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July 21, 2011 8:36 PM   Subscribe


 
I can hardly believe there's a patent on using a random number generator to decide slot machine outcomes.
posted by kenko at 9:08 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sounds like IGT was producing deliberately inferior products. The slot machines could not be reprogrammed, but would become obsolete within a year or two, necessitating the purchase of a new one "inspired by" the latest movie release.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 9:12 PM on July 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think it's available online, but there's also a pretty interesting article in the new Harper's about a woman who may or may not have hacked the Texas scratch-off ticket lottery.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:15 PM on July 21, 2011


I can also hardly believe that this guy has to spend 23 hours a day in his cell after the end of his sentence because his immigration status is fucked up (because the US took his Cuban passport).
posted by kenko at 9:17 PM on July 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


hacked the Texas scratch-off ticket lottery
Mohan Srivastava did that.
posted by unliteral at 9:23 PM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


A friend of mine collects and fixes pinball machines. One day he got a slot machine, and he showed it to me. There is next to nothing in there. Three cylinders, driven by stepper motors connected to a PCBA, and right on the board you can set the odds that the steppers will stop the cylinder on a given position.

Gambling machines like this irritate me because they appear to work a certain way, but they don't. The motion you see on the cylinders has very little to do with where they are going to stop. They don't start, then gradually coast to a stop in response to the impulse of pulling the lever, as the appearance of the machine would have you believe. They are driven by the stepper motors all the way down to their rest position. You might as well push a button and have a light illuminate saying the amount you won, or didn't, and that would fit in a cellphone. All the rest of the machine is deceit.
posted by jet_silver at 9:25 PM on July 21, 2011 [12 favorites]


Ah! I see the Wired article mentions Joan Ginther.
posted by unliteral at 9:25 PM on July 21, 2011


Gambling machines like this irritate me because they appear to work a certain way, but they don't. The motion you see on the cylinders has very little to do with where they are going to stop.

Legalized gambling is usually accompanied by minimum odds on any mechanical or electronic game. The house always has the edge, but if it's well regulated then it's usually limited to a small edge which is encoded into law. That's the part that's reliable, plus the fact that the house must pay out if someone wins. Most everything else a casino does is try to entice you to gamble more, like the illusion of the wheels losing momentum to determine where they stop.
posted by krinklyfig at 9:43 PM on July 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Gambling machines like this irritate me because they appear to work a certain way, but they don't

That's as designed. Slots , video poker and all that ilk are fixed. I live in Nevada where you can not walk into a bar without seeing dozens of video poker machines between you and the bartender. Day after day, night after night the very same stupid people sit and drink and lose their money believing that the buttons they are pushing are having an effect on their hand. There is no effect. There is no skill involved. The machine is merely programmed to take away 5 to 8 percent or so of your money over a given period of time.

I used to be a programmer for a large Nevada casino some years back. There were databases showing exactly which machines had hit and when, what the payouts were for each machine, which machines were overdue to pay out, etc. I do not understand people who play slots or video poker. I once queried a VP about an entry in the database that showed a high roller who had won half a million at the slots one day . I asked the VP how the casino could afford such losses. The VP smiled at me and told me that the casino would be getting all that money and more back within the month - from the same person who had won it.

If I were to stand over someone and demand 7% off all the cash that they had on hand every day they would tell me to hit the bricks yet the same people play those insipid machines daily.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 9:46 PM on July 21, 2011 [6 favorites]


"Gambling machines like this irritate me because they appear to work a certain way, but they don't … All the rest of the machine is deceit."

Yeah. Though a genuine, old-time, mechanical slot machine is a marvel to behold. They did work exactly as you expected them to - after all, that's why the later electromechanical and latest electronic machines mimic them - but they also had deliberately built-in bias. It's just that it was a slightly more haphazard mechanical bias - subtly eccentrically-weighted rotors, hair-trigger ratchets, etc - than the precise algorithmically-derived and closely-defined bias of today's machines. It's actually harder to build an all-mechanical mechanism that's not either totally deterministic or (effectively*) totally random, than to build an electronic device with those qualities.

