Slot Machine Noises

I spent part of last week on vacation from science in Las Vegas, where I thankfully avoided financial ruin due to some fortunate combination of genes, math awareness and a wife that has no interest in gambling. Sure, I dabbled a bit in games of chance, but as soon as I got a little bit ahead on the blackjack tables I ran for my life, knowing that the probability would even out hard in the long run. For those concerned about the financial well-being of Sin City, they still managed to turn a profit on us, thanks to the low-return temptations of fine dining and French circus acts set to Beatles megamixes. But most of our time was spent on the free entertainment of people-watching and stuff-watching, observing row after row of people almost hypnotically at work on loud, noisy slot machines amid fake New York, Paris and Venice scenery.

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It doesn’t take a PhD in neurobiology to conclude that slot machines are designed to lure people into a money-draining repetition, just as it doesn’t take expertise in the casino business to realize slots are absurdly profitable – there’s a reason why they outnumber table games 100-to-1. But I wanted to go back to the scientific literature to confirm a faint glimmer of information I retained from graduate school, specifically that slot machines are masterful manipulators of our brain’s natural reward system. Every feature – the incessant noise, the flashing lights, the position of the rolls and the sound of the coins hitting the dish – is designed to hijack the parts of our brain designed for the pursuit of food and sex and turn it into a river of quarters. Or so I remember.

Fortunately, there is a robust amount of research into why slot machines are so addictive, despite paying out only about 75% of what people put in. They are, some scientists have concluded, the most addictive of all the ways humans have designed to gamble, because pathological gambling appears faster in slots players and more money is spent on the machines than other forms of gambling. In Spain, where gambling is legal and slot machines can be found in most bars, more than 20.3 billion dollars was spent on slots in 2008 – 44% of the total money spent by Spaniards on gambling last year.

That data was published earlier this month by a psychologist from the Universidad de Valencia named Mariano Choliz in the Journal of Gambling Studies. Yes, such a publication exists! In the background of the paper, Choliz outlines the tricks that slot machines use to keep people feeding them:

  • Operating on a random payout schedule, but appearing to be a variable payout; i.e. fooling the player into thinking that the more money they play, the more likely they are to win.
  • “The illusion of control” in pressing buttons or pulling a lever to produce the outcome.
  • The “near-miss” factor (more on this below)
  • Increased arousal (where the sounds and flashing lights come in)
  • Able to be played with very little money; the allure of “penny” slots.
  • And perhaps most importantly, immediate gratification.

This last point is the subject of Choliz’s experiment, which puts a group of ten pathological gamblers in front of two different slot machines. One machine produces a result (win or lose) 2 seconds after the coin was virtually dropped (it was computer program), the other delayed the result until 10 seconds after the gambler hit play. In support of the immediate gratification theory, gamblers played almost twice as long on the 2-second machines than they did on the 10-second machines…even though the 10-second machines paid out more money on average!

Choliz concluded that the immediacy of the reward was part of what kept people at slot machines, making them so addictive. The quick turnaround between action and reward also allows people to get into a repetitious, uninterrupted behavior, which Choliz compares to the “Skinner boxes” of operant conditioning – the specialized cages where rats hit a lever for food or some other reward. It seems like a cruel comparison, but after my three days walking through the casinos, not an inaccurate one.

Another trick up the slot machine’s sleeve was profiled earlier this year by a group of scientists from the University of Cambridge. In the journal Neuron, Luke Clark and colleagues examined the “near-miss” effect, the observation that barely missing a big payout (i.e. two cherries on the payline while the third cherry is just off) is a powerful stimulator of gambling behavior.

The Cambridge researchers put their subjects in an fMRI machine to take images of their brains while they played a two-roll slot machine game. When the players hit a match and won money, the reward systems of the brain predictably got excited – the activation of areas classically associated to respond to food or sex I mentioned earlier. When players got a “near-miss,” they reported it as a negative experience, but also reported an increased desire to play! That feeling matched up with activation of two brain areas commonly associated with drug addiction: the ventral striatum and the insula (smokers who suffer insular damage suddenly lose the desire to smoke).

Clark and co. conclude that near-misses produce an “illusion of control” in gamblers, exploiting the credo of “practice makes perfect.” If you were learning a normal task such as hitting a baseball, a “near-miss” foul ball would suggest that you’re getting closer – it’s better than a complete whiff, after all. But for a slot machine, where pulling the lever has no impact on the rolls other than to start them moving and start the internal computer calculating, a “near-miss” is as meaningless as any miss.

