November 6, 2017

The claw machine.

It's the iconic arcade game, don't you think?

P1150579

P1150581

P1150583

Those are 3 photographs I took in the arcade at New York, New York in Las Vegas last week. Today, I'm reading the Wikipedia article on what is also called the claw crane, the skill crane, or the teddy picker:
The success rate of winning a prize is dependent on several factors including operator settings, player skill, type of machine, and the prizes available (size, density, and distribution). A prize may be lost due to player inexperience, player error in manipulating the claw, the weakness of the claw, or the specific crane configuration...

Modern claw machines are fully computerized and are remotely programmable by the owner (via a hand-held device). Settings and features commonly available include:
  • Claw strength and aperture
  • Motion speed, in any direction (that is, the claw can be made to drop slowly but come up quickly, or move right faster than it moves forward)
  • Pick-up strength and retain strength can be specified separately, as well as the delay between pick-up and return.
  • Payout percentage: Cranes equipped with this setting have onboard programming which cause the claw's grip parameters to be continually adjusted to achieve a pre-set payout percentage, usually specified with respect to the value of the prizes inside
  • Fail limit: If the machine dispenses too many prizes in a given time period, it stops accepting coins and is out of order...
The machine declares itself "out of order" if people win too much!

67 comments:

rehajm said...

For a time some of those machines could be hacked using maintenance settings. Some kid got in big trouble with Chuck E Cheese.

Curious George said...

Forget the settings, if you play the claw you already are a loser.

Clyde said...

The House Always Wins.

They don't build those palaces because people are coming in and beating the house. Gambling is a form of entertainment, and people who choose to do it should go in with a specific amount that they are willing to lose while being entertained. When I was in the Army thirty years ago, I would go to the NCO club with a roll of quarters and play the slot machines. When the quarters were gone, I was done. Sometimes I would win a big jackpot and put those quarters aside and then play until my original roll was gone. But I had no illusions about the laws of probability and the chances of getting rich playing slot machines.

Ralph L said...

In Las Vegas, everything is rigged.

tcrosse said...

Slots and Video Poker machines have a payout adjustment, as well. They can be set to be as loose or tight as desired, although there's a legal minimum payout in Nevada.
It is possible to come out ahead in the short run, but the House always wins in the long run.

Unknown said...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W9t5ZqeHcYk

Kevin said...

My friend calls this "the disappointment machine".

You put in your money and it pays out disappointment.

Fabi said...

Has anyone ever -- ever -- pulled anything out of those nefarious contraptions?

William said...

The claw machine is rigged. Who knew? When word gets out, this will increase the level of cynicism in America immeasurably. Thank God, we still have institutions like the Clinton Foundation to lead us to a brighter future.

Ken B said...

Seems like a cafe. Greenwald notes four more lies spread by the media this week, most trying to exculpate Hillary Clinton from the Brazile revelations. https://theintercept.com/2017/11/05/four-viral-claims-spread-by-journalists-on-twitter-in-the-last-week-alone-that-are-false/

Kevin said...

Greenwald notes four more lies spread by the media this week, most trying to exculpate Hillary Clinton from the Brazile revelations.

The media itself is a claw machine. If too much truth starts coming out, the media declare the story "out of order".

Mark said...

Settings and features commonly available include:
** Claw strength and aperture
** Pick-up strength and retain strength can be specified separately, as well as the delay between pick-up and return.
** Payout percentage: Cranes equipped with this setting have onboard programming which cause the claw's grip parameters to be continually adjusted to achieve a pre-set payout percentage, usually specified with respect to the value of the prizes inside

_________________

These are called the Fraud and False Pretenses settings which induce people to hand over their money under the deception that the game is fair and that they might actually win if they are skillful enough.

tcrosse said...

A certain amount of winning has to be allowed, and publicized when it occurs, otherwise nobody would play.

Snark said...

