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The Greatest Slot Machine Designer in the World

A former stockbroker creates a lucrative new video poker game
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Steve Wynn, Jan/Feb 03

In the gargantuan room at the Las Vegas Convention Center is wall-to-wall slot machines, poker machines, gimmicky table games, video roulette and novel forms of blackjack. Bikini-clad women toss T-shirts to attendees and silver-dipped beauties twist as if it were 1960.

Officially this event is called the Global Gaming Expo, but it feels more like a pickpockets convention -- albeit, one with beautiful women. The pickpockets are gambling machines: flashy, tarted-up devices guaranteed to separate suckers from their money. Garish as hookers, some slot machines beckon with alluring names such as Go to the Green,

Most of the time, of course, looking for an edge in a gaming machine is foolish at best and, more likely, totally devastating. the machines, after all, are meticulously designed: to win.

Follow the Stars, and Flame of Olympus. Others tie into movies or TV shows or celebrities. Invariably, they provide worse payouts than the garden variety and gimmick-free slots, which casinos purchase for $8,000 and own forever (fancier, bubble-topped machines are licensed and leased). At their core, however, all of these machines are nothing more than good old-fashioned one-armed bandits.

Drawn to the Expo is a veritable who's who of the gaming world. Among the attendees are casino executives from across the country, food-and-beverage types sampling coffee-flavored smoothies dispensed by models, ultra-successful game designers, and serious players who come to snoop around and preview games that might inadvertently have mathematical chinks ripe for exploitation.

Most of the time, of course, looking for an edge in a gaming machine is foolish at best and, more likely, totally devastating. The machines, after all, are meticulously designed: to win. Maybe if you play perfectly (which hardly anyone does), a poker machine might pay back a bit more than 99 percent of its money. Still, over time, it's a losing proposition. Slots are even worse. With their continually spinning random-number generators, they are designed to pay back as little as 85 percent of the money dumped into them. No wonder machines account for 70 to 80 percent of a typical casino's revenue.

Bob Dancer, who's cruising the convention and previewing games, had considered all of this before he decided to devote his life to playing video poker machines. Slender, gray-haired, mellow and matter-of-fact, Dancer knew that they were rigged against him, but he also wondered if there was a way to turn them into an advantage play. A former database administrator, who, in 1993, moved from Los Angeles to Vegas with the intention of making it as a card counter, he quickly found himself banned from the blackjack pits. He had a bankroll of only $6,000 and dreaded the thought of returning to the corporate grind. "I needed to find a game in Vegas where I had an advantage," says Dancer, who chronicles his years as a video poker savant in a book called Million Dollar Video Poker, which will be published by Huntington Press in March.

"I spent 200 hours on the computer, perfecting a strategy for the deuces-wild machine. Today you can get the strategy for any poker game in three seconds. Then you practice on a computer that lets you know when you make a mistake."

Dancer had no such luxury and was forced to learn on the job, starting out on 25 cent machines and graduating to bet upwards of $500 per hand. He realized that if he played perfect video poker, the house had a very slight mathematical advantage. But that advantage tips in the player's favor after paybacks are factored in (the modest refunds casinos give for every dollar of play), bonuses (one year Dancer received six cars from the MGM Grand, including the Benz he drives today), and assorted perks (he accumulated 6 million American Airlines miles thanks to a video poker promotion offered by one casino that didn't expect a player to generate $700,000 of action in a single day, as Dancer was wont to do when the perks ran in his favor).

Wagering huge sums of money with what generally amounted to a 2 percent advantage allowed Dancer to realize a $1,200 return (in the long term) for every eight hours of play. While he occasionally benefited from underhanded flukes -- a disgruntled casino employee, for instance, sold $10 coupons, normally given when players hit four of a kind, for $1 each -- Dancer mostly profited from skillful play and casino inducements. "I am not interested in playing just to play," says Dancer. "Playing when the casino has an advantage is against my religion. Plus, I get satisfaction out of kicking the casino's butt."

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