Explainer The Writers at Slate Magazine

Explainer The Writers at Slate Magazine
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  • ISBN-13: 9781400034260
  • ISBN: 1400034264
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group


Slate Magazine Staff, Slate Magazine


THE EXPLAINER Can you break even playing slots? Conservative moralist William Bennett claimed he'd "come out pretty close to even" gambling over the past decade, contradicting a report that pegs his losses at around $8 million. Given Bennett's stated preference for high-stakes slot machines and video poker, does his claim hold mathematical water? As a few lucky Powerball winners can attest, nothing's impossible when it comes to fighting astronomical odds. But it's highly improbable that Bennett has broken even through the years. The primary factor working against the former White House drug czar is his choice of games. Professional gamblers and mathematicians alike eschew slot machines as suckers' bets; since no skill is involved, they're fixed to favor the house, and the rapid action translates into rapid losses. The notion of any machine being hot or cold on a given evening is pure myth, since they're powered by computer chips that function as random number generators. The belief among slot pullers that past losses mean soon-to-be-realized jackpots-the "I'm due" mentality-is referred to as the gambler's fallacy. One bet has absolutely nothing to do with the next. Slots are fixed to pay out a certain percentage of the money wagered in each machine. In Atlantic City, for example, where Bennett has done much of his gambling, state law sets a minimum payout of 83 percent. However, because of market competition-everyone wants the "Loosest Slots in Town!" title-the actual average is much higher, usually estimated in the range of 90 to 95 percent. (Predictably, casinos are rather cagey about their gaming statistics.) The remaining 5 to 10 percent is referred to as the casino's hold, or take. The high-stakes machines, which Bennett favors, have higher payout percentages, sometimes hitting 98 percent. Over the long run, of course, the house always wins, thanks to a mathematical principle known as the law of large numbers. Simply put, the larger the number of plays, the more likely that the fixed probability will catch up with the player. Bennett may have had a lucky night here or there, but after untold thousands of spins, the fixed nature of the slots likely caught up with him: Bennett almost certainly lost between 2 and 10 percent of the millions he bet. Bennett might have helped his case by following intelligent slots protocol, such as carefully reading the payout rules on each machine (identical-looking slots may feature different maximum payouts, a classic casino trick) and always betting the maximum allowable (which increases the probability of hitting the top jackpot). Over a decade's worth of gaming, however, that's not enough to beat the law. The wild card (pun intended) in Bennett's hobby was his taste for video poker, which requires a bit of skill rather than just lever-pulling. (Gaming experts always recommend video poker over slots.) There are even video poker machines with theoretical long-term payouts exceeding 100 percent-assuming that the player executes a perfect strategy on each and every hand. Since that's not likely, a competent player can expect an average payout ranging from 90 to 98 percent, depending on his skill and the type of machine. Which means he or she is still going to lose in the long run. What if you skip the census? Every year, American households receive census forms sent out by the federal government. Each envelope says, "Your response is required by law." What law is this? Has anybody been prosecuted for not responding? The Census Bureau likes to stress the positive benefits of participation in the survey, but the proverbial stick does exist. Under federal law, you can be fined up to $100 for refusing to complete a census form and $500 for answering questions falsely. Noncompliance used to bring the possibiSlate Magazine Staff is the author of 'Explainer The Writers at Slate Magazine' with ISBN 9781400034260 and ISBN 1400034264.

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