What modern electronics gains you is things like more winning but lower payout options (makes it seem like you win more often) and precisely known odds. Those odds and returns can also be changed to suit different markets - for example, where I am, the overall odds (the chance of getting a winning combination), individual odds (the chance of getting any specific winning combination), and return rates (how much revenue a machine returns to punters in a specified period) are** different depending on whether machines were located in pubs, clubs, or casinos.

(* OK, theory tells us it's impossible - or at least very very difficult - to make something totally random. What's hard to know with mechanics, as you get closer and closer to true randomness, is which way the inevitable bias will lean. If you don't and can't know that beforehand, the design can be considered effectively random.)

(** Or at least were in the early days of pokies here - it's been a while since I was vaguely across the industry)

posted by Pinback at 10:10 PM on July 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


I do not understand people who play slots or video poker.
I don't understand people who don't.

For those unfamiliar with the machines, there are a lot of ways to win on each spin, but besides the jackpot, which is usually ex ludus, the one most people "play for" is the special feature. A feature is usually triggered by the appearance of a certain number of special symbols scattered (in any order) (although the trigger varies from game to game). A feature usually rewards an initial credit win followed by 8-30 free spins with a win multiplier of between 1 and 5. These vary as well, but this description covers the machines I played.

I've got a bit of cash on me, so I don't particularly want to see pictures of the fucking things right now,1 but if you're interested you can find the odds of spinning a feature in the more popular games online. Knowing MetaFilter, someone from IGT or Aristocrat will be along shortly to drop some stats.

Anyway, you don't just get the feature, the feature happens. On the machines I played, the first scatter symbol arrives with a loud C and each subsequent symbol sounds a note higher (actually, I think it's more like C, D, E, G, C, although I've spun 5 scatters perhaps three times in my life). This is followed by a ringing bell and then, depending on the machine, an animation or sound loop.2

At this point, you've gotta be asking yourself why I'm telling you this. Well, because, if you're playing, say, 125 credits per spin on a 2c machine, each spin is costing you $2.50. At this rate, 15 free spins with a 3x multiplier has the potential to change your night (or your week, if you're "lucky").3 And when you hear C and D in quick succession your heart stops, and you sing the E under your breath and your arm ceases whatever superstitious automatism it was busy with and tenses up, and when, IF, you get the third scatter there's a feeling not unlike a small electric shock, followed by a moment of certainty that lasts exactly as long as the period between the arrival of the third scatter symbol and the beginning of the first free spin, a moment of absolute certainty where bills and deadlines are paid and met, and where you can take your hand off the buttons for a second and watch the machine play for you.

If you've never gambled in my body, I guess the closest thing I can compare it to is that exquisite moment in football after the ball has passed the keeper but before it crosses the line, where nothing can stop it. And comparing problem gambling and "being a fan" mightn't be the worst analogy ever. It's the fervour and superstition that comes from absolute powerlessness and blind allegiance to something that betrays and hurts you and offers itself as the only solution to the harm it causes.

If I were to stand over someone and demand 7% off all the cash that they had on hand every day they would tell me to hit the bricks yet the same people play those insipid machines daily.
That's not what's happening, not even close. When you play a machine, you're not spending 7% of all your cash, you're spending whatever small fraction of your cash that it costs to play just one spin. Sure, if you play 100 spins, you're out $40, but each spin is 40 cents, and "Come on, it's 40 cents!", and "You usually get a feature before then anyway!" You're not spending 7% of all your cash, you're spending 0.007% of all your cash, a thousand times. And that's easy. You've seen this principle in action in real life when you ran out of toothpaste or put on weight or piled straws on the back of a camel.

And don't think gamblers don't know they haven't got a chance. They know the odds. They've sat there for hours or days or weeks or the last 6 months of their marriage, or the first year of their divorce. But life's easier if you forget all that; life's easier with superstitions: scratching their chin after big wins, touching the screen when the wins dry up; life's easier relinquishing control of just this one little bit of your life to something random.