I read a book called 'Addiction by Design' a few years ago about the many ways in which the industry actively attempts to create and sustain compulsion in slot machine players. Up to half of revenues come from people who are problem gamblers and addicts. That's a lot of misery to peddle.

etbass said...

"Thank God, we still have institutions like the Clinton Foundation to lead us to a brighter future."

YES!!

Lem said...

I have a vegie recollection of Rumsfeld analogizing the claw machine in one of his Iraq war conferences.

George M. Spencer said...

"The Claw is my master," said the three-eyed toy from 'Toy Story'

vicari valdez said...

there needs to be variety among the prizes or it doesn't work. with the teddy bears, maybe different colors is enough variety. with the hats, different logos/sports team/colors.

Static Ping said...

There is a diner I go to that has a claw machine. However, it is rigged so you always win. If you do not get something the first try, you get a second try, and so forth and so on until something comes out. The trick they play with this one is the cost is $2 and most of the prizes are Island of Misfit Toys plushies, typically cheaply made and decorated in gaudy colors with the occasional bizarre model for extra flavor. (I remember one thing that was basically a cross between a giraffe and a bowling pin in three colors that never should have been used together outside of a pimp car interior.) On the plus side, the plushies are not too cheaply made as they hold together long-term unless you really abuse them. (I once won a plushie at an amusement park not to be named here that started to disintegrate minutes after I won it.) In addition, there are always some Beanie Babies in there that are worth more than $2 and, if you are fortunate, they can be won. And sometimes the machine gives you two prizes either because the claw was especially efficient or the sensor malfunctioned. I always play it because it is just fun. It's 50 cents of toy and $1.50 of pleasure in my book.

tcrosse said...

This skulduggery does not sink to the level of peddling securities backed by sub-prime mortgages or IPOs of dot coms.

Earnest Prole said...

The claw is our master.

The claw chooses who will go and who will stay.

I have been chosen! Farewell, my friends -- I go on to a better place.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Ann Althouse said...The machine declares itself "out of order" if people win too much!

Yes ma'am...all the computer-controlled games have that feature. The idea is to return 90-something percent of your money/payout/prizes which will keep you playing and feeling like a winner. In the long term the casino gets more than you do, but if you lose every time you'll quit fast so it's better to milk for more slowly and for much much longer. If the machine is paying out more than 100% (really more than whatever arbitrary 80-90 something % the casino determines is profitable) then the casino is losing money and you're making money...and the casino would go out of business.

With the prize machines that's pretty easy, really: just like at a carnival the prize value itself is so low that on some machine even if you won most of the time the casino would still profit off your nickles. With the money machines that doesn't work, so the money payouts have to be closely regulated. I guess it's possible that the casinos would intentionally lose money on some machines (in high-traffic areas, say) in order to induce more play on profitable (to the casino) machines, but that seems like it'd be rare.

Which, incidentally, is to me the weirdest part of the already-weird story about the Vegas shooter guy. The stories I read say that he made money--allegedly a LOT Of money--playing video poker full time. I get that perfect play on some machines means that the house will have a very narrow advantage, but I have a really hard time believing that any casino would program their machines to have a long-term POSITIVE expected value for the player. That'd be programming in a money loser for the casino. Why would they do that?

With person-to-person poker I could see making a living that way--if you're a pro you would have an advantage over other players/non-pros and the casino takes a cut. Fine, ok. But on the casino's machine why would you ever have an advantage over the casino? Why would, in the long term, you ever MAKE money? I understand there are progressive betting opportunities on some machines, etc, but given ALL the payouts the long term expected value for the player must still be negative, right? Otherwise the casino would be intentionally losing money! That just doesn't seem likely.