Nevertheless, it’s this type of “cognitive distortion,” as Clark and colleagues name it, that makes slot machines such effective manipulators of our brains. Those massive, gaudy casino-hotels that I wore out a pair of shoes strolling through last week weren’t just built on a crafty use of probability, they were built on a exploitation of brain functions we are only just beginning to understand.

by John Robison
Do the slot machines on the ends of aisles pay better than the machines in the middle? How about the machines near the table games? They’retight, right? And are the machines near the coin redemption booths loose? Join us on our journey for finding loose slot machines.
The loose slot machine is the slot player’s Holy Grail. Much as King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table searched Britain for the Holy Grail of myth, slot players search casinos for loosemachines. Slot players have formulated many theories about where casinos place their loose machines to aid them in their quest.

Before we can figure out where the loose machines are, we have to figure out what they are. There is no U.S.D.A. system for grading the looseness of machines and no national orinternational standard that determines whether a machine is tight or loose.

So, what is a loose slot machine?

Say we have two 94% payback machines. Are they loose? I bet some people say yes and some say no. Why isn’t there agreement? Let me add a little more information to thescenario to see if it gives you an idea of why one person calls a 94% payback machine loose and another calls it tight. What if I told you that one machine was a nickel machine and theother a dollar machine? For most people who play nickel machines, a 94% machine is among the best-paying machines in their area. For most people who play dollar machines, on theother hand, a 94% machine is among the worst-paying machines in their area. The person who called 94% loose probably plays lower-denomination machines, while the person who called 94%tight probably plays higher-denomination machines.
Let me add one more piece of information. The dollar machine is a video poker machine. Dollar video poker players would rather have root canals onall their teeth with no anesthesia while their fingernails and toenails are ripped off than play a 94% payback machine. They have many adjectives for a 94% payback machine, but loose isnot one of them.
You see, loose isn’t an absolute. Looseness depends on your frame of reference. Looseness is actually a comparison. We shouldn’t say “loose.” We should really say“looser”. We should really be asking where the looser machines are. But let’s bow to common usage and continue using the term loose machine.

So, what is a loose machine?

Casino Slot Machine Noises

Quite simply, a loose machine is a machine that has a higher long-term payback percentage than another machine. The loose machines in acasino are those machines that have the highest paybacks. These are the machines that will take the smallest bites out of your bankroll in the long run. No wonder slot players areconstantly searching for them.
Over the years, players have developed a number of theories about finding loose slot machines. Casinos place loose machines near the entrances, for example, so passersby can see playerswinning and are enticed to enter the casino and try their luck. The loose machines are also at the ends of the aisles to draw players into the aisle, where the tight machinesare.
And, of course, a loose machine is always surrounded by tight machines. You never have two loose machines side by side. That’s done for players who like to play more than onemachine at a time. If they should happen to stumble upon one of the loose machines, they’ll be pumping their winnings from it into the tight machines around it.
More theories. The machines near the table games are tight because table games players don’t want to hear a lot of bells and buzzers going off and happy slot players whooping it up aftera big win. Another reason the machines near the table games are tight is because table games players will occasionally drop a few coins into a slot machine and they don’t expect to winanything, so why give them a high payback.
Similarly, the machines near the buffet and show lines are tight. People waiting in line are just killing time and getting rid of their spare change. They’re not going to play for along time or develop a relationship with those machines, so the machines can be like piggy banks – for the casino! Money goes in and rarely comes back out.
The machines near the coin redemption booths, on the other hand, are loose. Players waiting in line for coin redemption are slot players and the casino wants them to see other playerswinning. Seeing all those players winning will make them anxious to get back on the slot floor to try their luck again.
Finally, finding loose machines in highly visible locations is most likely. Again, casinos want players to see players winning and be enticed into trying to get a piece of the casino’sbankroll themselves.
These are the theories I can think of off the top of my head. Maybe you know of some others. Most of the theories have a basis in psychology. When we see others winning, we’llwant to play too because 1) we’re greedy, 2) we’re envious, or 3) we see that at least some machines really do pay off and if we keep trying we might find one too.
Based on my own discussions with slot directors, interviews with slot directors, and seminars I’ve attended, I don’t think these theories are relevant in today’s slot world. To see why,we have to look at how slot machines and slot floors have changed.
Picture a slot floor of 10-20 years ago. Even if you don’t go back that far, I’m sure you’ve seen pictures on TV or in books. The slot machines on a casino floor in that era arearranged in long rows, much like products out for sale in a supermarket aisle. There’s no imagination used in placing the machines on the floor. The machines are placed using cold,mechanical precision.
On page 193 in Slot Machines: A Pictorial History of the First 100 Years by Marshall Fey, there’s a great picture of Bally’s casino floor in Atlantic City that illustrates my point. Thepicture shows hundreds of slot machines all lined up in perfect rows like little soldiers. The caption reads, “Like a Nebraska cornfield, rows upon rows of Bally slots extend as far asthe eye can see.”