Borges said:
A Babylonian is not highly speculative. He reveres the judgments of fate, he hands his life over to them, he places his hopes, his panic terror in them, but it never occurs to him to investigate their labyrinthian laws nor the giratory spheres which disclose them. 4
I'm a Babylonian. I'm not happy or proud of it, but I don't understand you.

______________________________
1. Apparently it's not an addiction, but an impulse control disorder. It manifests in much the same way. Throw in some Pavlovian conditioning and
2. For example: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Shooow mee the moneeeeeeeey!"
3. Of course, realistically, it's possible to win any amount playing any number of credits, but obviously the general rule is the higher the outlay the higher the return. I've won $900 playing 40c a spin and I've had entire 30 spin features return about what the spin cost in the first place. Like I'm paying attention to that.
4. Also: "In many cases, the knowledge that certain joys were the simple doing of chance might have detracted from their excellence; to avoid this inconvenience the Company's agents made use of suggestion and magic."

posted by doublehappy at 3:32 AM on July 22, 2011 [39 favorites]


All the rest of the machine is deceit.

In some places they call that civilization.
posted by Twang at 4:20 AM on July 22, 2011


And that's why I play poker.
posted by Splunge at 5:00 AM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


Poet_Lariat: Day after day, night after night the very same stupid people sit and drink and lose their money believing that the buttons they are pushing are having an effect on their hand. There is no effect.

While there are machines that work this way, it is completely illegal under Nevada state law for them to work this way, and it is also illegal for any company based in Nevada (including IGT) to sell such machines anywhere.

Under Nevada law, "Games of skill" such as video poker and blackjack which represent a physical entity like a deck of cards must model the physical game as accurately as possible. I know they do this because I know several people who have made considerable money by card-counting video blackjack machines and high-grading video poker progressive jackpots.

I do advise people who like video poker to only play machines manufactured in Nevada for this reason. It is possible to read such a machine's payout chart and figure out just how badly it is ripping you off. It is, however, necessary to learn the correct strategy for the game to minimize one's losses or, if one is really patient and persistent, to realize a profit from the progressive jackpots.
posted by localroger at 5:24 AM on July 22, 2011 [6 favorites]


Slots manufacturers have recently come to view game consoles as a serious threat to their business; they fear that younger gamblers in particular might prefer to stay home and play L.A. Noire than trek to a casino. So to give players the illusion that they’re doing something more interactive than clicking on a random-number generator, many slots now offer periodic bonuses like free spins or minigames.

This pretty much describes my slot machine behavior. I'm not a gambler, I don't particularly like to throw away money, but I don't mind spending a little on entertainment. A penny or nickel slot with an entertaining bonus round--which appears often, even if it pays out very little--will hold my attention while I wait for the cocktail waitress.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:46 AM on July 22, 2011 [2 favorites]


I do not understand people who play slots or video poker.

Because if you're at a casino bar with a good policy about comps, you can drink more free cocktails* than you will lose in VP or on the penny slots. All you pay are tips.
*obviously another gamble in Vegas is finding a bartender who will make a good drink with a generous pour. They do exist!
posted by pointystick at 6:04 AM on July 22, 2011


Going in 3 days to Las Vegas. Wish me luck. Slots and roulette are the only games I play.
posted by stormpooper at 6:06 AM on July 22, 2011


If I were to stand over someone and demand 7% off all the cash that they had on hand every day they would tell me to hit the bricks ...

Have you looked at your pay stub lately?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:38 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


localroger is correct WRT honest VP machines. The pay table on a true video poker game makes the house edge easy to calculate - and on progressive jackpot machines, when the jackpot grows big enough the game becomes +EV - it gives a player edge with optimal strategy. Some advantage players make part of their living scouring casinos looking for progressive VP jackpots past that threshold.

Even progressive slots can rarely become +EV.

Full pay non-progressive Deuces Wild video poker gives a return of more than 100.7%. These are pretty hard to find, even though the optimal strategy is complicated and the casino as with other skill games can expect a hold far better than the theoretical house edge.

