A reader phoned me in December, and said he had a gift for me: "I know how to beat the slot machines," he said, introducing himself only as Ned.
I'd heard that claim a few hundred times before, and they've never really delivered. They can't. Except for an ever-decreasing number of games with banked bonuses, slot machines can't be beaten in the long run. All casino games make money by paying winners less than the true odds, and there's nothing you can do to shift the odds on most slots.
Still, Ned claimed he had a way that involved charting games with big progressive jackpots.
"I have four casinos that are within a 20-minute or half-hour drive of my apartment," he said. "I drop in at all of them at least a couple of times a week and check out the jackpots at a few games I like. They're all dollar, three-reel games with one progressive jackpot. I don't like to complicate things with four-level progressives or anything like that, and to me the video games are for a little fun, not for gambling.
"Over a few weeks or a couple of months, I get a sense of how big the jackpots are when they hit. If I don't see them hit, I ask an attendant how big they were. I chart that all out. If I see that a machine that starts with a $10,000 jackpot and I see jackpots clustered around $14,000, $15,000, then I start playing at $15,000. I never play for a smaller jackpot on that machine."
I suggested to Ned that his method would take a very large bankroll. Dollar slots can eat up the cash in a hurry, and there's no guarantee that he'd be the one to hit the jackpot, even if he's selective about when he plays.
"Oh, that's true enough," he said. "I've had some MONUMENTAL losses. But when I hit the jackpot, that makes up for a lot."
It all sounds good in theory. Ned's trying to do the same thing video poker players have done for a couple of decades. In video poker, where we know the probabilities of a randomly shuffled electronic deck, we can calculate break-even points. We can calculate a 9-6 Jacks or Better game pays 99.5 percent with expert play with a royal flush worth 4,000 coins for a five-coin wager, and it reaches 100 percent with a 4,880-coin wager. An expert who played only when a progressive royal jackpot was more than 4,880 coins would have an edge.
Problem is, players aren't privy to the odds on slot machines, and can't calculate jackpot levels.
Let's say Ned is playing a machine that has a starting jackpot level of $10,000 for a three-coin on a dollar machine where the top jackpot turns up an average of once per 100,000 plays. Let's also say that at that jackpot level, the game pays 93 percent, broken down into 2 percent of total wagers paid on the top jackpot, and 91 percent on smaller hits.
If the progressive reaches $15,000, is Ned paying a positive game? No, it's just turned that 93 percent game into a 94 percent game. It's still a losing proposition.
If we knew the break-even point on progressive slot machines, it would be possible for players to have a mathematical edge, although it would take an extremely large bankroll and a willingness to take big losses. But that takes inside information, a look at the par sheets manufacturers give casinos detailing all the probabilities of each game.
Players don't have access to par sheets. We don't know which version of a game is offered in any given casino. Machines can look identical, but have different payback percentages, and different jackpot frequencies.
There are other considerations. If you play three coins a pull in a dollar slot at 500 pulls an hour, that's a $1,500 an hour risk. That's an awful lot of money to put in play when you're chasing something as elusive and rare as the top jackpot on a slot machine.
Also, on any jackpot of $1,200 or more, you must sign an IRS form W2G before the casino can pay you. Those who itemize taxes and who keep careful records can deduct gambling losses up to the amount of winnings. However, many states do not permit any deductions for gambling losses. If you're playing in a state that does not allow you to deduct losses, and you're chasing big progressive jackpots, then state income tax on winnings is part of the cost of playing.
Nonetheless, Ned likes his system. "I do pretty good," he said, and left it at that.
Gambling author and columnist John Grochowski's weekly newspaper column began at the Chicago Sun-Times and is now syndicated nationally. He also regularly makes TV and radio appearances about gambling. His column appears weekly.