The centerpiece of the roulette table is a rotating wheel that contains 37 or 38 numbered slots. A croupier spins a small ball in the direction opposite to the wheel, and it will eventually slow and drop into one of the slots. Your task as the player is to predict where the ball will land. A croupier is someone who conducts the game behind a casino table, for example in roulette in a casino. This person is not only responsible for fair play in the game, but also provides the payouts. It is important that croupiers strictly adhere to the roulette game rules that apply to their tables, and never take any risks themselves. How to Croupier Roulette. Whenever the rules of games such as roulette are discussed, the focus tends to be on the precise requirements of players and participants. While this is an important feature of the game, however, the role of the croupier is equally crucial in terms of managing specific games and ensuring fair play for all participants. Roulette

Slot Machine Noises

Slot Machine Noises

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Compare that image with the slot floor layout at a casino that was designed in the last five or so years. Studies have shown that players feel very uncomfortable playing in longaisles. They feel trapped when they’re playing in the middle of a long aisle, particularly if the casino is crowded. As a result, modern casinos have shorter aisles and when a long aislecan’t be avoided, it will be wider than others so players won’t feel like they can’t get out.
One of the finding loose machines theories has casinos placing loose machines at the ends of aisles to draw people into the aisles. Having shorter aisles means having more machinesat the ends of those aisles. Can all of these machines be loose?
In addition to being uncomfortable in long aisles, players are also uncomfortable being put out on display for the other players. Perhaps they feel like they might become a target iftheir good luck is too visible.
One slot director I heard speak said that he tried to create “comfortable niches” for his players. Instead of being in a fish bowl, visible to most of the slot floor, players in hisniches can be easily seen by only the other players in that niche.
Another theory about loose machine placement is that casinos place them in highly visible areas. Modern casinos still have highly visible areas, but the areas are visible to a smallernumber of players. A loose machine in this area will influence fewer players than before.
The last change in the slot floor that I want to mention is perhaps the biggest change of all. Casinos used to have hundreds of slot machines. Now they have thousands. Oneslot director in Las Vegas said in an interview a few years ago that with so many machines on his floor, he didn’t have time to micro-manage them. He and his management decided the holdpercentage they wanted for each denomination and he ordered payback programs close to that percentage for his machines. Furthermore, he said this was the common practice in LasVegas.
As much as the slot floor has changed, the changes on the floor are dwarfed by the changes in the slot machines themselves. One thing that struck me about that picture of Bally’s is howall the machines look alike. They really do look like soldiers being inspecting, all standing at attention and in identical uniforms, or like rows of indistinguishable corn plants. In fact, it looks like there are only three different games in the 10 machines in the first row in the picture. Granted, the majority of the machines in Bally’s casino were Ballymachines. Still I’m surprised by the lack of variety in the machines in the front row in the picture.
I heard that one theory why Americans have gotten heavier is that we have access to a wider variety of foods today than we had before. When meals consisted of the same thing time aftertime, it was easy to pass up second helpings of gruel and eat just enough to no longer be hungry. But now we have Chinese one night, Mexican the next, followed by Thai, burgers, pizza,and pasta -- it’s easy to overeat on our culinary trip around the world.
Just as variety in food creates desire, so does variety in slot machines. “Hey, I used to watch The Munsters all the time. I’ll try that machine.” “I never miss TheApprentice. I’ll give that machine a go.” “I played Monopoly all the time as a kid.” “I have a cat and a dog and a chainsaw and a toaster.”
Not only is there more variety in themes on machines, there’s also more variety in paytables. Back in the 1920s, a revolutionary change in slot machine design was paying an extra coin fora certain combination. Adding a hopper to the machine in the electro-mechanical era made it possible for the machine to pay larger jackpots itself instead of requiring a handpay from ajackpot girl. Adding a computer to the slot machine made it possible for today’s machines to pay modest jackpots of a few thousand coins all the way up to life-changing jackpots ofmillions of dollars.
The computer also makes it possible to add more gimmicks to machines. Gimmicks like “spin-til-you win,” symbols that nudge up or down to the payline, haywire repeat-pays, and double spinall add more variety and interest to the games.
Today’s machines are immeasurably more interesting and fun to play than those of even just a decade ago. Each new generation of machines has crisper graphics and better sound than theprior generation. Slot designers are working overtime to devise compelling bonus rounds that will keep players playing for just one more crack at the round. How many people playingWheel of Fortune are trying to win the jackpot? Not many. Most people keep playing to get one more spin of the wheel.
Slot directors today don’t need to pepper their slot floors with loose machines to stimulate play. Today’s machines themselves generate more desire to play than seeing a player doingwell.
Now I'll finish our discussion of where slot directors place loose machines with some additional thoughts, with a few anecdotes I've heard at slot seminars, and with what I think will be thefinal nail in the coffin of loose machine placement philosophies.
