Making the News

Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Originally Published:Sunday, August 9, 2009
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09221/989728-53.stm

$780 million Rivers Casino debuts today on North Shore
3,000 slots will greet players; experts remind the public that luck rules the day

By Mark Belko
Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Frank Legato has a simple piece of advice for slots players who head to the Rivers Casino after it opens its doors today: Bring your luck.

That's all that will separate the winners from the losers, he'll tell you. Forget all those Internet sites touting slot-machine strategy or can't-miss tips.

Raised in Pittsburgh, Mr. Legato, a recognized slots expert, says the only strategy is that there is no strategy. A slot machine, he'll tell you, is "a random device."

"You can't predict what it will do on any given night. That's called luck and that's what you're doing when you go to a casino. That's what rules the day," he said.

The $780 million Rivers Casino, which makes its public debut today after a noon ribbon cutting, will give players 3,000 chances to get lucky or to lose lots of money trying. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board yesterday gave final clearance for the casino to open.

Three thousand is the number of slot machines the North Shore casino will offer visitors, tied for second in the state behind The Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Washington County, which has 3,749. Sands Bethlehem also has 3,000.

In selecting machines, Rivers officials made a point of looking for those that offered the latest technology, in a bid to give the casino a bit of an edge over competitors in the state and in West Virginia, said Joanne Kraly, vice president of gaming.

They also wanted to make sure they had the "right mix" for players. About 55 percent of the casino's machines will be reel and 45 percent video. Ms. Kraly said the traditional reel machines, though now computerized, tend to be more popular on the East Coast than video slots.

Ms. Kraly said visitors should have no trouble finding the machine they want to play. The casino will offer 973 penny machines, 420 two-cent, 348 nickel, 673 quarter, 38 half dollar, 351 one dollar, 85 five-dollar, four $100, and one $500 minimum-bet machine. There also will be $2, $10, $15 and $25 machines.

Among electronic table games, there will be 26 roulette, 70 blackjack, and 10 three-card poker machines.

But if you're going to play, keep one thing in mind: There's a reason they're called one-armed bandits. The typical slot machine isn't a good bet, particularly when compared to other casino games, experts say.

The house edge on standard slot machines is as much as 10 percent, meaning the casino keeps on average 10 cents on every $1 played. Put another way, the casino pays out only $9 for every $10 bet.

In Pennsylvania, the average is about 9 percent. It will be about the same at the Rivers Casino. On traditional table games, the house edge can be as low as 1 percent to 2 percent.

"There's no such thing as a good slot machine. They all take your money too fast," said Michael Bluejay, the editor of vegasclick.com, who has written articles on slot machines.

The Rivers, like all slot-machine casinos, offers "crappy odds on a crappy game. That's all they're giving you," he said.

Of all slot machines, the biggest house edge usually rests with the penny and two-cent varieties, which, perhaps not surprisingly, also are the most popular. Typically casinos can keep as much as 10 cents on the dollar on those machines.

But the penny machines also offer the advantage of longer play for a relatively modest investment. Someone who puts $20 into a one-cent machine can play for a long time, Mr. Legato said.

"Nobody's going to go broke playing a penny machine," he said. "People are looking at penny games more like arcade game time on the machine. They do occasionally win."

Progressive machines also are among the more popular ones because they offer the lure of bigger jackpots. The jackpots grow as more people play and lose. Mr. Bluejay said progressives are a worse bet than regular slot machines because "a portion of what you're putting in is going to feed the jackpot."

The house edge is usually lower on the higher-denomination machines, a "less bad bet," as Mr. Bluejay puts it. But the potential to lose big also is much greater. It doesn't take long, Mr. Legato said, to lose $100 on a $1 slot machine.

Of all the slot machines, the electronic poker and blackjack games may offer gamblers the best chance. The house edge typically is the lowest for such games, with one big caveat.

To narrow the house advantage, you must know proper strategy, such as what cards to hold in what situations. Players should take the time to learn the strategies, which are widely available on the Internet, before trying their luck, experts said.