In 2007, poker player Richard 'Quiet Lion' Brodie was banned from all Harrah's Entertainment properties, and thus from participating in the World Series of Poker, due to winning too much at full pay Deuces Wild VP.
posted by delegeferenda at 8:05 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I never used to understand the interest in slot machines - I mean, to me it's just sit there an push a button over and over? WTF. But then I went to a casino with a friend of mine who's very into it, and seeing it through his eyes changed my opinion. He doesn't play hoping to win big money. No, he actually enjoys the mathematics behind the things, which allows him to put in some small amount like $10 and get, say, $100 worth of game play out of it. He's also in it for the racking up of player points with the casino's rewards program - so that even if he never jackpots, just by playing long enough he breaks even in free gifts, concert tickets, Vegas hotel stays. (seriously, he has an entire closet full of assorted free swag gifts - small appliances and the like - that he may never use.)

Me, I prefer something like video poker (not actual card poker - I suck at playing against actual people) or video blackjack. Because those have known odds that, at least on the basic machines that don't toss in a lot of deceiving extras, can be reasonably favorable to the player. (I think on a basic 6/5 poker machine, played with correct strategy, you're supposed to be able to get 95% or more of your money back, which is the best odds of any machine. Or something like that.) What I like about those is they engage my mind more - I have more understanding that my own choices affect the results, so I'm more involved. Unlike slots where, for all the bells and whistles and video surround sound, it's still just a random result.
posted by dnash at 8:20 AM on July 22, 2011


I used to be a programmer for a large Nevada casino some years back. There were databases showing exactly which machines had hit and when, what the payouts were for each machine, which machines were overdue to pay out
I don't know if I should believe you. If you're a programmer, you should have enough mathematical grounding to know that "over due" is a loaded, BS term, if we're referring to the modern RNG-based machines.
posted by k5.user at 8:55 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Even progressive slots can rarely become +EV.

Back in the 1990's when I was hanging around in casinos a lot, one of the other +EV regulars was a guy who went by the nickname Einstein. One of the Gulf Coast casinos had noticeably jackpot-biased slots which gave few small payouts, and Einstein guessed that they might have relatively short virtual reels as a result. So he spent three days clocking a bank of Blazing 7's progressives which were known to have both a fast progressive and short payout cycle. He basically stood behind three players and recorded the frequencies of all the symbols on each reel. That gave him enough data to statistically reconstruct the virtual reels, and he was able to figure out the point at which the progressive jackpot made the machines +EV. Since they were loudly advertised as also returning 99%, it didn't take long, and Einstein's video poker team made quite a bit of money off those slots before they were swapped out for a different game in a couple of years.
posted by localroger at 9:28 AM on July 22, 2011 [8 favorites]


I do not understand people who play slots or video poker.

I don't understand people who jog, but what it comes down to is that it must be enjoyable for them. Sitting at a slot machine is fun for me. I go into it knowing full well that the money I'm playing with will most likely be gone when I walk away. It's no different from buying a movie ticket -- I'm paying for entertainment. What makes it even more entertaining, though, is that little flip of your stomach that says, "Okay, maybe this time I'll win $10. Or maybe $100!" It doesn't happen that way most of the time, sure, but the anticipation makes it fun.

Anywho, here's a fun bit of slot machine trivia. The classic fruit images that you still see on complicated video slots -- cherries, plums, lemons, etc. -- go back to the very first slot machines. When they first showed up in gold-rush-era San Francisco, slot machines didn't pay out money. Grand prize was a cigar. Lesser prizes were a stick of gum. The flavor of the gum corresponded with the fruit on the reels, with cherry being the most popular. And the cherry image sticks around on today's slots.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:45 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't know if I should believe you. If you're a programmer, you should have enough mathematical grounding to know that "over due" is a loaded, BS term, if we're referring to the modern RNG-based machines.

Nonsense, k5.user. The machines are expected to win at a certain rate (from the house's POV). If a machine has been paying out too much, it might be malfunctioning. The house would have a vested interest in checking into that possibility. Likewise, if a machine is paying out too little, if there is a chance it is because of a software glitch, the house can get into trouble for not meeting legal payout requirements.

