Pokies are designed, created, programmed and installed at your local pub or club with one primary objective – to make money and turn gamblers into addicts.
How they do this and the methods employed by the companies that make these insidious machines leaves A LOT to be desired and reveals some frightening facts about pokies, how they work and what your true odds of winning actually are.

Today we seek to find out a little more about these ‘harmless’ electronic gaming devices that we Aussies refer to as Pokies and in so doing reveal some hidden truths about the gambling industry, the manufacturers of the pokies (namely Aristocrat) and the extent of the corruption that has eaten its way into the corridors of power and the heart of this country.

Before we look at how the pokie machines actually work let’s get one thing clear:

the pokies play you - how pokies work Source: Problem Gambling SA

How Pokies Work 

How Pokies work is fairly straight forward and (excusing all the computing power, algorithms based on the maths of probability and written by people who actually use the Fibonacci sequence) they are basically pretty boxes that use lights and other distractions to distract the player from the bleeding obvious – that they are and will always lose money – in the long run anyway. As the Australian Alliance for Gambling Reforms say so well – ‘ You Don’t Play the Pokies, the Pokies Play You’ (follow the link to find out more but keep in mind I will be referencing this website and resource again later in this article – because the pyschological side of pokie design is almost as conniving as the governments push to install them on every street corner!

Before I start confusing you with the inner workings of pokies and start referencing weighting, stops, algorithmic near misses and other confusing stuff here’s the super fast straight up explanation of how pokies work – complete with a diagram and everything!

how pokies work and what the random number generator does

The Random Number Generator is the algorithm or program within the slot machine that determines where the reels will stop each time. The Random Number Generator works independently of any progressive or linked jackpots and is unaware of the overall odds of each ‘stop position’ All the Random Number Generator does is wait until someone presses the button or pull the handle – at which point the computer algorithm runs and generates the requisite amount of numbers (3 or 5 depending on how many reels you are playing) and determines where this is on the ‘reel’. This happens in a microsecond and the results are fed to the machine which stops the reel at the corresponding spots. The Slot machine then pays whatever is displayed on the resulting lines.

how pokies work - understanding random number generator

The image above shows a basic visual of how the process works, although some RNG’s work by dividing the resulting numbers – but so long as this division is consistent there is no issue with this method – highlighted in the image below for your information.

In terms of odds, keep in mind that although the RNG works independently of it, the fact that the odds are predetermined based on number of reels, stops and symbols in proportion to the pay lines means that even the RNG cannot influence it. All The Random Number Generator is told is what the RTP or Return To Player rate is – because as long as it pays out at the same rate it is doing it’s job

But What’s the Return To Player Rate?!….. I’m glad you asked actually…

How Pokies Work – What’s The Return To Player Rate?

One final term you should understand is ‘Return To Player’ Rate or RTP. This is the legal requirement and return rate at which slot machines must “pay back” or return to the player over an infinite number of spins. For example, if a machine is programmed to have a 87% RTP Rate, then the average should come close to winning $87 out of every $100 put into the machine. Casinos distinguish between the theoretical payback percentage and the actual return on the machine, but the fact remains that slot machines are one of the most profitable forms of gambling for online and real world casinos alike.

Return To Player Rate for Australia

The return to player (RTP)rate is determined by legislation and is different for every state and territory. Right now, the percentages look like this

gambling addiction help for aussies

  • ACT – 87%
  • NSW – 85%
  • NT – 85% for clubs, 88% for casinos
  • QLD – 85/92% for clubs/pubs, 90% for casinos
  • SA – 85% for games installed before 1/10/01, 87.5% for games installed after 1/10/01
  • TAS – 85%
  • VIC – 87%
  • WA – 90% (casino only)

Something important to note is that although the advertised payout rate may be 90% (for example) – the actual rate of return is slightly lower as at least 1 or 2% of this RTP Rate is reserved for the linked/progressive/accumulative Jackpot that many modern day slots and online pokies are connected to. – Read more here to get further insight into what we refer to as ‘The Great Jackpot Swindle’

How Pokies Work – Understanding Reels and Stops

Pokies and poker machines usually come in 3 or 5 Reel formats – the reel of course being the images you see scrolling past when the button is pressed. It has multiple symbols on it, and if you line up certain combinations of symbols, you win money. The less likely it is to line up a particular set of symbols, the higher the payout on that particular combination.

For decades, these reels were literally large metal hoops, but now that slot machines and pokies are powered by computers, they’re more often just images on a video screen – although it is important to note that regardless of the format of these reels – the place where these reels ‘Stop’ is determined by a Random Number Generator – the computer side of the slot machine. But we’ll get to that shortly.

how pokies work - understanding reels and stops and random number generatorsThe Significance of ‘Stops’ within Slot Machines is quite high. Reels can stop on a symbol or on a blank space between those symbols. On early slot machine games, each symbol would have an equal chance of coming up, but now that computers are running the show, the odds can be convoluted. You might have a cherry on a reel that comes up on average once every 50 spins, while an orange might come up on average once every 5 spins, or any other combination you can think of – again this is all determined by weighting – and again we’ll touch on that shortly

Early slot machines might have only had 10 stops per reel, but now it’s common to have between 30 and 50 stops per reel. The more stops you have on a reel, the easier it is to offer really large jackpots. For example, if you have a game with 10 stops on each reel, with an equal chance of landing on each stop, then your chances of winning on any standard 5 Reel Slot Machine are 1/10 X 1/10 X 1/10 X 1/10 X 1/10 or 1/100.000.

