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Vegas Slot Survey Creates a Stir

23 July 2002

By John G. Brokopp

Perhaps the most jealously guarded secret of the gaming industry is the different payback percentages programmed into reel and video slot machines on casino floors nationwide.

The odds against table games and video poker players are public knowledge for those who are serious enough to seek them out. As for slots, aside from advertised "overall theoretical payback percentage" for the collective machines of all denominations housed in individual casinos, you really have no way to know what you're up against mathematically.

Slot machine manufacturers know. Casino owners and operators know. But not the gambling public at large. The odds against hitting the top award on a slot could be in the hundreds of thousands to one but you'll never really know, nor do the casinos want you to know.

In Nevada, for example, state regulations require that slot machines be set to pay back at least 75 percent of the money that people bet into them. This means that in every casino in Nevada there are some machines programmed to pay back at the low end, some programmed to pay back at the high end, and the majority programmed to pay back every where in between.

I bring this up today because the results of a groundbreaking slot survey that ran in the Sunday, May 19, editions of the Las Vegas Review-Journal created quite a rumpus among casino owners in the Gambling Capital of the World.

Mike Shackleford, a Las Vegas-based odds expert, felt strongly enough about the lack of information regarding slot machine play that he decided to do something about it. Mike and an associate spent about 400 hours visiting 70 Las Vegas-area casinos conducting a scientific study to determine the payout settings on nickel machines. They conducted the survey from October of 2001 through April of this year.

Their results showed that the new Palms Casino ranked first with a 93.42 percent return on its nickel slots. The Venetian ranked last in the survey with an 86.86 percent return on its nickel slots. As one would expect, a majority of the top-rated casinos are off-strip and downtown properties. The Sahara (92.81), Imperial Palace (92.63), Slots-O-Fun (92.63), and Circus Circus (92.56) were ranked tops on the Strip. Such popular tourist destinations as the MGM Grand (89.78), Caesars Palace (89.57), Harrah's (89.32), Treasure Island (89.32), The Mirage (89.07), Rio (88.72), Mandalay Bay (87.51), and Bellagio (87.42) joined the Venetian toward the bottom of the list.

The survey covered the following select video nickel slots: IGT's Fortune Cookie, Leopard Spots, Wheel of Fortune (two versions), and Austin Powers, and WMS Industries' Reel 'em In. Interestingly, the Suncoast and Fiesta-Rancho were not included in the survey because the survey takers were prevented from checking their machines!

How accurate was the survey? Opinions differ. Shackleford managed to obtain the top secret specification sheets for five different slot machines and proceeded to use his computer skills to write a program that would allow him to determine which payout had been chosen on each. He was able to discover the symbol combinations that existed on each reel. He put his knowledge to practical use in the casinos to come up with his survey results.

Slot machine specification sheets are highly confidential. They are the means by which slot machine payback percentage codes can be cracked. Industry insiders acknowledge that Shackleford's study was possible but that one hundred percent accuracy was unlikely. One slot director did, however, confirm that the percentage survey takers revealed for his casino was right.

The marketing divisions of the top-ranked casinos are already at work to exploit the survey results in their advertising campaigns.

A tip of the hat to Mike Shackleford on behalf of slot players everywhere! This columnist has always advocated that slot players have a right to know much more than what we are told.

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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