388,928   7,446   1,863   53 
 03/16   29,319,457   533,057   299,471   5,121   381,695   8,362   3,078   81 
 03/09   28,937,762   524,695   296,393   5,040   480,902   11,573   2,413   83 
 03/02   28,456,860   513,122   293,980   4,957   463,356   14,129   2,835   75 
 02/23   27,993,504   498,993   291,145   4,882   451,083   13,923   2,406   162 
 02/16   27,542,421   485,070   288,739   4,720   602,906   21,411   4,149   198 
 02/09   26,939,515   463,659   284,590   4,522   779,305   21,828   5,444   244 
 02/02   26,160,210   441,831   279,146   4,278   1,007,777   22,004   7,249   249 
 01/26   25,152,433   419,827   271,897   4,029   1,312,565   23,385   10,324   250 
 01/19   23,839,868   396,442   261,573   3,779   1,317,119   21,318   11,324   279 
 01/12   22,522,749   375,124   250,249   3,500   1,790,345   22,660   17,217   294 
 01/05    20,732,404   352,464   233,032   3,206   1,499,561   18,435   14,655   233 
 12/29   19,232,843   334,029   218,377   2,973   1,258,540   15,460   12,493   186 
 12/22   17,974,303   318,569   205,884   2,787   1,656,411   18,537   16,472   239 
 12/15   16,317,892   300,032   189,412   2,548   1,494,763   17,247   18,825   229 
 12/08   14,823,129   282,785   170,587   2,319   1,375,502   15,483   18,418   175 
 12/01   13,447,627   267,302   152,169   2,144   1,114,175   10,286   15,942   121 
 11/24   12,333,452   257,016   136,227   2,023   1,197,199   10,784   14,130   106 
 11/17   11,136,253   246,232   122,097   1,917   1,099,790   8,501   11,115   65 
 11/10   10,036,463   237,731   110,982   1,852   767,645   6,838   8,868   68 
 11/03   9,268,818   230,893   102,114   1,784   588,207   5,809   5,936   35 
 10/27   8,680,611   225,084   96,178   1,749   492,026   5,585   5,238   (10) 
 10/20   8,188,585   219,499   90,940   1,759   401,037   5,053   4,501   48 
 10/13   7,787,548   214,446   86,439   1,711   351,270   4,886   3,910   48 
 10/06   7,436,278   209,560   82,529   1,663   306,965   4,962   3,232   36 
 09/29   7,129,313   204,598   79,297   1,627   303,616   5,136   3,058   54 
 09/22   6,825,697   199,462   76,239   1,573   288,070   5,370   2,196   82 
 09/15   6,537,627   194,092   72,043   1,491   250,265   5,404   1,825   65 
 09/08   6,287,362   188,688   72,218   1,426   282,919   5,638   2,734   92 
 09/01   6,004,443   183,050   69,484   1,334   251,790   5,291   3,237   104 
 08/25   5,752,653   177,759   66,247   1,230   330,411   7,889   4,076   125 
 08/18   5,422,242   169,870   62,171   1,105   358,071   7,463   4,973   114 
 08/11   5,064,171   162,407   57,198   991   365,353   7,203   5,776   117 
 08/04   4,698,818   155,204   51,422   874   418,683   7,532   7,367   109 
 07/28   4,280,135   147,672   44,055   764   460,996   7,042   7,130   91 
 07/21   3,819,139  140,630  36,195  674  463,682  5,395  8,181  57 
 07/14   3,355,457   135,235   28,744   617   422,861   5,102   5,607   57 
 07/07   2,932,596   130,133   23,137   560   351,367   3,394   5,006   24 
 06/30   2,581,229   126,739   18,131   536   278,941   6,406   4,367   26 
 06/23   2,302,288   120,333   13,764   510 
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