One of the placement theories says that tight machines should be placed near the table games because the table games players don’t like a lot of noise while they’re playing. Have the peopleputting forth this theory ever been near a craps table? A craps table with a shooter on a hot roll has to be one of the loudest places -- if not the loudest place -- in the casino. Crapsplayers can be a boisterous lot even when the table isn’t hot. Okay, I can see players needing peace and quiet at blackjack tables (It’s difficult to count cards even in a quiet casino.), butnot at craps, roulette, Let It Ride, and other tables. In any case, the casino can adjust the volume level on a machine. The slot director can put a very quiet, loose machine near the tablesand not disturb a single table games player.
Another problem with following a loose machine placement philosophy is that it limits the flexibility slot directors have in moving their machines around on the slot floor. If the directors aregoing to give up a little bit in payback on some machines, they certainly will want to get their money’s worth and ensure that these machines are in locations where they’ll be played, be seenbeing played, and entice other players to play. Slot floors have only a limited number of high visibility areas. Slot directors won’t want to waste any of their high-paying machines in the morenumerous less visible areas, where the machines won’t be encouraging other players.
Now I’d like to share some anecdotes I’ve heard at panel discussions during the big gaming show (first the World Gaming Congress, then the Global Gaming Expo) that’s held in Las Vegas eachyear.
First, one slot director described an experiment he conducted in his casino. He had a carousel of 5 Times Pay machines that all had the same long-term payback. He ordered new chips to lower thepayback percentages on a couple of the machines to see if anyone would notice. The machines with the lower long-term paybacks received just as much play as the higher-paying machines. Noplayer, furthermore, ever complained that some of the machines in the carousel were tighter than others.
In another seminar, a slot director shared the philosophy he used to place some machines that he had inherited from another property. These machines, he said, had lower long-term paybacks thanthe payback he usually ordered for machines on his slot floor. He said, 'I read the same books that the players read. I put these lower payback machines in the spots that the books said shouldhave the high payback machines.'
My last anecdote is about a decision made by the slot director at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas many years ago. He was ordering 10 Times Pay machines for his slot floor and he was concerned aboutthe low hit frequencies available for those machines. (Machines with multiplying symbols tend to have low hit frequencies, and usually the higher the multiplier, the lower the hit frequency.)The slot director was afraid that his players would think the machines were very tight because they hit so infrequently. He said that he ordered higher paybacks than he usually does for thosemachines in an attempt to offset the low hit frequency. The machines would still have a low hit frequency, but at least the average value of a hit would be a little higher than if he hadordered a payback percentage nearer the percentage he usually ordered. He hoped that would be enough to keep his players from thinking these were tighter than the other machines on his slotfloor.
Although I think these anecdotes are the exceptions that prove the rule that some casinos at least order the same long-term paybacks for machines of a particular denomination, there is evidencethat some casinos may not. In the first edition of Casino Operations Management, for example, Kilby and Fox list a number of “general philosophies that influence specific slot placement”including: “low hold (loose) machines should be placed in busy walkways to create an atmosphere of activity” and “loose machines are normally placed at the beginning and end of trafficpatterns.”
They then say that “high hit frequency machines located around the casino pit area will create an atmosphere of slot activity.” I’m not sure whether they’re saying high hit frequencyshould or shouldn’t be placed near the pit. In any case, note that one philosophy said that loose machines create an atmosphere of activity and another said that high hit frequency machinesalso create an atmosphere of activity. This is the perfect segue into what I think puts the final nail in the coffin about loose machine placement theories.
There is no correlation between long-term payback and hit frequency. A low hit frequency machine can have a high long-term payback. High hit frequency machines, in addition, can have lowlong-term paybacks. Larry Mak, author of Secrets of Modern Slot Playing, recently queried the Nevada Gaming Control Board to find out the payback reported on penny machines. The Board said itwas 90.167%. Most of the penny video slots have very high hit frequencies, yet the overall average long-term payback is very low.
The usual reasoning behind putting loose machines in highly visible areas is so slot players can see other players winning. Maybe we should be more precise here and say that players will seeother players hitting and assume that they are winning because they are playing loose machines. But because there’s no correlation between hit frequency and long-term payback, these players canactually be playing machines with low long-term paybacks.
I don’t put much stock in loose machine placement theories, but I do believe slot directors may follow a hit frequency placement philosophy. Slot directors may try to place high hit frequencymachines in visible areas to encourage play. This philosophy says and implies nothing about the long-term payback of the machines.

Las Vegas Slot Machine Noises

John Robison is the author of 'The Slot Expert's Guide
to Playing Slots.' His website is
www.slotexpert.com