One of the most difficult casino urban legends that goes around is that the casino is tracking what you’re playing and adjusting the odds on a machine, or they raise/lower paybacks based on time of day or during special occasions.
Status: Very, very unlikely; in most cases definitely not, anyway.
Slot Machine Basics
Starting with Vegas-style (Class III) slots, the design of the games has always made changing paybacks difficult. Older slot machines would have their paybacks set based on a specific chip placed inside the machine. If a slot was getting changed to a different payback, a different chip would need to be installed; same if the machine was getting reset into something else.
The move to more software-driven approaches moved the payback selection to a software choice within the game’s configuration. The payback choices are built in to the game, and the casino chooses a payback level that fits with their goals for how much they want to earn off a given denomination’s games.
Some think that a software driven approach means casinos are always tinkering. However, Kevin Sweet, VP of Slot Operations and Marketing at Cosmopolitan, says the systems that would help casinos manage that have never worked well:
As for machines being changed… The holy grail of slot technology 10 years ago was the deployment of “server based gaming”, where we’d be able to update games on the fly. That was more of a pipe dream and never really materialized. The most common example of why this was going to be so great for casinos was that on Friday and Saturday we’d be able to remove the penny denomination from our games, forcing our guests to bet more because we’re so busy. But the truth is, it never worked and we’re never that busy. No one is doing that. Basically, once a machine is set up, that’s how it stays.Kevin Sweet, VP of Slot Machines and Marketing at Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, sharing his views at Vegas Fanatics
Many states have regulations that when a machine is changed, it needs to be reported as a new game. Some have rules about how long a game must be idle before and after. Many casinos have machines adjusted by multiple staff working together so that there’s an audit trail and not one person responsible whenever a machine is adjusted. And anyone who has seen a slot machine reboot after a change knows it is not something that bounces back right away; a whole verification process takes place before a single bet can be made on the machine. In fact, the average slot machine in Nevada takes at least a half hour to update and reset, so most casinos are making changes rarely, mostly when rolling out new games or moving machines around periodically.
A casino operator can generally improve their fortunes more rapidly by simply swapping out poorly performing games vs. tinkering with the payback. And remember those paybacks are achieved across millions of spins over time, not a night or a weekend; a casino could lower payback by one percent and not see a penny in benefit because they had a higher than average number of jackpots – that’s the random number generator in action. But they could see their fortunes improve by taking a machine that’s been idle awhile and dropping in a new game that more people want to play.
Outside of Vegas-Style Slots
What about machines where the outcome is determined outside the game? Theoretically, a casino could choose to, say, have Bingo games with lower payouts and less winners, or a state-run program that reduces the payback percentage with the video lottery terminals.
In the case of Bingo games on Native American casinos where there isn’t reporting of paybacks, that’s certainly one outcome. But most casinos aren’t going to go crazy lowering paybacks because if you feel like you can’t ever win, you’ll eventually stop going. Casinos count on some positive experiences in gambling to ensure return visits. Plus with the amount of competition out there increasing, people will play where they feel they’ve got a better chance, and so casinos have to work within that framework too.
For state-operated VLTs like in New York, laws set the minimum payback threshold (in New York it’s a surprisingly high 90 percent minimum, even on penny machines). Plus the machines are tied to a system that has a set number of outcomes that need to be worked through to achieve the payback. As such, switching it wouldn’t be instant, and likely would take some time, and the amount to be gained not very significant given the high floor on paybacks.
In conclusion, it’s very unlikely casinos are constantly tinkering with paybacks. There may be decisions to go a certain direction over time, but there’s no overnight raising or lowering of paybacks across a casino floor in a weekend.