Monday, October 11, 2010

Questions, questions, questions

Q. I have a question about video poker. The experts all tell you to discard the ace when holding three unsuited high cards to the ace. Why?

A. Discarding the Ace and keeping just an unsuited Queen-Jack, King-Queen or King-Jack is a question of balance and tradeoffs. Are we better off with the head start on straights and the greater chance of pairing a high card that holding three high cards gives us, or are we better off holding just two high cards and leaving open the possibility of four of a kind or a full house while increasing the possibility of three of a kind or two pair?

The key is that not all three-card starts to a straight are created equal. In a hand that includes an Ace and two other high cards, the only possible straights are Ace-high. King-Queen-Jack, it is possible to draw straights that are either Ace high or King high.

Starting with Ace-King-Queen, for example, you can draw straights only by drawing one of the four Jacks along with one of the four 10s. There are 16 possible Jack-10 draws. If you hold King-Queen-Jack, you can complete a straight either by drawing one of the four Aces along with one of the four 10s, or one of the four 10s along with one of the four 9s. That’s 32 possible draws.

That greater chance of drawing a straight with King-Queen-Jack makes it worth our while to eliminate all possibility of drawing four of a kind or a full house while also depressing chances of drawing three of a kind or two pair. When the hand includes an Ace, the balance tips the other way. Our chances of drawing a straight are much lower, so we’d rather keep intact our chances at other hands that pay more than our bet.

To use 9-6 Jacks or Better as an example, dealt a hand like Queen-Jack-Ace of mixed suits along with a 4 and a 7, your average return for a five-coin bet is 2.496 coins for holding Queen-Jack, and 2.280 for holding Ace-Queen-Jack.

Q. I was at a casino when one of the card shuffle machines was malfunctioning and the floor boss made the comment, “It’s missing some Kings.”

That got me thinking. Sometimes too much thinking is a dangerous thing, but in this case if the shuffle machine is identifying individual cards, what prevents this machine from stacking cards in such a way that in an eight-deck shoe the casino would get a significant advantage? I noticed this especially at a table in the high-roller room where they would deal horrible shoes for 5-6 hours or more. Taking into account the randomness induced by the cut of the deck could there be bias built in?

A. I don’t know that there was anything wrong at the game you were playing, but I would be really, really wary of continuing to play at a casino where I heard a supervisor say, “It’s missing some Kings.” If Kings, or any other 10-value cards, are being selectively removed from play, you get fewer blackjacks, and it diminishes your chances of drawing a 10-value on double downs. Obviously, that hurts.

That doesn’t mean I think the shuffler is doing the removing. Automatic shufflers aren’t equipped with card recognition capabilities. They have random number generators that select designated slots to move the cards, but they don’t know the value of the card being moved.

When casinos want to know the value of the cards being played --- whether it’s to insure correct payoffs, estimate the quality of the player for rewards purposes or to sniff out advantage players --- there are systems they can use to do it. All are expensive and not in common use at this point, but optical scanners as well as card-reading shoes that sense RFID chips embedded in the cards are available.

I would be more worried about casino personnel manually removing cards from the deck. This is rare, but not completely non-existent. If I’d observed bad shoe after bad shoe, then heard a comment about Kings missing, it wouldn’t prove cards were being removed, but it would tempt me to take my business elsewhere.

Q. There are times when I’m playing slots and I just keep on winning. Then the machine gets cold and you start losing. It’s like the machine is on a winning streak or losing streak.. I know it’s supposed to be all random but is there any kind of streaks?

I also have a friend who tells me that the amount you play per line changes the results. He’ll tell me that he will play a machine at three coins per line and he’s doing well, so goes up to five units per line and the machine stops paying out. Sso he’ll go back down to betting three units and he’ll start winning again.

He also says there have been times when a machine is not returning any money and he will cash out and put new money in and start winning. He swears this changes the machine’s rhythm or cycle.

A. Are there streaks? Sure, streaks are part of the normal odds and performance of any game. Can we predict them and make them happen? No. All streaks are historical --- that is, we only know there's been a streak after it's happened.

