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One Annoying Feature of Randomness

Author: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: I read a recent article of yours on Video Keno so I thought you would be a good person to pose my question to. First, some background. I have been playing Video Keno since 1980 when I used to frequent Vegas two or three times a year. I hit 7 of 7 for $1,750 and was hooked. I usually like to play 7 and 9's. I am well aware of its poor odds and play conservatively. When the MGM Grand first opened in Detroit prior to its permanent site, my wife and I would go 15-20 times a year. We would average 3 or 4 hand pays a year and get our tax forms. Here’s the strange thing. In the past five years, or over 150 trips to a casino, I have not only NEVER gotten a jackpot over $1,100, or a hand pay, plus, I have never seen another person get a hand pay. I know luck varies, comes and goes, but I have spent enough time in casinos playing this game to develop a sense of normalcy about this game. Any thoughts on why these last five years of play are so radically different from my first 25 years? The 5 years without evidence of a hand pay has me getting conspiratorial.
Frank W.

Like the lottery, Video Keno is a straightforward game of luck involving picking numbers. The player usually picks 1 to 15 numbers from 1 to 80, and then 20 numbers are drawn from the same range. The more numbers a player picks that match the drawn numbers, the more the lucky player wins.

Video Keno uses microprocessor technology and randomized sequencing. On a properly functioning Video Keno machine, no specific number or combination of numbers is any more likely to appear than any other number or combination of numbers.

I can see that not getting a hand pay for five years would make you question whether cheating was taking place, but I suspect that what you are experiencing is the randomness of Video Keno machines, and your relatively short gambling timeline.

Take for instance my personal five spot (2, 25, 55, 73, 78). While working 18 years in a casino, five days a week, eight hour shifts, and six games an hour on a live game, I have only seen my 5-spot appear four times. That timeframe is not counting after-shifters at the bar, countless meals in the casino restaurants, concerts, sporting events, etc., all places where a keno board is in view.

The odds of hitting a five spot are 1,549 to one, and yet, I probably had hundreds of thousands of glances at the board, and just four hits. Better yet, for my first three years in gambling I worked in the Keno department and I didn’t call my numbers once. If I were to claim that something fishy was going on, I would be the one in on it.

Here’s the deal, Frank. Video Keno is a negative-expectation game with a decent-sized house edge. The odds against catching 7 out of 7 are 40,979 to one, and 9 of 9 are one in 1,380,687. With 150 trips to the casino, leisurely playing one game a minute for four hours, you still have played under 40,979 games to catch a solid 7, and definitely under 1.3 million games to catch nine. Your best shot for that hand pay is catching 8 of 9, where the odds are 30,691 to one.

Also, Frank, I can reasonably assume that you are not watching the Video Keno machines in question, 24 hours a day, weeks at a time. You wouldn’t know what happens when you are not eyeing them. You might be dumping quarters galore, but you don’t see the hand pays when you’re not there.

Getting conspiratorial, sure, I’ll play along. Yes, anybody can program any machine (computer) to do anything it wants. BUT, casinos like the MGM are publicly-traded companies not interested in exposing their gaming license to loss by cheating, and they could be caught relatively easily by a state’s gaming regulatory agent conducting surprise field tests of “any and all” video machines to make sure all the devices in use contain software programs or chips approved by the regulatory board. Any hanky-panky equals bye-bye license – not a corporate goal.

All of which sort of leads me more to a run of bad luck within your gaming timeline, and the friendly suggestion to switch games to Video Poker, which has a far, far lower house edge.

Dear Mark: Does it have any effect on your outcome when you press the Stop Spin button?
Nancy C.

No, Nancy, pressing the Stop Spin button has zero effect on your overall outcome. All the press Stop Spin button does is halt the reels from their meaningless spinning.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week:
“Since the World is but a kind of Lottery, why should Gamesters be begrudged the drawing of a prize?
Jeremy Collier, An Essay Upon Gaming 1713