Slots-parlor odds favor losses and tedium

October 03, 2010|By Jay Hancock

The first thing the economically aware gambling victim — oops, I mean gaming guest — wants to know is how bad the odds are. The house always fleeces you, on average. It's just a matter of finding out whether you're likely to have one pocket picked or several.

The doorman in the gold jacket at the Hollywood Casino slots parlor in Perryville doesn't know. Ask somebody with a red jacket, he says.

A woman in red points to a slot-machine menu. It tells you which symbol combinations pay off. But it says nothing about the most important statistic in the whole, Walmart-size building, a figure gamblers should know the way bond investors know interest rates: the expected loss.

Is the Hollywood Casino customer likely to lose 20 cents out of every dollar he puts in the "video lottery terminal," on average, if he plays long enough? Ten cents? One cent?

It is posted nowhere. Over at Player Services, in front of large, black-and-white photos of David Niven and Humphrey Bogart gambling in white tuxedos, a woman points to a brochure on "Understanding the Odds."

It's a disclaimer from the American Gaming Association with a range of expected losses at a generic casino for follies including roulette and blackjack. A video slots machine, the brochure says, keeps between 1 cent and 5 cents of every dollar bet.

This turns out to be wrong. The odds at the Hollywood are worse.

Thus misinformed, the gaming guest mimics other patrons, shuts his mouth and feeds legal tender into an illuminated machine that cost the state of Maryland something like $50,000.

The theme is the "Survivor" reality-TV show. The symbols are frogs, coconuts, tiki torches and famous contestants. The guest cannot understand why three Rudy Boesches in a row aren't worth some money.

In fact, he doesn't understand anything. Sometimes he wins, and sometimes he loses, but the outcome bears little detectable relationship to anything on the screen. Mostly he loses. His $5 is quickly gone, even after he figures out how to bet 5 cents instead of $2.50 a spin.

Behold the work of the Maryland General Assembly. After more than a decade of proposals, rejections, catfights and comedy, slots are here. The Hollywood, with 1,500 machines, is the first of several video-slots parlors that are supposed to make $600 million a year for the state but will probably fall far short.

Some legislative struggles lead to greater civil rights, or safety nets for the poor, or government accountability. Maryland's slots battle has brought forth spinning images of has-been celebrities, accompanied by bongo and parrot sounds, that take one's money at an unknown rate.

The casino is maybe quarter-full. It's noon on a weekday. The employees are really nice. Patrons stare at slots screens or line up to cash vouchers. Nobody is wearing a white tuxedo.

The machines have different themes — "Sex and the City," Zeus, Dean Martin, John Wayne, the Monkees — to disguise the fact that each one involves the same brainless process of pushing a button and losing money. If the gaming guest didn't feel sufficiently dumb already, he would play slots while drinking beer. Slot machines are the main structural element of the bar counter.

Instead, he tries the refreshment-free but promisingly titled "Max Win" terminal, with basically the same result as before. Five dollars go in. Random stuff happens. Five dollars turn into $30 and then into $0. He feels like a sucker. It takes a few phone calls to calculate exactly how much of one.

The Hollywood Casino, operated by Penn National Gaming, does not reveal its expected-loss ratio, also known as the payout percentage, says spokesman Brent Burkhardt. Typically, U.S. casinos keep between 2 cents and 10 cents of every slots dollar wagered and pay the balance in winnings, says Randall Fine, managing director of The Fine Point, a Las Vegas-based gaming consultancy.

The Hollywood, it turns out, is at the bottom of that scale, keeping as much as a dime on the average dollar and paying out 90 cents, according to state regulators. That's a lot better than the Maryland Lottery, which keeps 40 percent and pays out 60 percent. But it's still a chump's game. It's remarkable that Maryland and most other states don't require slots odds to be prominently displayed.

Of the guest's lost $10, $9 will be paid to other bettors, luckier than he. The casino keeps 33 cents of that last dollar to pay operating costs. About 50 cents goes to the state and 7 cents goes to Maryland horse racing. The rest is spent on localities, regulators' salaries and so forth.

It's one way to finance government. But in the worst economy in 80 years, the gaming guest wants a better return on his recreation investment. Maybe he'll sign up for Maryland's "voluntary exclusion" program, in which problem gamblers are arrested upon entering a casino. Meanwhile, across the river, the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum looks very inviting.

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