ATLANTIC CITY - Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa had a billboard on the Atlantic City Expressway for a while that beckoned gamblers with the words, "Pa. and A.C.'s loosest slots in 2013."
Yvette Irizarry remembered that billboard when she was playing a penny slot machine at Borgata on a recent day. For her, it meant she had a better chance, statistically speaking, of hitting a jackpot at Borgata than at any other casino in Atlantic City or Pennsylvania.
"That's why I come here," said Irizarry, a 50-year-old New Yorker. "Some days are good, some days are not so good and some days I break even."
Borgata has seized on the "loosest slots" theme in its advertising and promotions to attract customers in a hyper-competitive casino market. In simple terms, Borgata is being a bit more generous in its payback percentage than other casinos, statistics show.
Joe Lupo, Borgata's senior vice president of operations, acknowledged the casino has been aggressive in announcing its largesse through a multimedia advertising blitz. At one point, Borgata used billboards on the Atlantic City Expressway and the Walt Whitman Bridge in Philadelphia to tout its loosest slots.
"It's a philosophy that Borgata has had, from Day 1, that we have had close to the loosest, if not the loosest, slots in the city," Lupo said. "It's important to let customers know they can have a better experience and looser slots at Borgata."
Loose slots come down to something called the "hold percentage," the amount that casinos "keep" or "win" after jackpots are paid out. The hold percentage for all 12 Atlantic City casinos is publicly reported by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement.
In most cases, there is only a slight difference between the hold percentages for slots from casino to casino. For instance, Borgata's hold of 8.3 percent for the first nine months of 2013 compares to an average of 9 percent for the entire Atlantic City market. But for gamblers looking for even a tiny edge against the house, those numbers are important.
Jim Hickey, 68, of Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., said he is loyal to Borgata, in part because he has heard that it offers the best slot payout percentages.
"It means that you have a better chance to win here than anywhere else," Hickey said while playing one of Borgata's penny slot machines.
Hickey, flashing a smile, noted that he had won $700 on Borgata's slots.
In 2012, Borgata also had the smallest hold percentage for slots in the Atlantic City market, at 8.3 percent, compared to 9 percent for the entire industry, figures show. One analyst said having the title of loosest slots gives Borgata a tactical advantage in marketing itself to customers.
"With respect to the loosest slots, every casino wants to give their customers an enjoyable experience. That, in turn, usually means giving them more for their money and more 'time on device,'" said Michael Pollock, managing director of Spectrum Gaming Group, a Linwood-based casino consulting firm.
"Time on device" generally refers to how long customers spend playing a slot machine before their money runs out. Customers often complain of casinos having "tight" machines if their money disappears shortly after they start playing.
The claim of having the loosest slots is nothing new in the casino industry. In Atlantic City, casinos have had billboard wars for years trumpeting their payout percentages. The shackles were removed in 2000, when New Jersey gambling regulators stopped banning casinos from advertising their odds and payout rates.
But in 2000, the Atlantic City casinos did not face the same level of competition as they do today. The arrival of casino gambling in Pennsylvania in 2006 has contributed to a seven-year decline in Atlantic City revenue.
Nowadays, Borgata is looking to distinguish itself not only from its Atlantic City rivals, but from its competitors in Pennsylvania as well, by touting its loosest slots. Figures supplied by Borgata show it also has the lowest slot machine hold percentage compared to any of the 12 casinos in Pennsylvania.
"It's especially important now, because there seems to be a higher hold percentage in casino jurisdictions around us," Lupo said, referring to the Pennsylvania competitors.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board does not report the hold percentage for slot machines at the Pennsylvania casinos. However, the figure can be calculated for Pennsylvania by dividing the slot payout by the amount wagered.
Through September, the average hold percentage for the Pennsylvania market was a little more than 10 percent, compared to Borgata's 8.3 percent and 9 percent for all Atlantic City casinos, according to Borgata's figures.
Despite what scores of gamblers may believe, there is no such thing as a "hot" or "cold" slot machine. Jackpots are determined by something called a random-number generator, a tiny computer that controls where the reels stop during slot machine play.
Casinos, however, have the option of making the payout percentage even better, or "looser" in gambling lingo, through a software adjustment. Lupo said Borgata does exactly that to offer the loosest slots - and he believes gamblers are aware of it.
"You learn quite quickly if you're on a tight or loose machine," Lupo said of slot players. "They understand strategy and hold percentages and having the loosest slots."
Pollock maintained that the hold percentage is a foreign concept for most slot players. But, he added, gamblers talk among themselves and word gets out about the payouts at each casino.
"Players don't know the hold percentage on a slot machine," Pollock said. "But numbers make the rounds, so to speak. You do know when you have more time on machines and that does translate into a better customer experience."
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