I'm used to commotion in casinos, but it doesn't usually consist of spousal screams over missed jackpots. I was passing a bank of dollar reel-spinning games, and I, along with everyone remotely in the neighborhood, heard the anguished shout, "You cost me $20,000! I can't believe you did that!"
I asked a nearby player what was going on. She said a husband and wife had been playing together, and the wife hit the jackpot for $20,000. While she was being paid, the husband told her they should move, that now the game would go cold to make up for the big hit.
You can guess what happened. The couple moved just across the aisle, and another woman moved into the vacated space. A few spins later, the jackpot symbols came up for her, she collected the 20 grand, and the first winner was upset that she'd been talked into leaving her winning machine.
The events bring up two issues slot players often have asked me about. Do slots go into makeup mode after paying out a big jackpot? And would a player who has left a machine have hit the jackpot won by another if he or she had only stayed put?
First things first. There is no makeup mode on slot machines. The random number generator just keeps churning out random numbers. No matter what the results in the past, all outcomes remain possible on all spins.
When readers have asked me about jackpots and makeup times, I've often replied that there is no need for a makeup, that given enough play, jackpots just fade into statistical insignificance. And when I've written that in the past, I've sometimes received follow-up emails asking just what that means.
Let's use the dollar slot that caused the commotion as an example. To win their $20,000 jackpots, each woman had to be wagering $3 a spin. Over 1 million plays, that would mean $3 million in wagers. If the game returns 95 percent - and dollar games do have higher payback percentages than lower-denomination games, then over those million spins it would return $2,850,000.
I don't know how many spins there were between the first jackpot and the second. For the sake of an extreme example, let's say they were on consecutive spins and use them as the beginning of a million-spin set.
Over the next 999,998 spins, players would wager $2,999,994. If the machine pays its normal 95 percent over that time, players would get back $2,849,994. Add in the $40,000 paid on the two rapid-fire jackpots, and that's a total return of $2,889,994.
What's the overall payback percentage over those million spins? It's 96.3 percent, slightly higher than normal. What if the game pays 95 percent over the next million? Then for 2 million spins, the payback percentage is 95.7 percent, and if it continues to pay normally, then for a 3-million spin set, it's 95.4 percent.
The more the machine is played, the closer it comes to its normal payback percentage. The aberration of the two quick jackpots fades into statistical insignificance, and the machine makes something very close to its expected profit without needing any makeup mode.
As for the question of whether the first player would have won the jackpot had she stayed put, the answer is probably not. The random number generator moves rapidly, dozens and even hundreds of numbers per second. Any difference in timing brings a different random number, and a different result.
There was really no need for the shouting, but I'm sure someone felt she had 20,000 reasons for a good rant.
Gambling author and columnist John Grochowskis 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.