Your Brain On Slots

Nutrition labels on slot machines, and other appetizing tidbits

Your Brain On Slots

I was just contemplating our new era of sports betting when I remembered this story I saved a few months ago about the annual Fourth of July Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, and a snafu involving the hot-dog eating champion Joey “Jaws” Chestnut.

The article was describing the Major League Eating event—it actually says, “which we all probably know as MLE”—and the final count of Jaws’ record-breaking scarf-fest that won the Nathan’s contest—74 hot dogs and buns consumed in 10 minutes.

Incidentally, in this month’s “Life’s Not Fair” entry, Jaws is actually a thin guy. If I so much as look at a hot dog, I gain 20 pounds. I’ll never make it in the MLE.

Anyway, counters at the contest initially miscalculated Jaws’ tally at 64, resulting in some offshore bets being settled incorrectly. It caused quite the hubbub.

My point is, people are betting on eating contests. Why not add them to our new sports books? We can have race, sports and eating books. Along with video of the NFL, they can stream the MLE Network. (Is that a thing? It should be.) Prop bets can be made on how much mustard will be used, the next contestant to throw up, or how long it takes before the contest winner runs to the rest room.

Moving on, it’s well-known that some of the best ideas on battling problem gambling come from Ontario.

I always figured they have to be especially vigilant up there because winter is, like, six months long, and casinos are usually warm and cozy. When people get tired of ice fishing and dogsledding, they go to casinos.

(For some reason, I can never seem to find a good dogsledding outfit here on the East Coast. And as far as ice fishing, I don’t even want to know what’s under there.)

Anyway, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (motto: “OLG! OMG!”) has put forth some groundbreaking efforts to battle problem gambling, and is often helped in these efforts by researchers at the University of Waterloo.

Kevin Harrigan, a professor and researcher at the university, has made a particular study of the brains of slot-machine players. Well, not physically. He doesn’t have a hunchback assistant who follows sick slot players around to steal their brains when they die. At least not that I know of. But he has made some quite interesting discoveries over the years.

In a recent interview with the Waterloo Record, Harrigan described a novel idea he and Waterloo colleague Dan Brown have put into practice at Grand River Raceway in Elora: “nutrition labels” on slot machines that list the payback percentage (or hold percentage, for the more daring operators), the chance of hitting a bonus round, and how volatile the game is—frequent small payouts or occasional big payouts with lot of dry spells.

So, just like your box of mac and cheese says, “Saturated Fat: 1,000% of Daily Requirement,” your slot machine would say stuff like:

House Hold: 18%

Bonus Frequency: Every Other Ice Age

Volatility: Bring LOTS of Cash

Jackpot Odds: Same as Odds of Paul Bunyan and His Blue Ox Dancing Past Your Machine in a Conga Line

In the interview, Harrigan said that if players know ahead of time how a game will behave, they will be able to avoid common pitfalls that can lead to problem gambling, like getting excited about almost winning—those nefarious “near misses.”

Said Harrigan, “If you watch players in a casino—and there’s a lot of research to support this—if they get one of these, they’ll snap their fingers and say, ‘Oh shucks’ or something like that.”

Wow. They really are polite in Canada. “Oh, shucks. That was my last credit. Darn the luck. I’m having a dickens of a time.”

Here in the Northeast U.S., substitute a few words that can’t be printed in a family publication.

And it often goes beyond words, like it did last month in Iowa with Dion King. If that seems like a familiar name, Dion King is not a boxing promoter who sings “Runaround Sue.” (There’s an age test for you.) He’s a regular guy from northern Iowa who allegedly punched out a slot machine at the Diamond Jo Casino, causing $2,000 in damage. A video showed King punching a game’s touch screen several times.

Police didn’t buy his explanation that he thought the machine’s nutrition label said “punch screen” instead of touch screen. He has to reimburse the casino for the money, and later, he has to donate his brain to the University of Waterloo.

Just in case, Professor Harrigan’s hunchback has been following him around.

Frank Legato
Frank Legato is editor of Global Gaming Business magazine. He has been writing on gaming topics since 1984, when he launched and served as editor of Casino Gaming magazine. Legato, a nationally recognized expert on slot machines, has served as editor and reporter for a variety of gaming publications, including Public Gaming, IGWB, Casino Journal, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Atlantic City Insider. He has an B.A. in journalism and an M.A. in communications from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. He is the author of the recently published book on gaming, How To Win Millions Playing Slot Machines... Or Lose Trying.