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Best of Donald Catlin

Gaming Guru

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A Myth Comes to Life - Maybe

4 January 2008

One of the amusing and often annoying things about gamblers is their belief in superstitions and their faith in things that defy common sense. You hear talk of hot tables, cold tables, hot machines, cold machines, machines that are due, pressing during winning streaks (as if one could predict such), and so on. One of the persistent myths involves slot machines.

Some players believe that if they are on a winning streak, that some slot executive observes this and somewhere in the bowels of the casino pushes a button that changes the payout structure of the machine so that they will start losing. In fact there is a story about Barbara Streisand in a casino (the name of the casino changes with the telling), playing slots, and losing. To avoid the bad publicity of her losing large amounts to this casino, the casino adjusts the machine so that she begins to win and win she does. It never happened!

There is a good reason why this scenario is a myth. The payout structure of a current machine cannot be changed - after all it is printed on the case of the machine. The expected return of the machine is controlled by the frequency of the various stopping positions and these frequencies are determined by the virtual reel in the machine. The more losing combinations there are on the virtual reel the higher the house edge will be. Where is this virtual reel? It is contained on an EPROM, an erasable, programmable, read-only, memory chip. To change the virtual reel a slot attendant has to open up the machine, remove the old EPROM and install a new one. So, a machine's expected return can't be changed while a player is playing without interrupting the player and no casino would do that. This is about to change.

Both IGT and Cyberview Technology are currently producing remote servers that can change the virtual reels on any machine. In fact, they can even download completely new games to the same terminal. This technology is referred to as server-based gaming. So what effect will this have on the slot playing public?

My guess, and it is just that, is that gambling regulators will have very stringent rule about what a server-based gaming set up can and cannot do. In particular, I doubt that a casino would be allowed to change the virtual reel while the machine is in play. Even if this were allowed, I doubt that a casino would be inclined to do so. Why? Remember, slot machine outcomes are completely random and the virtual reel simply determines the long term frequency of the outcomes; such a change would have little effect on the short term results of a player.

Of course if the machine is idle and the casino feels that the machine has been too generous then they could very well change the virtual reel structure for subsequent players. But that is no different than it is now. Well, it is a bit different. Now it takes about five minutes to switch an EPROM. On a server-based system it will only take a few seconds (or less).

There is actually more to this technology than I've indicated here but I'll leave that for another time. For example, the fact that different games can be downloaded to the same terminal will have implications in terms of marketing. It will be interesting to see how server-based gaming evolves. I'm sure gaming commissions across the country will be keeping close watch on this new technology. See you next month.


Don Catlin can be reached at 711cat@comcast.net

Donald Catlin

Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers
Donald Catlin
Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers