Friday, September 27, 2013

G2E Day 3, visting Bally and Titanic

On the final day of Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas, my final tour of slot manufacturers' booths sent me searching for folks who know more about ships than I do. On its new Titanic slots, Bally Technologies kicks off bonus events with a U Spin turn. By now, you know how U Spin works. You touch the screen to move a wheel back and forth, and let fly to give it a spin.

On Titanic, a key U Spin is on the ship's control that's marked off into segments including slow, full half and stop, both for ahead and astern. That seemed like a lot of words, so I wanted to know what the device was called. For a quick answer, I turned to an online community, a message board consisting mainly of University of Illinois sports fans.

I got my answer within four minutes of asking. It's the engine order telegraph.

The engine order telegraph is important in Titanic, a feature-rich games filled with movie clips and iconic symbols. The celebration for big wins includes the famous moment in the movie when Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson stands on the prow and shouts for the planet to hear, "I'm king of the world!" Slot playing kings and queens also see coins flying across the screen during the classic scene.

On the Titanic game, the engine order telegraph segments are for bonus event launches and other awards. When Bally's Mike Trask showed the game features, a U Spin of the engine order telegraph took us to the segment marked Safe.

In the Safe feature, it was time to U Spin again, this time on the ship's  safe's combination lock. A single spin brought a credit award, opened the door and took us into a finely appointed ship's room. There, we got to pick icons --- a vase, a table, a woman standing in the room --- to collect bonuses.

Another event plays off Dawson's sketching skills. A drawing scene plays, and three sketches are displayed. A match game follows, with players doing a little virtual scratch off until they select three copies of the same drawing. That determines bet size on free spins to come.

Slot players who loved the movie will find plenty to like, regardless of whether they've ever heard of an engine order telegraph.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

G2E, day 2, Aristocrat, Spielo, Konami

A few  notes from Global Gaming Expo, Day 2:

**After two days of being accosted by zombies near the exhibit hall --- they growled at me, but ultimately parted enough that I could get through without turning undead --- I got my chance to see Aristocrat's The Walking Dead game through its license with AMC. It's feature rich, with Reel Growth extending reels 2, 3, 4 and 5 up an extra 1 to 3 spaces for added potential wins. In The Horde bonus, the Horde invades the screen and leaves wild symbols behind. As Aristocrat's Dallas Orchard demoed the game, a zombie took a shot in the head, splattering blood --- and wild symbols --- across the reels. When the blood starts flowing, it's good for the players.

**Spielo's Sphinx 3D is spectacular. Sphinx has been a great title for Spielo (formerly Atronic) for a long time, and in the new version, the 3-D effects are spectacular. As Mike Brennan, who was showing me the game watched, the coins from a big win seemed to jump right off the screen, and right at me. I reach out and grasped, and told him I'd like to take some of those coins right now.

Stacked wilds here are really stacked wilds. Coin-shaped discs depicting a scarab stack up on the same reel position. As the stack grows, it increases the number of times a winner is collected. At one point, I had a winner that included a stack of five scarabs. I collected the 250 credit win once, and a scarab disk was taken away. That was repeated, repeated, repeated and repeated again, until the last scarab had been used, I got the 250-coin win five times. It's a new way of stacking wilds that would work effectively only with great 3D.

**One of the pleasures of G2E is experiencing game features without investing any money. At the Konami booth, I sampled The Force of Legend, an Xtra Reward Game featuring Action Stacked Symbols The lion was a wild symbol, and each lion expanded into a stack to fill a three-symbol column. I triggered a bonus event, and had to choose credits or 45 spins under Konami's Balance of Fortune mechanic. I choose spins, and on No. 44 triggered 150 more. The total for 195 spins: $1,524.50 in imaginary money for a $4.50 imaginary bet.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Notes from G2E, Day 1

On the first day of Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas, I toured the booths of Incredible Technologies, WMS Gaming and International Game Technology. I also looked in on some new table games, but that's a subject for another time.