Now maybe if the guy plays 24/7 and puts down enough money that the casino comps him meals and hotel rooms and he manages to break even on the money wagered then the could survive that way--and possibly even come out ahead when you factor in the food & hotel cost. That I could buy, if he was a very good player and had a substantial bankroll (to weather the losing streaks he'd have to have). But under that scenario he wouldn't be getting rich/richer! So either my understanding of how casinos are run is wrong or the news' characterization of that guy is wrong...or I'm missing something.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Incidentally, Professor A: there have been stories about casino machines seeming to give big jackpot winnings to players only to have the casino declare that the machine was faulty and the player wasn't entitled to the jackpot. Apparently most gambling states have laws saying the determination of machine error is at the casino's discretion (subject to gaming board regulations, etc) and if they say you didn't really win you aren't entitled to the grand prize, notwithstanding the JACKPOT! sirens going off. One article I vaguely remember said the casino gave the person something like $100 and some vouchers after the "faulty" machine said they'd won hundreds of thousands of dollars!

I think I'd try a lawsuit for emotional distress, myself.

tcrosse said...

@HoodlumDoodlum
You are correct, sir.

Clyde said...

@HoodlumDoodlum

Whoa, Mr. Tolstoy! Five dense paragraphs? :-)

Clyde said...

NTTAWWT!

Gabriel said...

@HoodlumDoodlum:I have a really hard time believing that any casino would program their machines to have a long-term POSITIVE expected value for the player. That'd be programming in a money loser for the casino. Why would they do that?

Because it's a front for money laundering.

madAsHell said...

Which, incidentally, is to me the weirdest part of the already-weird story about the Vegas shooter guy.

His employment history is sketchy, and I don't understand the source of his income. He had two airplanes, and lived in the desert by the border. Smuggle much??

Gahrie said...

The stories I read say that he made money--allegedly a LOT Of money--playing video poker full time.

From what I have read, there is indeed a winning strategy for video poker. There is in fact a community of professional video poker players.

tcrosse said...

If you get too good at Blackjack, the casinos will ask you to leave. Why not for getting too good at video poker, unless Gabriel is correct and it's a front for money laundering ?

rehajm said...

Bideo poker doesn’t have easy to spot advantage play the way blackjack does. To win at video poker you need to win the progressive jackpots, plus the positive EV only happens when the jackpot reaches a certain amount. Othewise the EV on play is negative. It’s a beatable game but tough to beat.

If you split 10s at the bmackjack table you’ll get lots of attention.

rehajm said...

Syndicates of video poker players form around large jackpots.

rehajm said...

Like Hoodlum suggests its also possible to play video poker for comps and while your EV on the game is negative you could make up for it in comp value. But the shooter likely scouted the city for jackpots and only played when EV for play was positive.

Rt1 Rebel said...

When I was 12, I was proficient at winning packs of cigarettes from claw machines on the Ocean City MD boardwalk. I'd run back to the beachhouse and sell them to my Dad for a profit. (My Dad is 81 and doing well, I quit the claw machines and he quit the cigarettes.)

Anonymous said...

You, a claw professor!

madAsHell said...

Bideo poker

You shouldn't mock the hordes of blue-haired ladies.

Paco Wové said...

I know this isn't an Officially Designated Cafe Thread, but I thought something Althouse posted in a comment earlier today was so peculiar it deserved a wider distribution:

We are socially and politically better off if we believe that aptitude is shared basically equally across the races. We can say that and move on to looking at people as individuals.

Now, I do see the subtlety, which is that the belief that this is really hard science is a useful component of the convenient belief, so let's not only not talk about racial differences, let's also claim that it's all been determined as a matter of science.

But you know what? I don't even want the science. The belief in equality is so important, morally and philosophically and politically, that we should not attempt to verify or disprove it through scientific research. This is the clearest example of truth not being our highest value.


I've seen plenty of people, generally but not exclusively of a leftist political orientation, argue this position, but never with such a clear-eyed dismissal of reality and knowledge (usually they huff and puff about how they are being Most Scientific while regurgitating whatever the goodthinkers tell them to think). It's oddly refreshing to see somebody revisiting the whole Galileo-v-the-Church thing and coming down wholeheartedly on the side of the Church.

Eppur si muove, Althouse.

rehajm said...

