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How Slot Machines Work
by Frank Scoblete

“Give me just a little more time dear. I’ve been playing this machine for days now and I feel it’s about to hit.”While slot machines deal in chance, noth-ing inside the slots, either physically or in terms of the programming, has been left to chance. They are marvels of design and the casinos can take the execution of that design to the bank — which of course they do. Many slot players have no idea of how the machines work. Well, let’s demystify them, shall we?

Today’s slot machines are programmed by computer to continually select a series of numbers at random, whether the machine is being played or not. The RNG, or random-number generator, continually picks number series that correspond to the various symbols on the reels or to blank spaces. When a player puts in his or her coins and then either pulls the handle or presses the button, the computer spins the reels to tell the player which number series was “it” when that coin went in.

Many players believe that the independent spinning of the reels is the selection principle. Sorry, no. The reels will stop where the computer tells them to stop, based on the number series that had been previously selected by the RNG for each reel. The reels have no independent action. They are being perfectly coordinated by the RNG and the computer. In fact, the spinning of the reels is merely a show, a diversion, an entertainment.

Since the modern slot machine is programmed to select number series at random, no amount of finessing of the handle can change what has been decided. Nor are there built-in win/loss cycles, as some players believe. In any series of random events — such as the selection of the number series by the RNG — all manner of bizarre win/loss patterns will develop. Yet, when you look at the performance of these machines in a given year, you’ll note that most come in at — or extremely close to — their programming.

And how are they programmed? The casinos cannot make money if they return to the player more money than the player originally put in them. Instead, the machines return a percent-age of the money put in them. Thus, if a machine is returning 92 percent that means that in the long run of that particular machine’s programming it will give back 92 cents for every dollar played. It keeps eight cents on the dollar.

Now, people would not play slot machines if every time they put a dollar in they got 92 cents back. What fun would that be? Where’s the adrenaline rush? Instead, the slot machines are programmed to return their percentages explosively. That is, sometimes nothing comes out and sometimes a hell of a lot comes pouring out. It is the lure of a great windfall (or even a little breeze) that excites the slot player. After all, inside the belly of that computerized beast are sequences that can make you rich — and the heart pounds with that knowledge. And thus the casino can return its 92 cents on the dollar because it is giving us more than eight cents worth of anticipatory thrills with every dollar we plunk into the machine’s maw.

All slot machines, be they giant linked progressives such as Megabucks® or Quartermania®; game-within-game machines such as Monopoly or Wheel of Fortune®; stand-alone machines such as Double Diamond® or Wild Cherry®; or video poker machines such as Jacks or Better™ or Deuces Wild,™ have the RNG as their selection principle. While the physical games might appear different, the brains inside those games are the same!

This story was first published in the October - November 2002 issue of Gambling Times Magazine.

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