Impressions of the beginning of the long march through the slotmakers' booths, with one game from each:

**Incredible's second King of Bling game, Bounce 2 Nite, is a blast, with a couple of new features, One is Iced Out, triggered by diamond symbols on the first two reels. The diamonds are held, and everything else goes into respin mode. The diamonds dance, bounce, sway and spin in time to the music, and the tempo picks up as the wins mount. The respins continue as long as they bring more diamonds, which lock into place. The goal is to ice out the screen, covering it in diamonds.

The Bounce 2 Nite feature involves bouncing a flashy car. Touch the front left bumper, and it raises and bounces down with a crash, revealing bonus credits. Touch other areas of the car, and they bounce too. The awards are random, not determined by where you touch the car. Focus groups just liked making it bounce.

**WMS has much, much to offer, and I can't possibly do justice by focusing on one game. There'll be more to come in magazines and in my syndicated column, but for now. I loved its new Iron Man game, with plenty of images, sounds and clips from the movie. Bonus rounds are iconic. Slot players will love seeing the Jericho missiles fired onto the screen to create winners.

The playing field has 5 reels, each 12 symbols deep. The center 5x4 section is the bonus zone. You need the bonus characters to land in the zone to launch the bonus events. When Black Widow shows up, you want her in the bonus zone.

**IGT is involved in all market segments, and I'll be writing about its Megajackpots and video poker games later. One core game I had fun testing was Centipede, with its skill-based bonus. IGT went for an old-school video game feel, and it really game through.

In the bonus event, you use a joystick to move into position, then one of four buttons to fire at the crawling centipede, elimnating some segments for bonuses and sending the remnants on their separate ways. I did destroy the first centipede to move to level 2, but alas, could not advance again. I still got a nice bonus, and a lot of fun.

Monday, September 23, 2013

A geezer in Las Vegas

I'm well into my third decade of coming to Las Vegas on a regular basis, anywhere from once to four times a year, depending on assignments and schedule. I usually stay away from the Strip, at joints that cater to locals. I need neither the glitz, the crowds nor the bad blackjack rules and weak video poker pay tables of the Strip.

This is a six-night stay, and it's the first three that give me a chance to play a little. I have meetings and tasks to attend to, but quite a bit of free time. So I'm at Sam's Town. I mentioned the full-pay Deuces Wild, but Sam's also has 10-7-5 Double Bonus Poker and 10-6 Double Double Bonus Poker, both 100 percent games with expert play.

I also played some blackjack, two decks, hand-shuffled, face-down game where the blackjacks paid 3-2 instead of the 6-5 abominations you find on the Strip. The dealer asked what brought me to town, and I said a trade show. When he asked which one and I told him Global Gaming Expo, he replied, "That's a big show. I'd think you'd want to be on the Strip." I told him I never stay on the Strip, I've been coming to Vegas ... and he finished my sentence. "You've been coming for decades and you don't need the Strip. Yeah, we see that."

It was a little confusing for the young woman at the Enterprise desk at the car rental center, though. She asked where I was staying and whether I needed a map. I told her I'd be at Sam's Town, and knew my way if she could tell me the shortest way out of the rental center to eastbound Flamingo. She gave me the three-right-turns directions that take you to the Strip, Las Vegas Boulevard. I told her I was trying to avoid Las Vegas Boulevard, and she looked confused.

A second person, a 30ish man, walked me to the car to inspect it before I drove away. He also asked if I needed directions. This time, I was more specific. I said, "I'm staying at Sam's Town. Is one of the turns out of here Warm Springs?" He said, "Warm Springs is your second right. Then ... "

 I stopped him and asked another question. "If I turn left on Warm Springs instead of right, can I then take a left on Eastern to get to Flamingo east?" He paused for a second, and said, "Yes, in fact that'll probably be a lot faster."

It was.

Full-pay Deuces Wild at Sam's Town

I'm in Las Vegas for Global Gaming Expo, which opens Tuesday. Soon, I'll be posting details of some new games at the show.

Sunday was more or less a play day for me. I had dinner with several other writers, including Henry Tamburin, Linda Boyd and Steve Bourie, who publishes the annual American Casino Guide. Steve was our host, and Henry, Linda and I all recorded videos for him that will be posted on YouTube in the coming months.