Mr. Legato said casinos don't need a big edge in video poker because most people don't know how to play.

"Everyone thinks they can play. People who don't know the correct strategy more than pay for the people who take time to study and practice," he said.

While Mr. Bluejay views slot machines largely with disdain, Mr. Legato, editor of Global Gaming Business Magazine, a casino industry trade journal, has a more measured attitude.

"What I always tell people is to decide whether you're in it for the entertainment or in it to win money. Is your primary goal to play enough to have a good time or is it to win money?" he said.

"If it's entertainment, play the lower denominations. If you want a better chance of winning, you're going to pick the higher denominations and the machine is going to be more volatile. You will hit a dry spell but occasionally the big hit will more than make up for it."

Regardless of your choice, don't fall into the trap of thinking the longer you play a machine, the closer you are to hitting the jackpot. That's a myth, Mr. Legato said. Same with being able to tell when a machine is due to hit.

"Every spin is completely independent of every other spin. It's totally unpredictable," he said.

Like Mr. Legato, Mr. Bluejay said there's no good strategy for playing slot machines, other than not playing at all.

"Do you think someone can come out with a system so that when you flip a coin you can get more heads than tails?" he said. "A slot machine is just a more complicated version of that coin. It's all based on very simple probability. The only way to change that is to change the laws of the universe."

So why are slots so popular?

"One of the big lures of slot machines versus other casino games is that, because of the nature of slot machines, there's a chance for a huge jackpot. That's why people play the lottery," Mr. Bluejay said. "Three dollars can win life-changing amounts."

If you do happen to hit a jackpot, the best thing to do is to cash out and pocket the winnings, Mr. Legato said. That way you don't give the money back to the casino. If you still want to play, start over with your original investment, he said.

It's also important to set a budget and stick to it.

"It's all about fun. If you find yourself chasing losses or 'let me go to the ATM to win back what I lost,' that's not fun anymore. My best advice is to take as much as you can lose and if it's not fun anymore, quit," Mr. Legato said.

Ms. Kraly said playing slots is as much about the "gaming experience" as it is about winning big.

"To some extent you allot yourself a certain entertainment budget, you come in and have a good time utilizing that budget and maybe you win some money," she said.

In the old days, when most patrons preferred table games, casinos set up the loosest slot machines or the ones with the lowest house edge in high-visibility areas to entice people to play them, Mr. Legato said.

But now, "People don't have to be enticed to sit down at slot machines any more," he said.

Instead, casinos usually lay out their machines much like a department store does clothing.

"Merchandising has taken over," he said.

At the Rivers Casino, officials were interested in "having nice sight lines across" the gambling floor and arranged machines to some extent to suit that purpose, Ms. Kraly said. That's why many of the taller machines will be against the walls.

The casino also will have a "virtual gaming pit" for video poker, blackjack and roulette that can be converted into an area for table games if they are legalized in Pennsylvania. There also will be a slots section for high-rollers. In addition, 25 percent of the floor will be designated for smokers.

Ms. Kraly said the casino also tried to put more popular games or visually appealing ones in high-traffic areas.

"It makes good business sense for us and the manufacturer," she said. "If you don't put games in places where it's suitable to make money, you're going to order up a conversion or make changes."

But don't expect the Rivers Casino to loosen its slot machines today in a bid to get a foot up on the competition and to entice people back.

The truth is, the machines were pre-programmed by the manufacturers, based on choices offered to the casino. To change the house edge on one slot machine can take up to an hour, Ms. Kraly said.

And even if competing casinos did loosen their slots a bit to gain an edge, the average player probably wouldn't notice it, said Joseph Weinert, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group, an industry consultant. In Pennsylvania during the past year, there was only a one-point difference between the tightest and loosest slot machines, he said.

"You'd have to play slots until you're brain dead to notice a difference that small," Mr. Weinert said.

"Customers know when they go into a casino that chances are, they're going to lose money. They're doing this for the entertainment value. A negligible difference isn't going to impact where you play or whether you're enjoying it."

Mark Belko can be reached at [email protected] or 412-263-1262.

 

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