You shouldn't mock the hordes of blue-haired ladies.

It really hurts when they wack me with their purses full of nickels.

D said...

Rolling Stones Hand of Fate is a great song. To hell with you all if you dont agree.
You can hear it faintly in the background in the third Toy Story after the claw guys save Woody.
If you smoke enough weed that is. Something with caramel tones.

buwaya said...

Also way off-topic, and no doubt Althouse will post this at some point, but more Weinstein, from the New Yorker, and this bit really is creepy -

https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/harvey-weinsteins-army-of-spies/amp

In the fall of 2016, Harvey Weinstein set out to suppress allegations that he had sexually harassed or assaulted numerous women. He began to hire private security agencies to collect information on the women and the journalists trying to expose the allegations. According to dozens of pages of documents, and seven people directly involved in the effort, the firms that Weinstein hired included Kroll, one of the world’s largest corporate intelligence companies, and Black Cube, an enterprise run largely by former officers of Mossad and other Israeli intelligence agencies.

....

The explicit goal of the investigations, laid out in one contract with Black Cube, signed in July, was to stop the publication of the abuse allegations against Weinstein that eventually emerged in the New York Times and The New Yorker. Over the course of a year, Weinstein had the agencies “target,” or collect information on, dozens of individuals, and compile psychological profiles that sometimes focussed on their personal or sexual histories. Weinstein monitored the progress of the investigations personally. He also enlisted former employees from his film enterprises to join in the effort, collecting names and placing calls that, according to some sources who received them, felt intimidating.

......

Comments - various tricks and chicanery described. Weinstein seems to have been working full time since late 2016 to suppress stories, and spent a lot of money in the effort. Quite a lot of people are implicated. Who knows what was done in the previous decades (very likely) and who else was implicated in all that.

It also says that these transactions/activities in this case were handled through David Boies, who is of course a well-known resident of the "swamp".

tim in vermont said...

Toy Story 3 should be an opera.

LordSomber said...

Always preferred skee-ball at the boardwalk.

Laslo Spatula said...

You get good at the Claw and you can impress the little girls and win them gifts.

How their eyes light up in wonder!

I got you a stuffed pony!

Do you like pony rides?

Like that.

I am Laslo.

I Have Misplaced My Pants said...

No, Skee-Ball is the iconic arcade game, because it's hella fun. I make a beeline for it when I am forced to take the kids to Chuck E Cheese.

Bob Loblaw said...

These are called the Fraud and False Pretenses settings which induce people to hand over their money under the deception that the game is fair and that they might actually win if they are skillful enough.

Wasn't this a big scandal a year or two back? The machines were rigged such that it's impossible to pick anything up unless the computer decides it's time for someone to win. There's no skill in it at all.

Bob Loblaw said...

That'd be programming in a money loser for the casino. Why would they do that?

Because it's a front for money laundering.


Heh. When I lived in Santa Barbara there was a sushi place that was just terrible. You could smell old fish from the door, and on Friday and Saturday night the place was empty when its competitors had lines out the door.

Eventually the FBI raided the place. On paper it was super profitable - they bought just enough fish to stock the bar, hired a half-blind old Korean guy to play the chef, and made up a boatload of ghost customers. The problem was that particular outfit was laundering so much drug money and putting so little effort into keeping up appearances it was pretty obvious something wasn't right.

For the last 30 years that place has come time mind every time I go into a restaurant that seems like it ought to have gone out of business already.

Clyde said...

I have to agree with Paco Wové. It's one thing to say that all people are equal before the law and should be treated equally. It's another thing to try to argue that all groups of people have equal aptitude, no matter what quality is being measured. Kenyan (and other East African) marathoners winning distance races is only one example of a group significantly outperforming other groups in a particular category. You'll also see a lot of little Indian-American and Asian-American kids in the spelling bee finals every year. You'll see a lot of African-American basketball players. You can't just close your eyes and say, "I don't see you! You don't exist!" to things that don't fit your narrative. It doesn't work that way. Stereotypes exist for a reason, because they usually have some significant element of truth to them. They weren't invented out of whole cloth.