We were at Sam's Town, and Sam's has what has become a rare treat --- full-pay Deuces Wild. With expert play, it's a 100.8 percent return. For many years, it was my standby when the Tropicana was giving me room and meal comps, and sending a limo to get me at the airport. On one memorable session, I drew four 2s, and 1,000 quarters poured into the tray. Ten minutes later, I did it again. Sweet!

Alas, no more. Hardly anyone has it anymore.

I didn't get the four-deuce, 1,000-quarter bonanza this time, but had a fun session nonetheless. I started with a ticket for $52.50 from a previous session. The deuces were not kind for my first 20 minutes. I was down to my last $1.25, when I drew five of a kind for a nice 75-coin pay. Two hand later, I held once 2, and drew another 2 and three high clubs for a wild royal. Another 125 quarters, and I was in business.

The four of a kinds I wasn't getting early started to roll in. Soon I was up to $60, and settled into a little equilibrium. There were little cold streaks where I dipped below $50, and little hot streaks where I sneaked past $70. Finally, an hour and a half after my session-saving five of a kind, I cashed out for $80.

Not the biggest win in history, but a good time.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Readers ask about video keno, slot jackpots, single-deck blackjack

Question. I never see much written about video keno, but that's just about all my husband and I play. I was wondering if you could solve a question for us. My husband says that it doesn't matter what numbers you pick, that when the machine's ready to pay off, it'll pay off. You just have to be in the right place in the right time, just like a slot machine.

Don't the numbers matter at all?

Answer. The numbers you pick do matter. Video keno machines have random number generators, just like any slot machine. But the video keno RNGs are just generating the numbers to be drawn, and if your numbers match the RNG's, you win. You can't win if you don't have the numbers that are drawn on that play.

Every number has an equal chance of being selected. In the basic game with 80 numbers, and 20 drawn per play, each number has a 1 in 4 chance of being among those 20.

The house doesn't get its edge on video keno from making sure there are more losers than winners. It gets its edge from paying less than true odds when you do win. Let's use the simplest example: A one-spot play.

Your number has a 1 in 4 chance of being drawn. If video keno were an even game, your winner would pay 3-1 odds --- in an average four plays, you'd lose three times, but get back all four wagers on the one time your number hit. But most machines that allow one-spots give back only three coins on the winner. The coin you don't get paid is the house edge.

Meanwhile, the random number generator just keeps generating numbers to be drawn. For you to win, your numbers have to match the machine's. Your selections do matter.

Question. I hit a slot jackpot for $12,500 on a dollar machine. I usually play quarters, so this is by far the largest I ever hit.

The attendant and security guard were very nice, and happy for me. We had high fives all around. They had me sign a tax form. Then the attendant turned a key in the machine before I could play again.
My question is, what does that key do? The man next to me says its resets the machine into "collect" mode, that the machine has just paid out and now it has to take money for a while.

Answer. Congratulations on your big hit. A reason for high fives all around indeed.

As for resetting to "collect" mode, well, no. There is no "collect" or "payback" mode on slot machines. Results remain as random as humans can program a computer to be. And at least until server-based games arrive, changing a payback percentage requires opening the machine and changing a computer chip, not just turning a key or punching in a code.

What the attendant is really doing is unlocking the game so you can play again. The game locks up automatically when an IRS-level jackpot of $1,200 or more is hit. The casino unlocks it once it has your ID and information. Then it has to have you sign the form before it can pay you.

Big jackpots are a normal part of play, and are included in the calculations for the game program. The machine just keeps making its random payoffs, and in time, the jackpot fades into statistical insignificance.

Question. I've studied blackjack basic strategy, so I know when to double down. But when I was playing with a friend of mine recently, he was doubling down on 8s, too. I asked him about it afterward, and he said it was because it was at a single-deck game. Is that right? Why the difference?

Answer. Single-deck blackjack does bring with it some basic strategy changes, and one of them comes when you have a two-card 8. In the single-deck game, you have an edge with an 8 when the dealer shows a 5 or 6, and you want to double down.

Why the difference? Because each card removed from a single-deck game has a greater impact on the composition of the remaining deck than it does in a multiple-deck game. In a single-deck game, taking your 5 and 3 and the dealer's 6 out of a 52-card deck means that 16 of the other 49 cards, or 32.7 percent, are 10 values, and 10-value cards are the dealer's enemy when he or she has a 6 up. In a six-deck game, removing those three cards from play would mean that 96 of the other 309 cards are 10 values, and that's just 31.1 percent.

