John Robison has heard just about every slot-machine myth under the sun. A New Jersey computer-programmer-turned-slots expert, he's been writing about the machines for a decade.
And he hears one myth more than any other.
"The casinos don't control who wins and who loses: There's no trickery involved," says Robison, author of The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots. "The state is there to make sure they operate the way they're supposed to operate."
No one has a thumb on the scales, in other words. But that's only because the scales are already weighted against you -- with a degree of precision casinos measure to a decimal place.
Robison says the first thing to understand is how a slot machine works. The three main types of machines are video poker, reel slots and video slots. (Reel slot machines look like old-fashioned "one-armed bandits," whereas on a video slot, all the action happens on a digital screen.) But each type of machine runs on a random-number generator (RNG) -- a computer chip that determines what the outcome of pulling the lever or pushing the button will be.
While the outcome of any given game is random, the long-term results are guaranteed by law.
In Pennsylvania, casino payouts must be between 85 and 99 percent. (Sometimes casinos use machines that pay out more than others, so they can boast of high payouts.) But "those payouts only have to happen in the long run, and there's no definitive standard on what over time is," says Robison. "We're potentially talking about that amount coming back over the course of a million spins."
Joanne Kraly, a vice-president at Pittsburgh's Rivers Casino, says each slot machine has a "cycle," whose length is set by the manufacturer. Within that cycle, she says, the machine must pay at least 85 cents of every dollar gambled on it. Casinos don't adjust cycles, she says, though they can put machines on the floor set to pay more than 85 percent.
While Robison says there is no strategy to playing slot machines, having some basic knowledge can help.
"From the moment you hit the button, the computer decides the outcome, and there's nothing you can do to change it," he says. Some players tap machines, others stop the reels as they spin by hitting the button ... but none of it helps.
For one thing, the video slots just create the illusion of reels spinning in order. Even in reel slots -- which appear to be mechanical -- the RNG determines the outcome, not a random stoppage of the reels. So if you have two cherries and a third cherry just misses the line, you probably wouldn't have hit the jackpot by hitting the button earlier.
To dispel a related myth: Just because the person playing the machine after you hits a big jackpot, that doesn't mean that you would have hit if you played one more time.
The RNG is operating "constantly, generating results," Robison says. "In Nevada, for example, the RNG has to generate 100 different results a second. The result changes as quickly as you can sneeze, cough or take a drink from a cocktail waitress."
One thing a player can do is try to figure out which machines are high-frequency payout machines and which are low-frequency. You can get a feel for this by studying the pay table, the chart on each machine showing how much each winning combination pays out. Typically, high-hit frequency machines pay out smaller amounts of money. They're also usually smaller-denomination machines -- penny or nickel slots.
"These machines hit more often and you can often get a lot of play out of a little bit of money," says Robison. "In the old days we'd say it's 'keeping you in tray money.'"
Low-hit frequency machines often come in higher denominations, charging a quarter or more per play. Although they don't pay out as often, the jackpots are larger.
"Which you should play is based on your personal preference," Robison says. "Some people want to play for a long time, and like the little scores here and there. [Others] would rather take a risk at getting one big hit.
"The important thing to remember is, it's gambling" -- and for the average player, the only choice will be between losing fast or slow.
Robison doesn't necessarily see a problem with that.
"This is the only form of entertainment where you might leave with more than you came with," he says. Still, players ought to approach the machines not "as a way to get rich, but as entertainment -- like a night at the movies.
"I know I've never brought a dime home after a trip to the movies."