Hmm... thinking further along those lines... there is a miniscule but non-zero chance that the house's machines will not pay out enough to meet the law. In fact, most state laws are presumably written to address each machine, which increases the odds of a completely random under-payout. As the house, I'd want the ability to tweak the game's payout - either by swapping machines, or by fine-tuning the odds of winning (if absolutely necessary, to 100%!). Otherwise, I could theoretically face legal consequences from random events.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:58 AM on July 22, 2011


(seriously, he has an entire closet full of assorted free swag gifts - small appliances and the like - that he may never use.)

If he never uses them, then, even though they were free, they aren't profiting him, so he's not really "breaking even" by receiving them, unless he considers having closet space painful.
posted by kenko at 10:00 AM on July 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Everyone should read localroger's link; it's great.
posted by kenko at 10:23 AM on July 22, 2011


This brought to mind Steve Wynn's rant the other day:

I'm telling you that the business community in this country is frightened to death of the weird political philosophy of the President of the United States. And until he's gone, everybody's going to be sitting on their thumbs...I'm afraid to do anything in the current political environment in the United States

So Steve Wynn, casino mogul, is risk-averse. Which shouldn't be a shock to anyone, but I'll never walk into a casino again without thinking of this.
posted by malocchio at 1:12 PM on July 22, 2011


Under Nevada law, "Games of skill" such as video poker and blackjack which represent a physical entity like a deck of cards must model the physical game as accurately as possible. I know they do this because I know several people who have made considerable money by card-counting video blackjack machines and high-grading video poker progressive jackpots.

I am not going to argue law. I am just going to tell you that at the very large casino where I worked slots, blackjack and poker machines were tracked in a database and their payout rates were regularly adjusted to maximize profit. I can tell you that high roller machines (greater than $20 a play) had significantly higher payouts than quarter slot machines.

I am not going to argue Nevada law or the theory of how games of skill are supposed to work or whether video poker is indeed a game of skill. I am simply going to tell you that I have seen and touched the databases and the machines did not model any sort of real life card play (nor could they be card counted since they used an essentially infinite deck) but rather the machines were set to pay out on a percentage basis and were adjusted regularly, not to model a card game, but rather to maximize net casino gain in different areas of the casino during different times of the year.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 2:26 PM on July 22, 2011


P.S. People who are telling you that they are making money playing video poker are lying both to you and to themselves. Gamblers do this all the time.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 2:28 PM on July 22, 2011


So Poet, am I imagining the $2 million my once destitute friend and his card counting team made, quite a bit of it on a run at countable video blackjack machines before the casinos wised up about them?

Speaking of seeing spreadsheets, I've seen his spreadsheets showing the team bankroll fluctuations. As a cure for letting the casino do the same thing to you, even for chump change, it's highly recommended.

The kind of tracking program you claim to have been part of makes sense for the purposes of fraud detection, but not for playing whack-a-mole with individual machine payouts. It would not surprise me that at some individual property a manager would misuse the system in that way, but it's not standard industry practice because it's stupid and unnecessary. If you have the edge and the long run on your side -- and the casino has both -- you do not need anything else.

At one time one of IGT's competitors looked into offering a machine that would guarantee its hold by adjusting its payout rate if too many or two few jackpots hit. Nevada ruled the scheme unacceptable; the payouts must be random. I doubt if adjusting the payouts every night on the whim of some ignorant manager runs afoul of this as long as the payouts stay north of the minimum state requirement, but it's a waste of time.

Random is random, and true random doesn't look random to humans, which is why casinos exist in the first place. Since casinos are run by humans, they sometiimes do stupid things that are not necessary, in their own interests, or even legal.

The casino industry paid off my house, made my friend fairly wealthy until 9/11 wiped out his stock portfolio, and video poker in particular has been quite good to some other people I know. Contrary to your assertion I'm fairly sure they are not lying about winning since they have done it for years and years at a time and have no other visible means of support. They probably would not have gambled at your casino though, because they would have profiled your machines as thoroughly as your bosses did, and they only devote heavy play to situations they are confident are +EV.
posted by localroger at 5:35 PM on July 22, 2011


The last time I was in Vegas I blew $400 on video poker. It was a bad moment in my life. I was there for WrestleMania with my ex-wife and my son. This was the Hulk Hogan vs Yokozuna or something.