The Cracker Emcee Activist said...

The trick to Skee ball is to slam that ball into the midpoint of the end curve. It's more underhand pitching than bowling. It took me years to realize this but I'm happy to share my wealth of experience.

walter said...

It would be very intimidating to be reprimanded by Chuck E. Cheese.

Vegas should stock their claw tanks with..err.."novelty" items.
Laslo could compile the list...

eddie willers said...

The trick to Skee ball is to slam that ball into the midpoint of the end curve.

Many [many!] years ago Six Flags Over Georgia put in a huge skee-ball in a new section featuring some giant antique Carousel they brought over from Europe.

I am throwing coin after coin away trying to win a Teddy Bear for my sweetheart. I took a break and walked around the back side that was roped off. There I see an employee playing (by using a quarter soldered on the end of a thin wire)

Instead of rolling the ball straight down the middle like one would think, she would hit the side about halfway up and carrom that thing right into the center hole!

I finished my smoke, walked back around to the open section and promptly won a Teddy Bear the size of a six year old using her strategy.

So I got lucky that night (and won a Bear too)

Gahrie said...

Stereotypes exist for a reason, because they usually have some significant element of truth to them. They weren't invented out of whole cloth.

Which is why she said: "This is the clearest example of truth not being our highest value."

She knows the truth. She just wants to deny it because it makes her feel bad...and feelings are all that matter.

Repeal the 19th.

Bob Ellison said...

I was once watching an excited, crowded craps table when an old guy hobbled up and threw two $25 chips in the middle of the table and shouted, BOXCARS! Damned if the next throw wasn't two sixes. He collected on his bet, threw one $25 chip to the player and another to the center dealer, and hobbled away.

glenn said...

“The machine declares itself "out of order" if people win too much!”

They all do. Even the ones with humans at the controls.

Static Ping said...

Blogger Laslo Spatula said... You get good at the Claw and you can impress the little girls and win them gifts.

This may be true, but it has never worked for me.

I suspect that spending $2 for a pony that looks like an abomination from the Island of Dr. Moreau is not prime courtship behavior.

Maybe if I looked like George Clooney.

I am not Laslo, obviously.

Anonymous said...

Latest word is that the Las Vegas shooter was actually losing at video poker:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5047905/Vegas-sheriff-says-Stephen-Paddock-lost-ot-money.html

No duh. The laws of probability ain't broken yet.

But if, as the conspiracy theory has it, he was actually playing video poker to launder money illegally acquired (e.g., from arms dealing?), then he was paying the "laundry" only about a 0.5% commission -- a pretty good deal.

Anonymous said...

Re Skee-ball:

I've use the technique of caroming off the side ever since I was a teenager. It lets you hit the "40" hole pretty reliably. The "50" hole, however, remains largely out of reach.

Bruce Hayden said...

"Slots and Video Poker machines have a payout adjustment, as well. They can be set to be as loose or tight as desired, although there's a legal minimum payout in Nevada.
It is possible to come out ahead in the short run, but the House always wins in the long run."

As a patent atty, I have worked on slot machines, as well as on some card games. We had maybe the best gaming practice in NV at the time, so I also dealt with the attys who were getting new games approved by the gaming commission. As I understood it, the way it worked for these games is that you had to register the odds with the gaming commission, and be able to prove them, through use of professional statisticians. But you could register different sets of odds for specific games. And this is precisely what they would do - register maybe a half dozen, a dozen, sets of odds and payoffs for a specific game, maybe ranging from, say, 90% up to 98%. At any time, you could figure out the current payoff, if you dug through enough menus, and were good enough with numbers. But the machines were all networked to central systems, and the odds could be adjusted on the fly, by loading one of the odds tables, then changed again by loading another one. So, you might sit down at a machine paying out at 98%, but it shifts to maybe a 90% payout during your play, and you are none the wiser. You could detect this, of course, by digging through those menus again, but will you? Probably not. What I don't think that they can do is switch the odds as a result of your play, but scheduled changes are just fine. And adjusting them based on traffic is probably fine too (no longer can just dial an extension to get the answer, so just guessing based on past experience). It is well known that odds shift on these games depending on time of day, and day of the week. And how close the machine is to heavy traffic. Rule of thumb is that the higher the demand for a given machine, the worse the odds. Lowest maybe in the late evenings, and best maybe in the early hours, when the gaming floor is pretty dead except for die heart gamblers.