Are there programmed cycles? That’s a different question, and the answer is “No.”

Everything your friend is experiencing is coincidence. If you tracked over hundreds of thousands of spins, you’d find the same percentage of winners no matter how many coins were bet.

The random number generator that determines what you see on the reels or screen doesn't know how many coins you bet or whether you’ve cashed out or whether you’ve put in fresh money. Your wager or cashout patterns can't influence a program that doesn't know how much you bet or whether you’ve cashed out.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Way back in the late 1990s, as video slots were first gaining a foothold on casino floors, players used to ask the same question, over and over.

“How can you tell when you’ve won with all these crazy paylines?”

That was back in the days of five-line games, with three lines across, a “V” and a chevron, long before anyone thought of marketing games with 100 paylines. But these were new, different, and a tiny bit confusing.

Nowadays, people are used to all the paylines, and if they can’t tell what’s going on as it’s happening, at least they’re comfortable with winning combinations being outlined on the screen afterward.

The question of how you can tell when you’ve won isn’t asked all that much anymore, but that doesn’t mean there’s no mystery left in video slots. Some things still are asked over and over again. Let’s try to answer some of those frequently asked questions:

How can I tell when a machine is ready to pay off?

That’s always the million-dollar --- or even hundred nickel --- question with slot machines, isn’t it?. There is no way to tell when a jackpot is coming, or when there’s about to be a hot streak, or when the bonus round is on its way.

Just as with reel-spinning slots, the results you see on the screen are determined by a program called a random number generator. Nothing humans can design is perfectly random, but the RNG is close enough that we can’t tell what’s coming next.

How soon should I leave a machine when it’s cold?

Because results are as random as humans can program a computer to be, there’s no tendency for a hot machine to stay hot, nor for a cold machine to stay cold. Just your machine has been more of an icebox than video game doesn’t mean it’s going to stay frigid.

That doesn’t mean you should sit there pumping $20 bill after $20 bill down the gullet of a penny pincher. It’s no fun to sit through a losing session, not to mention hazardous to your bankroll. Before you play, make a hard decision on how much you’re willing to spend playing that game, then stick to it. My tolerance is fairly short --- a second $20 is as far as I’m willing to go.

That’s not the place on all casino games. If I’m playing a quarter video poker game with a high payback percentage, I’ll stick around longer. But on low-denomination video slots, which often return less than 90 percent to players in the long run, I’m ready to go try something else if I don’t get a few nice bonus events quickly.

I don’t trust video slots. How do I know they haven’t programmed that computer just to take my money?

I get this question a little less often than I used to. When video slot machines made their big breakthrough in the late 1990s, players used to three-reel slots felt there was something more trustworthy about whirring mechanical reels. As video claimed ever larger shares of the slot floor and players got used to the games, the doubts abated.

Still, I get e-mail about this at least a couple of times a year. And the short answer is that video slots are every bit as trustworthy as reel-spinners, programmed in the same way. Both use random number generators to tell the reels where to stop. If you see a Blazing 7 on the payline on a reel spinner, it’s because the RNG has generated a number that corresponds to a Blazing 7. If you’re playing Reel ’Em In! and a fishing lure appears on one of the many paylines on the video screen, it’s because the RNG has generated a number that corresponds to that fishing lure.

There are no programming shenanigans a manufacturer can pull on a video slot that it couldn’t also pull on a reel-spinner, if it had a mind to and if no one was looking. But gaming boards and test laboratories ARE looking, checking and licensing every new game before it goes into casinos. And they’re finding that video slots are every bit as random as three-reel slots.

Do video slots pay out as much as reel slots?

The old formula of slots having higher payback percentages at higher coin denominations holds true on video, just as it long has done on reel-spinning games. Dollar games pay more than quarters, which pay more than nickels, which pay more than pennies. And since most  video slots are at lower denominations --- penny games are the most popular things casinos have going --- they tend to have lower payback percentages than reel-spinners.

