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Tilting at Slot Machines

Call it a fool's mission, but Jeff Greenfield, the CNN political analyst, headed off to Atlantic City with a pocketful of cash destined for the slots
Jeff Greenfield
From the Print Edition:
William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006

(continued from page 2)

I take note of the woman sitting next to me, who is blissfully unaware of the workings of the Random Number Generator. She wins a "Spin" on "Wheel of Fortune," and the wheel gives her a paltry 30-credit payout—just one click away from a 1,000-credit ($250) win.

"Oh, just missed!" she moans, and immediately switches from pushing the "spin" button to pulling down the lever, as if this will coax the machine to providing that big payoff she just missed. Foolish woman; she obviously lacks my fine appreciation of these games, which has enabled me to lose with a full understanding of the probabilities.

And indeed, at precisely 4:02, three fiery 7's align themselves on the pay line: 100 credits, twenty-five dollars! Look out, Jaguar dealers, I'm heading your way! At the strong suggestion of my wife, I cash out with $35. So far, we're down $40 after a half hour of play, but I am increasingly sure that it is only a matter of time now.

And it is; two minutes later, I'm down another $25. OK, it's time for a change of strategy: we're moving to the one slot game where a small degree of skill is required: video poker. Here, knowing what cards to hold actually makes a difference. (You know: if you're dealt five spades, keep them). And here, the difference in our fortune is palpable: it takes 15 minutes to lose another $30.

As I mull over the possibilities, I notice that I am behaving exactly the way the makers of these games want me to. For instance, I am gravitating to machines based almost solely on the highest—and rarest—payout lines. This "Double Diamond" pays 4,000 coins if you line up three Double Diamond symbols. This one pays 8,000 coins. Both Dena and I are drawn to the games that provide "Action"—hit the right combination on "On the Money" and the reels go crazy, spinning again, and again, and again, all to the accompaniment of the bizarre sounds of a machine going crazy. The result may be—and usually is—only four or five dollars, but by God, you've done something, you've cracked the machine.

"The slot machine is brilliantly designed from a behavioral psychology context," psychiatry professor Nancy Petry told The New York Times. "The people who are making these machines are using all the behavioral techniques to increase the probability that the behavior of gambling will reoccur."

Of course, as a highly trained journalist impervious to such irrational forces, I now reach a flawlessly rational decision: since I have lost at the quarter level, it's time to move up. Step aside, Michael Jordan; I'm heading to the fifty-cent "Wheel of Fortune" with a hundred-dollar bill.

The change is remarkable: in two minutes, I am down $50. Three minutes later, I'm down to my last dollar, which of course I cash out; God forbid I win a "Spin" on the bonus wheel that I can't play because I've only played one credit instead of three. Clearly another change of strategy is in order: over we go to the dollar slots. Dena bravely agrees to risk $60 on the dollar "Double Diamond" (this is the woman who, on our honeymoon, called a halt to our stopover at the Chumash casino outside of Santa Barbara, California, when we were $12.50 ahead). I'm at the dollar "Wheel of Fortune." She wins $60 quickly and cashes out; I lose the hundred almost as quickly.

I am beginning to feel like Carmine Sabatini, the Marlon Brando character in The Freshman, who says to his stockbroker: "The last stock you sold me went down; I don't like it when my stocks go down." It's one thing when you wander into a casino with a budgeted amount to lose; it's no different from taking your kid to a video arcade, where you're buying fun, a break from the work that has brought you there. But now, this is the work. I've agreed to put every penny of my wages for this enterprise on the line, and I don't care very much right now that the Atlantic City payout rate for slots is over 90 percent. If this luck keeps up when I move to the high-limit slots tomorrow, I am looking at one simple possibility: by the time we leave tomorrow, we will slouch out of Atlantic City with next to nothing, leaving only the sure and certain prospect of public ridicule.

My dark thoughts are interrupted by Dena's frantic beckoning. Back at the "Bonus Frenzy" quarter slots, a "Ten Times" hit has given her 500 credits; along with what was left of her original $20, she cashes out with $135. The euphoria lasts just long enough to watch a succession of $20 bills disappear into "Triple Stars." With that, we pack it in for the afternoon, with a loss of some $350.

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