The dealer in that situation will bust more frequently in a single-deck game than in a multiple-deck game, and that affects our strategy. In addition to the dealer being more likely to bust than in a multiple-deck game, you're more likely to draw a 10-value card on top of your 8. That 18 isn't all-powerful, but it's pretty strong against a 5 or 6.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Should you make the progressive bet at Caribbean Stud?

"Well, should I or shouldn't I?"

The voice belonged to Mark, who had attended a couple of seminars I'd given. I'd seen him in casinos a couple of times before. This time, he was sitting at a Caribbean Stud table as I was passing, checking out available games and table limits.

I stopped and asked what it was he should or shouldn't do.

"Make the progressive bet. It's terrible odds, isn't it? Should I just skip it?"

I didn't want to hold up the game. I told him the bet was a long-shot, but it was his decision. He could find me later if he really wanted a lengthy discussion.

"What the heck," he said. "I came to gamble."

He plunked in his dollar on the progressive bet, and was dealt a pair of 8s. The progressive bet was a loser, but he won on his ante and got his bet back --- the dealer didn't have a qualifying hand.

Mark grinned. "Won enough for a few more bets on the jackpot, anyway."

I moved on, but Mark found me later while I was playing a little video poker.

"Did I catch you at a bad time?"

No, I told him, I was ready for a break.

"So tell me what you really think of that progressive bet? Is it something I should just skip?"

That depends on why you're playing Caribbean Stud, I told him. Are you just relaxing a bit over a game that's easy to play, or are you jackpot hunting?

"A little of both, really. Mostly I play blackjack. Basic strategy stuff --- I never really got into counting cards. Still, you have to pay attention, and when my concentration starts to go, I do something else for a while. Maybe I'll fool around with 20 bucks on the nickel slots, or sometimes I'll play a little Caribbean Stud."

I nodded. Basic strategy for Caribbean Stud is much easier than that for blackjack. The cost is high, though. A blackjack basic strategy player can get the house edge down to about a half percent on a six-deck game, a few tenths more or less depending on house rules. At Caribbean Stud, even if you play well, the house edge is 5.2 percent of the ante or 2.6 percent of total action.

"I know that, and it's a break-time game for me. But I also like the idea that I can win pretty big, pretty fast when the cards run good. You don't have to have great cards, full houses or flushes or anything, but get some two pairs and some three of a kinds and it's really sweet. When you're being paid 2-1 or 3-1 on hands like that instead of just even money like in blackjack, that stack of chips can grow in a hurry."

It can shrink in a hurry, too, I reminded him. Winning hands are much less frequent in Caribbean Stud than in blackjack, and most of the winners are pair or lower hands, or hands in which the dealer doesn't qualify. On those, you'll still get only even money.

"Right, but there's always the chance at a big one, and some real money. I'm not greedy. I know the royal flush is pretty unlikely, but give me 7-1 on a full house and I'm a happy man. Give me 20-1 on four of a kind, and it makes my day. If I throw in the extra dollar and get back another $75 on the full house or $100 on four of a kind --- it's pretty exciting."

I told him the question is whether the excitement is worth it on a bet you win so rarely.

"But if you watch the jackpot level, you can get a pretty decent house edge, right? It's not always an awful bet."

On the standard pay table --- $50 on a flush, $75 on a full house, $100 on four of a kind, either $5,000 or 10 percent of the jackpot on a straight flush or the full jackpot on a royal flush --- the break-even point is about $263,000.

But the house edge isn't the entire issue. Even if the jackpot is very large and the house edge is very low, or players have the edge, the likelihood of winning is very low. In five-card stud poker, there are 2,598,960 possible hands. Only four of those are royal flushes --- one royal per 649,740 hands. The most frequent winners on the progressive bet are flushes --- about one per 509 hands. Add up all the winners, and you'll still average a winner only once per 273 hands.

"And that doesn't change with the bigger jackpot?"

That doesn't change. Frequency of winning hands remains the same, it's only the size of potential rewards that changes.