I'm not a fan of wrestling, but my kid was and so we went. We had a room at the Excaliber Hotel.

After the "event" I decided to go to a decent hotel to have a drink. I ended up at the bar in the Tropicana. There I found a joker poker machine in the bar itself.

So I started to play it. But it played me. As long as I was pumping coins into it, I got free drinks.

Until I was out of cash.

I had one damn dollar left. On the way back to my room I put my last buck into one of those huge showy one armed bandits. I hit for exactly $189. I felt like I was the winningest guy in the world.
posted by Splunge at 5:46 PM on July 22, 2011


localroger: That V.P. who smiled at my naivete and told me that the millions I saw going out would be won back before the month was out told me all that I needed to know about the gambling industry and those who partake of it. Perhaps the post 9-11 market did wipe out your friend's gambling winnings . Perhaps your friend continued to play the machines. I don't know. Neither do you really. But that Vice President seemed pretty damned sure.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 10:55 PM on July 22, 2011


If I were to stand over someone and demand 7% off all the cash that they had on hand every day they would tell me to hit the bricks

It's actually like demanding 100% of their cash in many, if not most cases.

People who play these machines with $100 to spend don't shrug, cut their losses and walk away when they're down to $93. Most won't even walk if they get it up to $150. They'll keep going until they've won $500, or have blown the lot. And we all know the latter happens much more often than the former.
posted by Diag at 11:19 PM on July 22, 2011


I don't think it's controversial that gamblers often gamble away their winnings or that casinos make lots of money from gamblers, so there's really no need to imply that people in this thread lying. There's room in the world for both of your scenarios to exist without any contradictions.
posted by doublehappy at 11:46 PM on July 22, 2011


Perhaps the post 9-11 market did wipe out your friend's gambling winnings . Perhaps your friend continued to play the machines.

The person I called X in the article I linked above only played those machines which proved +EV. He mostly counted cards until the casino industry consolidated and the +EV blackjack games became scarce. While his team was active, individual players who played full-time were bringing in $100,000 to $200,000 per year. This went on for over ten years. While they mostly counted live card games, they did make over $100K from a bank of countable video blackjack machines in North Carolina. At least half a dozen different people played those machines, and they all won consistently until the machines were re-programmed, a fact which showed readily on the machine's game rules display.

X did in fact lose much of his money in margin trades on 9/11, and much of what was left in some rental properties that went underwater in Katrina. In about a week he and my wife are headed back to Las Vegas; their current project is live poker. It's more volatile and less profitable but the industry has become quite paranoid about games and promotions that are +EV against the house. There used to be casino captains such as Benny Binion who didn't mind actually gambling with the occasional skilled player, but they have been bought out by publicly traded companies run by bean counters.

It is very often the case that your V.P. is right; part 4 of my article addresses that. But it is not always the case. Casinos are run by humans, and I have seen casinos do some very stupid things. If your casino was running around adjusting the slot payouts every night, that would go in the "stupid things done by casinos" column.

There is an extensive literature both from inside and outside the industry, a widely known body of law, and a sizable community of players who all agree that your view of video card machines is only sometimes right. You claim not to want to argue a point of law, but that point of law exists and I know people who have used it for guidance and made money. Perhaps your casino had some non-Nevada machines that did not mimic a 52-card deck, but if so they were illegal. This is not unknown; the state only has so many regulators. Years back one of the smaller Vegas casinos was caught with a bank of video poker machines that had been hacked to never give royal flushes. They had been that way for years, but the +EV community knew there was something wrong years before the state of Nevada did.

People who gamble for +EV keep meticulous records, and they quickly find out if a machine isn't behaving the way it is supposed to. We have also discovered blackjack dealers we were fairly sure were cheating this way. The same math you were doing for your casino, we can do too. I have seen the records kept by people who do that math, and your assertion that all video card machines are really slots in drag is simply not true.
posted by localroger at 5:30 AM on July 23, 2011 [1 favorite]


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