Bruce Hayden said...

I first got into (patenting) gaming machines right before 9/11, and was surprised to discover how much both art and science was involved. The display, the colors, lights, I even the sounds. That "Ching, Ching, Ching" of a slot machine paying out coins? They worked hard tuning it just right to give the right effect. Along these lines, multilevel games and progressives were the rage back then by the slot machine companies. As was explained to me, part of the payout is allocated to each level, or to the networked progressive, etc. Part of the art is determining the ratios. What you have with, say, a two level game, is the bulk of the payout allocated to the primary game, which has a decently high chance of paying off, but a low payout. The second level has a low chance of paying off, but a high payoff. Sometimes really high. You need the frequent low payouts to keep the players playing, but the low frequency big payout to entice them to sit down. Getting the ratio just right was part of the art - though I think that with a large enough data set (which companies like IGT no doubt have), I think that you could do a decent job at empirically maximizing this. So, maybe not as much art, nearing 20 years later.

Why do electronic slot machines have levers? Tradition. They essentially just operate a contact switch any more, and you don't get different results than if you used a push button. It used to matter, long ago, when the lever would start the wheels spinning. BTW - think that that slit machine with mechanical wheels will be more consistent, or have more consistent odds? Unlikely. Everything is electronic, including determining the result of the spin of the wheels. Way it works is that when you pull the lever, push the button, etc, the game essentially generates a random number, then translates that, through the odds tables to specific wheel locations. This is, of course, done almost instantaneously, at computer speed. So, the game knows within a fraction of a second whether you have won or lost, and how much. Everything else is elaborately developed presentation. The game, knowing where it wants the wheels to stop, does so, but slowly enough that you don't notice that some wheels slow up slightly faster and others very slightly slower. The result is preordained, driven by the random number generator, and the rest is presentation.

Bruce Hayden said...

I found Ann's discussion about how the grabber games are programmed to be fascinating, esp with my (patent) background in gaming. I knew that there had to be a trick, or tricks, or it wouldn't be a viable game. But it wasn't obvious how. Every time I would walk by one of those games, I was tempted to play a bit, to see if I could figure out the catch, how the game owner made sure he won. No longer. Thanks.

This would have been an exception to my personal rule not to play games of chance for money. I would have been paying to satisfy my curiosity. I noted a bit ago that playing electronic games for money, for me, is like pulling teeth - though I have played professionally (as a patent atty). With my background in mathematics, business, patents, and engineering, I just know, at a deep, almost instinctive, level that I will ultimately lose. Instead of viewing losing as what you have to get through to win, I look at it the other way around, that I may win a bit, but that is just on the way to losing. Which is inevitable, eventually, given the odds.

Getting back to the grabber game, given that money is, essentially, being wagered for a chance to win a prize, I would expect that they would be, or at least should be, controlled by the NV Gaming Commission. But how do you empirically, probabilistically, determine the effect of these various parameters on ultimate payout? Think that would be hard. Again, it would be nice to still have a good ongoing working relationship with attys working in this area. Oh well.

tim in vermont said...

The problem with Althouse's position is when you get to disparate impacts as proof of discrimination. That rule would have to be thrown out. Good luck.

rehajm said...

What I don't think that they can do is switch the odds as a result of your play, but scheduled changes are just fine. And adjusting them based on traffic is probably fine too

I've observed machines open on the casino floor and seen the screen inside that showed the programed payout to three decimal places as well as the actual payout over different periods of time.

