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Getting to Know the Wheel of Fortune Machines

25 June 1999

By John G. Brokopp

Wheel of Fortune slots, which are patterned after the popular game show, come in a variety of game formats (Five Times Pay, Double Diamond, Red, White, & Blue Wild Star, etc.) in the standard 3-reel format and associated pay tables. The twist is that the machines are equipped with a free spin symbol that gives you a bonus payoff of anywhere from 25 coins to 1,000 coins when it lands on the payline. The amount of bonus you receive is determined on a "wheel of fortune" that is mounted at the top of the machine and which starts spinning when you press a button to activate it. Just before the wheel starts spinning the machine's sound effects trigger a simulated studio audience shouting "wheel...of...fortune!" and the fun starts. Not only are the player's eyes riveted on the spinning wheel, but so are neighboring players who congregate around the machine when they hear the "audience" shout.

The excitement associated with the game, the lights and the sound effects, the prospect of not only the bonus spin but also the top award jackpot in the tens of thousands of dollars, and the alluring spectacle of the Wheel of Fortune slot machines themselves are all very enticing to slot players, and that's why the banks of them that are now in place at many Chicago-area riverboat casino destinations are almost always filled with players.

The Show Boat Mardi Gras Casino in East Chicago, Ind., was the first to introduce them in the Chicago area. The rows of Wheel of Fortune machines they put in place were filled at peak playing times. The lights and especially the sound effects seem to draw attention to them more so than any other machine on the casino floor.

But as with any new gaming device, which ultimately is designed to make money and lots of it for its owners, there are certain risk factors associated with them of which all players should be aware before they start chasing jackpots. Let's look at some of them today:

I became somewhat alarmed reading gaming author Henry Tamburin's book Henry Tamburin on Casino Gambling, The Best of the Best, Second Edition when he writes in a chapter titled "Hot New Slots": "Industry insiders claim that the payback on the Wheel of Fortune machines is around 88 percent including the spin the wheel bonus payoffs. Although the million dollar progressive jackpot is enticing, the odds of hitting the big one are about 50 million to 1. Although they are fun to play, the casino has a hefty edge over players."

I became intrigued by this revelation, first of all because 88 percent payback is relatively anemic for slots (the average should be 94 to 95 percent), and second of all because 50,000,000 to 1 to win the progressive are tall odds by anyone's standards and not really anywhere close to being in line with the actual reward you would receive if you were lucky enough to win it.

To clear up things about the Wheel of Fortune machines that are in place at Chicago-area riverboat casino destinations, I contacted Todd DeRemer, slot performance manager for Harrah's Joliet.

"First of all, you must differentiate between the Wheel of Fortune machines that are linked to a progressive jackpot as they are in Las Vegas and the ones being introduced around here," DeRemer said. "The machines we have here at Harrah's Joliet are not 'system' machines...they are not linked to a progressive. They are 'stand alone' machines, each with their own individual top award jackpot.

"To answer your question about percentage payback, regulators (the Illinois Gaming Board, for example) typically will stipulate that all machines in a bank of progressives must be set at about the same payback. If you're not talking about progressives, each machine in the bank can be different. The manufacturer (in the case of Wheel of Fortune, IGT) offers a range of paybacks and the operator has the opportunity to pick whatever one(s) they choose.

"It's strictly up to the operator as to the range of paybacks that is chosen. It also depends on the denomination of the machine. In Illinois, however, we are regulated only for the dollar game, even though there are quarter versions in play in Las Vegas."

All slot machines, or "electronic gaming devices" as they are referred to in the industry, are regulated by computer chips that give the machine its individual game characteristics, its random number generator, and its percent payback. Quarter machines can hover around the 90 to 92 percent but can even dip below that mark into the 80s. Dollar machines are usually set in the mid-90's or even higher, as the advertised 98% and even 99% payback machines will attest.

Therefore, don't be afraid that stand alone Wheel of Fortune machines in place at Chicago-area riverboat casinos are the stingy 88 percent payers that are rumored to be found on the progressive lines in Las Vegas. They are in all likelihood higher, probably in the low to mid 90s at best, because of their "stand alone" status.

Which brings us to another point about the Wheel of Fortune machines. The folks at Harrah's Joliet have elected to bring in the machines that offer a $20,000 top award if you line up all three wheel-of-fortune symbols on the payline. The casino's competitors, Empress Joliet Casino, have brought in Wheel of Fortune machines that each offer a $100,000 top award.

"We at Harrah's chose the $20,000 top award for our Wheel of Fortune machines because it is programmed to hit more frequently," DeRemer noted. "We will be looking at the numbers we get and if we deem it necessary, we have the option to change our mind and convert our Wheel of Fortune machines to have $100,000 top awards instead of $25,000."

There are two more "caveats" to be aware of if and when you choose to play the Wheel of Fortunes machines. First, they are 3-coin machines, which means you have to deposit the max coins, or three dollars on every spin, to be eligible for the bonus spin and the top award. That can be pretty expensive and beyond the financial means of many recreational gaming enthusiasts. Second, the "free spin" aspect of the machines virtually assures that they are at the lower end of what the average one dollar machines are programmed to pay back. Casino operators make you pay for the free spins because it's time that you're not spending feeding coins into the machine!

John G. Brokopp
John G. Brokopp's gaming column appears in Chicago Sun Times (Chicago, Illinois), The Times (Northwest Indiana), The Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa), The Courier News (Elgin, Illinois), The Gazette (Southwest Suburban Chicago) and Senior Wire (Denver, CO). He's also a regular contributor to The Colorado Gambler, Midwest Gaming & Travel, Casino Player and Strictly Slots. John possesses 28 years of experience as a professional handicapper, publicist, freelance writer, and casino gaming correspondent. He is also the author of two very popular books, The Insider’s Guide to Internet Gambling and Thrifty Gambling.

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