Darryl McEwen

So, you think you have those slot machines all figured out.

According to Kevin Harrigan, a professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo in Ontario, while slot machines reward their players with cash, the outcome is based not on skill, but chance – and chance is heavily weighted against the player.

(OK, there now are some slot machines that are skill-based, but there aren’t many and they haven’t quite achieved the popularity of “regular” slot machines.)

He points out that slot machines are designed to play on the brain’s reward system to keep people engaged.

He’s identified at least two ways slots make you think you’re winning more often than you are:

• Flashing bright lights or celebratory sounds when players win, say, 80 cents, even though they’d gambled a dollar.

• The “near miss” – where the reels spin, two of the three win symbols line up, and the final symbol rolls just above or below the payline. Players think they’re more likely to win on the next spin, even though, mathematically, each spin is independent from the last. (With the new digital machines, manufacturers can program near misses to occur up to 12 times more often than by chance alone.)

To help counter this, and educate players, Harrigan and some colleagues came up with labels – similar to those nutrition labels on food.

Working with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. they came up with labels that essentially tell players how much money they might win (or lose!) and the addictive properties of the games.

The labels, placed on 250 machines over a three-month period, presented players with three characteristics of the game:

• How volatile it is, i.e., whether it has frequent, but small payouts; or the payouts are larger, but occur less often.

• The chance of hitting a bonus round.

• The payback percentage – the percentage of all bets that go to the casino.

According to the project’s final report, players they surveyed recognized how volatile games could be and they were able to identify the machines in which the casino kept more of their money.

What the labels didn’t do was cause these same players to gamble less because some players seek the excitement of big jackpots, though these rarely happen.

“Changing a veteran player’s behavior is tough because often their concepts about gambling are so ingrained,” Harrigan says. “People who showed personality traits associated with problem gambling actually lost slightly more money after the labels were introduced [because]. . .players felt they knew more about the machines. They were more confident when placing their bets.”

Bottom line? The casino still ends up coming out the winner!

Recreational gambler Darryl D. McEwen, a former professional journalist, is president of his own consulting firm that manages several small national and international trade associations, and provides public relations and fundraising services for a number of charitable organizations. Have a comment on this or a question specifically related to an Atlantic City casino, players club or other promotion? Email Darryl at MrACCasino@gmail.com and he’ll try to respond to you personally. Your question – without your name – may appear in a future column. Follow him on Twitter @MrACCasino.