Related to casino changing the payout: a relative with a casino on their reservation told me it worked like you say- odds were changed at scheduled periods. They used to loosen up the payouts for tour bus junkets during the week then tighten them back up for weekend play. Apparently the junket riders compare notes on the way home. The tribe tried to make sure enough people were winning jackpots otherwise it became much harder to fill the buses.

Paul Snively said...

Dr. Althouse: The machine declares itself "out of order" if people win too much!

In the banking industry. this is called a "bank holiday," and happens when too many customers "demand" to withdraw their "demand" deposits and risk finding out the bank can't fulfill all of its "demand" deposit withdrawl "demands" and is, in fact, bankrupt.

Assrat said...

>The problem with Althouse's position is when you get to disparate impacts as proof of discrimination.

That's true. However, if you're dealing with individuals, she's right. Dr. Neil Tyson is a better physicist than I am regardless of any average performance of our respective groups.

tim in vermont said...

Yeah it would be nice if both sides could think the best of each other. Maybe we need a Handicapper General so more white guys can play cornerback.

tim in vermont said...

Maybe we could fiddle with the rules for golf clubs so women could play on the PGA, make male marathoners carry sinkers in their pockets. Pay pretty girls to distract Asian guys in math class.

dbp said...

"Payout percentage: Cranes equipped with this setting have onboard programming which cause the claw's grip parameters to be continually adjusted to achieve a pre-set payout percentage, usually specified with respect to the value of the prizes inside"

I thought I got really lucky, but maybe my kids set me up for the best prank I ever pulled off. We were at a pizza place in northern NH on the way back from a week-long vacation, so I was very relaxed. While we waited for our order, each of our three little girls begged for quarters to try the claw-machine and kept coming back empty handed. I pretended to not realize it was a game and be frustrated by their inability to operate a vending machine. Finally succumbing to their urging, I got up and in three tries, got each of the three girls a plush toy from the "vending" machine.

They were all squealing with delight and hugging their plush animals and utterly failing to notice my big hints that I had no idea it was a game, rather than a somewhat poorly designed and error prone vending machine. My wife got the joke but was far more interested in the girl's delight in their prizes.

Bruce said...

Video poker is a bit different than slot machines, in that they can't be set to run "hot" or "cold". They feature a realistically randomized 52 card deck (for almost all games - some also include joker(s)). They have to prove to the gaming commission that it is the same as a real shuffled deck of cards, both by statistics and by letting the gaming commission read and critique all the code. But once you see your initial cards, you can mathematically accurately compute your chances of improving to various hands on the draw. If you know how to count outs and compute probabilities in Texas Hold'em, you can do the same at video poker. It's not like a slot machine where they dynamically can change the win percentage, or where they do things like deliberately tease you by making it look like you just barely missed a huge jackpot.

Where the casinos DO get to make adjustments is in the payouts. If you hold three of a kind, your chance to improve to a full house is always exactly the same, and the same as if you were playing with a fair deck of shuffled cards. But how much that full house pays you can be set by the casino (within bounds set by the gaming commission).

There are some video poker machines that actually have an expected value of over 100%. These are few and far between now, but they are out there. (98% return is much more common). There are some that over the long run, will pay 102% of the money you put in, if you play perfect strategy. Why do the casinos do this? Because 1) It's very difficult to play perfect strategy for a long period of time, and 2) the "long run" is very long indeed, and most people can't/won't play that long. It's many 10s of thousands of hands, and of course you can have long unlucky streaks that go much longer than that. So even on the rare machines that technically have +EV, the casino will often still win money.

I play a fair amount of video poker, mostly in the locals pubs and restaurants while eating dinner. I track results, and do lose money over the long run. When you factor in the cost of free cocktails/beers, though, I come out slightly ahead of what it would have cost me for drinks. And there is also the entertainment factor.