Never underestimate the value of pennies -- or at least of nickels, dimes, and quarters. For casino operators, fortunes are built on pocket change. From 2001 to 2002, enough people wandered into Mohegan Sun and started pouring nickels, quarters, and dollars into the video games and slot machines that it added up to an astonishing $8 billion, according to figures from the Connecticut Division of Special Revenue. (This does not take into account the money spent at table games, such as craps and baccarat.) That year at Foxwoods, the tally was closer to $10 billion. After subtracting expenses, including the amount returned to players who hit, the two Connecticut casinos were left with a little more than $1 billion in change, according to the state.
In other words, the casinos are doing pretty well, and the machines are the main reason. A survey commissioned by the giant casino operator Harrah's in 2003 showed that video poker and slot machines make up nearly three-quarters of all casino games played in the United States. But while casino gambling in general, and the slots in particular, offer players a negative return on their ''investment," there are better and worse machines to play.
When it comes to machines, the name of the game, so to speak, is in what are called ''return percentages." Return percentage (called the ''theoretical payout" in Connecticut) refers to the maximum amount per dollar that a casino pays out when measured over the long term. In other words, a return percentage of 95 means that, over a period of time, the casino pays out 95 cents per dollar played and keeps the other five cents.
While gambling is highly regulated, there is no national gaming board. The 11 states that give out commercial gaming licenses regulate the industry themselves, taking a share of revenues. States set the legal minimum return percentages for their casinos. In Nevada, for example, it's 75 percent; in Connecticut, it's 80 percent. Since few people would play if the returns were really that abysmal, casinos have mastered the art of offering the minimum return possible while still attracting those billions of dollars. In fiscal year 2002-03, Foxwoods had an average return of 91.80 percent; during the same year, Mohegan Sun had an average of 92.02 percent, according to the Connecticut Division of Special Revenue.
These numbers vary not only month to month but also place to place. In Las Vegas, for example, the smaller casinos, off the beaten path and away from the big-time resorts, offer the best return percentages. According to statistics supplied by the Nevada Gaming Control Board, returns on 25-cent slot machines on the strip in Las Vegas average 92.59 percent return; those on the northern side of town, which is not a tourist destination, average 96.63 percent.
Because the Nevada board calculates return percentages only for geographic areas rather than for specific casinos, there's no easy way to know individual casinos' return percentages in Las Vegas -- unless you're as committed to finding out as Michael Shackleford is. A few years ago, this former government actuary turned self-employed gaming consultant conducted a study of Las Vegas casino slot machines. He played nickel machines at dozens of casinos and kept meticulous notes on his results. He found rates varying from a high of 93.42 percent (at the Palms) to a low of 85.02 percent (at the airport). His complete results are posted on his website, wizardofodds.com. (These numbers do not apply to slots that take quarters or dollars.)
Things get even more complicated if you try to compare return percentages on different games (say, slots versus craps). Still, while all slot machines are not created equal, Shackleford has one tip for playing the slots: Don't.
''Slots are a very bad bet," he says. ''I wouldn't ever play the slots, even at the best casinos." He tries to direct people toward video poker instead, ''which offers a much better bet." He suggests if you do go in for video poker, you should study strategies before you play; see his website for resources to learn more.
Still, if you're one of the people contributing to that billion-dollar bottom line for the casinos, and losing doesn't bother you, Shackleford and the website slotadvisor.com have some tips for playing the slots to help you win -- or, more accurately, to help minimize your losses.
If you play the maximum number of coins, most video poker and slot machines give a marginally higher payout. If you stick with one denomination at a time, it is better to play one quarter than three nickels. This is because casinos generally increase the return percentage as the coinage goes up. For example, according to the Connecticut Division of Special Revenue, in fiscal year 2002-03, nickel slots at Mohegan Sun offered 86.58 percent return, the $5 slots 94.61 percent.
Never leave or play a machine that owes you money. Sometimes a machine will run out of money before it is finished paying off. If you get up, someone else can sit at the machine and claim they hit the jackpot -- which was yours.
Stay away from machines in places where most gamblers are ''transients" -- at the airport, for example. Also, while some specialists believe slots closest to the casino door offer the lowest return percentages, Shackleford found that, in most cases, this wasn't true. In other words, if one nickel machine had a certain return, then all others like it, regardless of their placement in the casino, returned the same percent.
Look into frequent-player programs run by casinos -- if you don't mind getting on mailing lists. The more money you spend, the more points you acquire; you can cash in the points for rooms, meals, merchandise, and shows.
Decide on your primary goal before starting to play. Is it to play for three hours? Not to lose more than a hundred bucks?
Stop when you've reached your goal.
Betsy Block is a freelance writer in Arlington.