"But do you know how horrible I'd feel if I got dealt the royal and didn't bet the progressive? I think I'd rather lose the dollars than to risk that."

Then that's your answer, I told him.

"Still, one winner per 273 hands? That's tough," he said, smiling as he left. "I think I'll keep a countdown."

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Readers ask about blackjack, slots

Question. What percentage of blackjack players do you think are counting cards? Half? I just wonder, when I see players splitting 6s against a 10. They can't be counting cards.

Answer. I doubt that half of blackjack players in casinos have studied a basic strategy chart, let alone count cards. I'd put the number of card counters at less than 1 percent of the blackjack-playing population.

Before any player who is trying to get better worries about counting cards, he or she must master basic strategy first. An average blackjack player faces a house edge of about 2 to 2.5 percent. Learning basic strategy can cut that house edge to around a half percent or less, depending on house rules.

How can you tell if someone at your table is a basic strategy player? Here are a few common moves that separate those who know their basic from those who don't:, assuming a multiple-deck game.
  • A basic strategy player hits hard 16 when the dealer shows a 7. Every time.
  • A basic strategy player splits Aces, and splits 8s, even when the dealer has a 10 face up. Exception: The basic strategy player will surrender on 8-8 if the dealer hits soft 17 and surrender is offered.
  • A basic strategy player never stands on soft 17. He or she hits or doubles down, depending on the dealer's face up card.
  • A basic strategy player hits on 12 if the dealer shows a 2 or a 3.
  • A basic strategy player hits on soft 18 if the dealer shows a 9, 10 or Ace.
Those are all moves that give trouble to those who play by intuition.

Card counters will sometimes make plays that run counter to basic strategy. In addition to hitting 12 against a 2 or 3, a counter will sometimes also hit 12 against 4, if the composition of the remaining cards is right. A card counter also will sometimes hit 16 against 10, but not 16 vs. 7.

Insurance is a special case. Intuition players often will insure their blackjacks by taking even money when the dealer has an Ace face up. Basic strategy players will never take insurance --- that's the right play most of the time. Card counters, on the other hand, will take insurance if the remaining deck includes a high enough percentage of high cards.

Look around next time you play. See how many players hem, haw and sometimes stand on 16 vs. 7, or fail to split 8s against a 10, or stand on Ace-7 against a 9. That'll tell you just how few basic strategy players there are --- and there are many, many few card counters.

Question. I would like to know if adding say $1,000 to a slot machine loosens that machine for a big payout.

Also, I always play the max. Does it matter what the denomination of the game is? That is, do the games loosen as the denomination rises? Does a $1 game pay more than a penny slot played at maximum?

Answer. No amount of play changes the odds of hitting a winning combination on slot machines. If the game is programmed so that there is a 1 in 10,000 chance of hitting the big jackpot, then there is a 1 in 10,000 chance on every spin. If you've just hit the jackpot, the odds are still in 1 in 10,000; if you've played 9,999 spins without hitting the big jackpot, the odds are STILL 1 in 10,000.

(The 1 in 10,000 is just an example, by the way. Some machines hit more frequently, some much less. There are machines with a 1 in 2,000 chance of hitting the top jackpot, while in a big-money game like Megabucks the chances are 1 in tens of millions.)

If it's a progressive machine, adding money to the top jackpot does not change the odds of your hitting that jackpot. If the progressive meter starts at $1,000, and the jackpot meter has grown to $2,000, the chances of winning are the same as when you started. The long-term payback percentage does grow with the progressive meter, because the big hit pays more when it finally comes.

As for changing coin denomination, that DOES make a difference. Generally, penny machines pay less than nickel machines, which pay less than quarters, which pay less than dollars and so on. If you play maximum coins on a penny machine, your bet may be as large as if you're playing a three-reel dollar slot, but in most cases the dollar game will have a higher payback percentage.

Of course, there's also a difference in the play experience between a penny video slot and a dollar reel-spinner. Winning spins are more frequent on the video game, but payoffs of many times your wager are more common on the reel-spinner. The penny game will keep you in your seat longer, but the dollar game gives you a better chance of walking away with a fairly substantial win. That's the choice slot players face when deciding between low-denomination video games and higher denomination reel spinners.