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A voter's guide: The myths about slot machines
She sits in front of a Monopoly-themed game at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, spending $5 every spin.
Lights flash, music blares and the stress from her day melts away. She is winning -- just don't ask her how or why.
"I have no idea," shrugs Aileen Johnson, a Hollywood nurse who likes to play the machines after work. "It's simple. You just have to sit here."
Simple but possibly deceiving, particularly for Broward and Miami-Dade voters getting ready to go to the polls March 8 to decide whether true slot machines should be allowed in pari-mutuel racetracks and jai-alai frontons in those counties.
With the vote approaching and both sides gearing up for a campaign blitz, gambling's friends and foes agree that most people have no idea how slots work. Nor do they understand how they are different from the electronic gaming machines now available in Indian casinos and the unregulated slot machines on gambling cruise ships.
Love 'em or hate 'em, it's useful to understand what slot machines truly are. Here's a guide to the myths and secrets that surround the different kinds of machines.
Myth 1: Slots are simple
Granted, slots don't take much skill. But they have come a long way in three decades.
Slots of the past were mechanical machines with a pretty bland formula. Today's slots use lights, TV and video clips, sound effects, bonus rounds, and celebrity sponsorships. Lose on a Simpsons-themed slot, and Homer cries "D'oh!"
The reason for this hype is simple, said game designer Olaf Vancura, chief creative officer of Progressive Gaming International in Las Vegas.
"Most players know they are going to lose. They expect to lose. But they want to be entertained, and then they will feel like they got their money's worth."
Some machines -- like those Johnson was playing at an Indian casino -- use this razzle-dazzle to hide the fact that they aren't true slots. They may have the same flash, but on the inside, they are based on a decidedly tamer form of gambling: Bingo.
True slots, also known as "Class III" games, are illegal in Florida. They are the subject of the March 8 vote.
The only way to play them locally is on a casino cruise ship that sails out of state waters. Lesser "Class II" games, including bingo and lotto, are allowed at tribal casinos such as the Seminole Hard Rock Casino and the Seminole Coconut Creek Casino.
"If you were in Las Vegas, you would see machines with exactly these titles," said Gary Bitner, a spokesman for Seminole Hard Rock Casino, as he walked through their facility.
The real distinction occurs out of sight of the player.
With a traditional slot machine, a player gambles against the machine itself. With Class II video bingo, the machines are actually hooked up to each other and gamblers play against one another. Numbers are selected from a central computer and, with every spin, an entire game of bingo is played. The result -- for example, a whole line of matched numbers across the top of a bingo card -- is made to look like a slot machine outcome -- say, a row of four cherries.
"It's a design-around," Vancura said.
From a player's perspective, a gambler is no more likely to win or lose on a Class II machine than a Class III. Both can be tweaked to pay out whatever the casino chooses. In that sense, both types are the same.
With true slots, however, the deception is of a slightly different kind.
Before computers, a slot player could calculate the odds of winning. On a three-reel game, with each reel having six types of fruit to land on, the math would look like this: 6 x 6 x 6 = 216
The chance of having the winning combination would be 1 in 216.
Not so with today's slots. As soon as the player pulls the lever or presses the spin button, the computer's "random number generator" chooses from a huge hidden pool of numbers. These numbers correspond to a series of visual symbols, and the computers can be programmed to select certain symbols -- losing symbols -- more frequently.
"People always ask, `Is it a losing battle?' And the answer is, Yes. In the long run, it's a mathematical wall you run up against," said Robert Hannum, a statistics professor at the University of Denver and a specialist in casino math.
Manufacturers could make the games impossible to win, but then no one would play.
"The math needs to be designed so the player experiences something in that 10 to 15 minutes, so they come back," Vancura said.
In states where slots are legal, regulators set a minimum payout to players, usually at least 80 cents for every $1 spent.
Daniel Adkins, manager for the Hollywood Greyhound Race Track, argues that slots at facilities such as his would be fairer because they could be regulated this way. Neither casino cruises nor Florida tribes have to disclose payout percentages because both operate outside state control.
Myth 2: Slots are small time
It's a common, stereotypical image: Rows of blue-haired ladies mesmerized before the glow of the slot machines, buckets of nickels at their sides. The implication: Slots are for the old and timid, and they certainly don't mean big money for the player or casino.
Wrong. In 2003, slot machines brought in almost $6.5 billion in revenue to the state of Nevada alone, according to the state's gaming commission.
"About 80 percent of casino revenues are now from slot machines," said Bill Eadington, director of the Institute for the Study of Gaming and Commercial Gambling at the University of Nevada in Reno.
Floridians for a Level Playing Field, one of the groups pushing for slot machines at South Florida racetracks, say these "racinos" could bring in as much as $500 million in tax revenue annually.
And all that money doesn't come only from grandma's pocketbook. Eadington notes that the newest slot machines appeal to even the youngest of American society.
"Go back 50 years, and the average Saturday evening entertainment was a board game or poker game. Then it was everyone staring at the TV, and now it's a computer," he said. "You can draw the parallels."
Roger Horbay, president of Game Planit, an Ontario-based company dedicated to mitigating gambling addiction, says the average visitor to Las Vegas now shares approximately the same demographics as the average U.S. slot player. They are about 50 years old, have some college education and an income of more than $40,000 a year. They are just as likely to be male as female.
"It's really a cross-section of people," Horbay said.
Because of advances in technology, slots now offer multiple pay lines or can pool their income, which can increase both the jackpot and the cost of each spin.
"I testified in a case a couple of weeks ago and this guy from a wealthy family was playing $500 slot machines. He's playing $1,000 a spin. Can you imagine?" Hannum recalled.
Myth 3: Slots are low-risk
The myths that slot machines are simple and small-time fold together into the granddaddy of all slot misconceptions, experts say: That of all forms of gambling, slot machines are the safest bet.
"It's very seductive, nickel machines especially. You think, `It's only nickels. How much can I blow?'" Horbay asked.
Researchers say they are seeing the opposite, that slot players are more likely to become addicted, and faster.
"Within a year, they've lost their investments, their retirement, they're getting divorced and they're stealing from their employer," said Bob Breen, psychologist and director of the Rhode Island Gambling Treatment Program.
The reason, officials suspect, is the fast-paced, interactive nature of slots. Many are designed to use player psychology to keep people gambling. One of the most controversial of these techniques is known as the "near miss," where slots are programmed to land close to the winning jackpot, but not on it. Although the laws of probability dictate that coming near on one spin has no effect on the next, people think they will have a better chance.
"It's absurd," said Hannum, but it works.
Other tricks include putting a "loose" slot next to a "tight" one. Some games hit frequently, but the prizes are small.
"It's called cherry dropping," Horbay said. "It gives you the illusion that you're winning."
Another way games keep players playing is by using the "bonus round." They occur once in every 80 spins, guarantee a win, and usually include a special video or audio clip and a new game, Vancura said.
All this keeps the player playing
"Winning or losing doesn't matter. It's, `I've got to get to the next level,'" Breen said.
Jamie Malernee can be reached at email@example.com or 954-356-4849.