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Can Players Tell Whether Slot Machines Are 'Loose'?

Gambling comes with a lot of superstition. Maybe you have to wear your lucky socks or bring your lucky friend or bet your lucky numbers. 

Most serious slot players have a lucky machine.

But it’s not just the gamblers themselves who are superstitious.  

Casino managers have a long-standing belief that players can tell what the "house advantage" or "par" is.

Casinos fear that raising the odds will drive away players, but new research shows that may not be true.

“There becomes this issue of, ‘if I put a higher house-edge game in, I might make more revenue in the short run but in the long run, I might damage my brand and chase off all my players if they can tell I’m sort of price gouging,'" said Anthony Lucas, a professor of hospitality at UNLV. 

Lucas headed up the research to see if players really could tell the difference between a tight game - a game with higher house edge - or a loose game with a lower house edge.  

Luca set up two identical machines within a few feet of each other in casinos known as repeat market casinos, which means the customers come in three to five days of the week.

One of the machines was set to a lower house edge - say 5 percent - and the other one had a higher edge - say 10 percent. 

“And what we find is that the high-house edge games actually win quite a bit more than the low-house edge games,” Lucas said.

He said players choose the higher edge game more frequently.

“There is no reason for players to play that game and yet – they still do,” he said.

The machines paid out the same but the higher edge just paid out less frequently.

Lucas said the reason players don't move to a better-paying machine is because of the way the slot machines are set up.

“So the problem is players don’t have enough money, or time or interest to play the game long enough to ever tell,” he said.

Lucas conducted the experiment in several places from Australia to Mexico to Las Vegas. He said the message for casinos, especially those that target regular gamblers, is they could be making a lot more money.

“At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself if operators are leaving money on the table,” he said.

But the idea that higher-edge games will eventually be detected is a tough one to shake.

“There is a strong, well-established fear that they’ll be brand damage or push back from players because they think they can detect these changes,” Lucas said. He feels confident players cannot detect anything.

Anthony Lucas, professor of hospitality, UNLV

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Kristy Totten is a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada. Previously she was a staff writer at Las Vegas Weekly, and has covered technology, education and economic development for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. She's a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.