That’s true even though players wager more coins on video, and total wagers can be as high or higher than on three-reels slots. If you’re playing a nickel video slot with 15 paylines, just covering all the lines with single-credit wagers requires a total wager of 75 cents, a bet as high as the maximum bet on a three-reel, three-coin quarter game. And maximum bets on that 15-line nickel video can be 10 coins per line ($7.50) or even 20 coins per line ($15).

Yet the payback percentage on that nickel video slot tends to be a couple of percent lower than on the quarter reel-spinner. Doesn’t seem fair somehow, does it?

There are a few factors that go into that. First, people LIKE the entertainment of video games with their free spins, second-screen bonuses, sharp graphics and fun sound effects. When players are filling the seats, there’s little need to goose up the payback percentages.

Second, most players stick to one or two coins per line. There aren’t many who really make maximum wagers on multiline video slots, so the total wager on a nickel game is a whole lot more likely to be very close to that on a quarter reel-spinner than it is to surpass it.

Third, play is slower on a video slot than on a reel-spinner that doesn’t have animated bonus rounds. Whether you’re getting free spins or taking a trip around the Monopoly board, you’re getting playing time without making extra wagers. If you’re betting 75 cents a spin on a video slot, and I’m betting 75 cents a spin on a three-reel game with no bonus events, then I bet more money per hour than you do because I’m not getting that free time.

Don’t video slots pay more often than reel-spinners?

Yes, they do. Because you wager more credits per spin on a video slot than on a reel-spinner, programmers have a lot of flexibility to give you frequent small paybacks that often are less than your wager.  If you’ve played the video slots much, you know how often you wager 15, 20 or 25 coins and get a return of six coins, or 10, or some other number less than the amount you’ve wagered.

That enables programmers to build in very high hit frequencies. Some video slots give you some return on more than half your spins. It’s even possible to program a video slot so that it gives something back on every spin --- and still  makes money for the house.

On a typical three-reel slot with a single-payline, that’s just not possible. There are a few “winners” of less than the wager amount. I’ve played games that give you one credit when you wager three and all three reels stop with blanks on the payline. But nearly all payers return at least a few times your wager. To make a profit for the house, that means there need to be fewer winning spins.

There’s a wide range of hit frequencies within reel-spinning slots, but most fall between 12 percent and 20 percent of spins bringing winners. On video slots, most game have hit frequencies hovering around 40 percent --- a few percent more or less depending on the game --- with some in excess of 50 percent.

So yes, you get payoffs more often on video slots, but your paybacks are usually smaller than those on reel spinners.

Is your bonus decided before you play the bonus round, or do your choices matter?

Your choices matter. Bonus round possibilities are set by a random number generator, but the decisions you make after those possibilities are set decide how big a bonus you’re getting.

Let's say you're playing Jackpot Party and the gift box on the bottom left corner is hiding a 200-credit bonus while the one next to it is hiding a party pooper that ends the round. When you pick, you have a chance at that 200-credit bonus that will allow you to continue picking. You also have the chance at a pooper that will end it there, and you have the chance at any of the other outcomes hidden by gift boxes on the screen.

Your final bonus is not predetermined. It could be thousands of credits, it could be the minimum for hitting the pooper on the first pick, and it could be anything in between.

The random number generator just sets the possibilities. It does not just give you a set bonus.

Is there a pattern to where the big prizes and the stoppers are during bonus events? If I keep track of where the stopper is on one turn, then I avoid that space on the next, do I better my chances of avoiding the stopper?

When the random number generator sets your possibilities for a bonus round, it pays no attention to what happened the last time. It gives you a whole new set of random possibilities. That leaves the possibility that one or more poopers in Jackpot Party, or the paint can that despoils your work of art in Easel Money  will be in the same position as they were the last time you went to the bonus round.

I go back to early video poker days on this, to when double-up features were first introduced. A dealer’s card would be dealt face up, and four player cards dealt face down. If you selected a face-down card that beat the face-up card, you’d double your winnings. If the up card was higher, you lost your winnings for the hand. I tried playing a pattern so I picked a card one to the left of the last high card the next time around. Didn’t work. I tried going one to the right. Didn’t work.

The cards were randomly distributed, with no discernable pattern. So it goes on today’s video slot machines. The stopper symbols are randomly distributed, and there is nothing to stop them from being in the same place twice in a row.

The obvious follow up to this is whether the big winners, rather than the stoppers, are placed in a pattern. If the fisherman on the left reels in a big fish, should you move to the fisherman second to left on the next Reel 'Em In! bonus round? On Dancing Dolphins, you choose one of three spots to decide how many free spins you’ll get. If you pick the spot that lands you 15 free spins, should you pick one of the other two spots the next time around?

You’ve probably guessed that the answer is that there is no such pattern. The big winner on one bonus round is just as likely to be the best choice on the next.

There's no harm in picking different symbols in subsequent bonus rounds, but it won't help you either. If there are three spots to choose from, as on Dancing Dolphins, the chance of the big number being in any given spot is 1 in 3, every time through.

What exactly is a mystery bonus?

Mystery bonuses are awarded not on the basis of the symbols you land on the  video reels, but on factors of time or amount wagered since the last mystery award.

The mystery rewards can be trips to a bonus event, they can be progressive jackpots, then can even be bonus events that lead to progressive jackpots.

Some mystery progressives are programmed with start points and stop points. You’ve probably seen signs at some machines that say something like, “Jackpot must be awarded before $1,000.” If there’s a $500 seed amount and a $1,000 maximum, then the random number generator selects a target between those two amounts. The player whose wager pushes the jackpot to that target amount wins.

Or the game or bank of games could be programmed so that the RNG picks a wager total between a start and stop point, and when the total of wagers on the machine or bank reaches that randomly selected amount, a bonus event is launched. It can even be down with a timer, so that the RNG selects an elapsed time since the last bonus event to launch the next one.

When the bonus event launches, you’ve been given no clues by the symbols on the reels that it’s coming. It’s a mystery.

Should you always bet maximum coins, like on the three-reel games?

Not necessarily. The reason you get the best payback percentage by betting the max on most three-reel games is that there’s a disproportionate jump in the top jackpot. Let’s say a three-reel game’s top jackpot pays 1,000 coins for a one-coin bet, 2,000 coins for two, but 5,000 coins for three. You can break that 5,000 coins down to say you’re getting 1,000 for your first-coin bet, 1,000 for the second, but 3,000 for the third-coin bet. The payback is disproportionately higher for betting the third coin.

Most video slots don’t have such jumps. For each winning combination, the raise in payoffs is proportionate to the size of your wager.

I do recommend playing all the paylines and making sure you’re eligible for all scatter pays --- payoffs and bonus launches where the symbols don’t have to land on the same payline. But if all payoffs are proportionate, you get the same payback percentage whether you bet one coin per line, 10 per line or 20 per line. You can stay within your bankroll and bet one coin per line if you like and not feel like you’re missing a higher payback percentage.

There are exceptions. If you’re playing a machine with a progressive jackpot or jackpots, be sure to read the glass and make certain your bet makes you eligible for the progressive. Progressive machines tend to have lower paybacks outside the jackpots, so if you don’t want to bet enough to be eligible, it’s better to find a different game. Also, a very few games activate certain jackpot symbols only if your bet is large enough. You don’t want to line up five winning symbols only to find you haven’t wagered enough to collect. Read the glass and the help menu, and make sure.

Do games with free-spins pay more than games with pick’em bonuses?

They don’t pay more. They pay differently.

There’s some variation within each type of game, but usually pick’em second-screen bonuses are even keel games, with the bonuses designed to give you extra time on device. The bonuses aren’t enormous, but they’re interesting, fun, and keep you in your seat. Free-spin bonuses are wilder rides. There, you can win thousands of credits at a time, or you can win nothing --- or at least very little. They’re a more volatile experience that give penny players the potential for rewards worth winning, while the pick’ems tend to be more popular with nickel players.

There’s plenty of room for games with different looks and different payback methods. That’s all part of the fun in the video age.