The Casino could technically offer a $50,000 Jackpot on that combination and still guarantee to double their money – yet the players think this is an incredible opportunity and will happily gamble away their hard earned money for a chance at 50k in cold hard cash!

How Pokies Work – Understanding the Weighting System

The weighting is what determines how likely a particular stop is to be picked. Suppose you have a slot machine game with 10 symbols, but one of those symbols is special and only comes up once every 100 spins. The odds of getting 3 of that symbol are 1/100 X 1/100 X 1/100, or 1/1,000,000. You could theoretically offer a payout of $1 million on that combination and still break even over the long run. Casinos love that kind of action, and so do players.

Another symbol might be programmed to come up half the time, so your chances of hitting that symbol might be as low as ½ X ½ X ½, or 1/6. If that pays out at 2 to 1, the casino still makes a significant profit, but the player feels like she’s winning on a pretty regular basis.

how pokies work - understanding par sheets and payout ratesThe par sheet determines the odds. Every modern slot machine is designed with a par sheet which specifies the weightings for each stop on the reel, including the blanks. That par sheet makes the odds and the house edge for a slot machine game a known quantity—for the casino. Gambling companies keep these par sheets under wraps, though, so players never really get a clear idea of what the odds, the house edge, or the payback percentage is.

Click on the image of the Par sheet to your left to access/download the complete whitepaper on PAR Sheets, probabilities and slot machines… PAR Sheets, probabilities, and slot machine play: Implications for problem and non-problem gambling – a study by Kevin A. Harrigan and Mike Dixon, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada – June 2009.

Kevin Harrigan and Mike Dixon prepared this report on the design of the structural characteristics of Pokies and Slots  – using PAR sheets and observations from playing and watching other players to ascertain the overall implications for problem gambling. This report looks at a number of slot machine/pokie characteristics including (but not limited to)

  • Speed of Play
  • Stop Buttons
  • Bonus Modes,
  • Hand payouts
  • Nudges
  • Near Misses
  • How some wins are in fact losses, and
  • How identical machines can have vastly different payout percentages.

Kevin Harrigan and Mike Dixon then discuss how these characteristics can lead to multi-level reinforcement schedules (different reinforcement schedules for frequent and infrequent gamblers playing the same game) and how they may provide an illusion of control and contribute in other ways to irrational thinking, all of which are known risk factors for problem gambling. Learn more here –> PAR Sheets, probabilities and slot machines

Understanding Pokies – The Psychology of Addiction

Funny Gambling addiction comic

Kevin and Mike above understood first hand the implications of pokie addiction and an obsession with playing the slots and as such sought to understand the reasoning and methodology used by the manufacturers and casinos to get the maximum return from each and every pokie machine. The fact they were denied access to the PAR sheets and met with resistance at every turn says a lot about the moral standing of the companies in question, although as freedom of information and social media evolves it is becoming almost impossible for trade secrets to remain hush hush – and now we can reveal to you first hand just how underhanded and morally corrupt Pokie machine manufacturers like Aristocrat actually are.

Let’s get one thing clear before we go on – POKIES ARE DESIGNED TO CREATE AND CAUSE ADDICTION! Companies like Aristocrat actually hire scientists who’s primary role is to create complex sound and light simulations that are designed to trigger the same responses as a Cocaine user might experience when craving another line.

pokies are designed to cause addiction similar to cocaine

As the image above shows, the parts of the brain that are triggered by cocaine addiction are almost identical to the triggers caused by Pokie addiction! – and this is all done knowingly and legally?!?

The Alliance for Gambling Reform who I referred to earlier highlighted the above point on their video – which I recommend viewing on the homepage at PokiesPlayYou.org.au – and made the fitting analogy of a poisonous apple. The Pokies really are like poisonous apples in that they look sweet and innocent but they are far from it. Not only are pokies designed to cause addiction comparable to cocaine, they are also made to trick the player into thinking they are winning even when they aren’t! The levels of treachery and dishonesty are on levels that I personally cannot fathom, and as we go through some of the methods employed by Aristocrat and other manufacturers of electronic gaming devices I think you will be hard pressed not to feel the same

How Pokies Trick Players and Keep Them Playing Longer

how pokies work - understanding pokie addiction

A Superficial look at the Pokies reveals lots of pretty lights and multi-tiered screens with advanced video cards and sound drivers that provide an almost 3 dimensional experience – which seems like a nice thing to provide the players – until you realise that every single light, sound, graphic movement, and bonus is designed to keep you playing for as long as possible. So effective is this ‘system or ‘characteristic’ that even a losing press can make enough ‘noise’ to convince the player they actually won. You think that’s clever? Check out some of the other tricks, sorry I mean ‘characteristics’ that the pokies are designed with – all in the name of encouraging addiction and increasing the ROI of that particular machine.

The Pokies: Shady Character(istics)

As Kevin and Mike pointed out in their whitepaper/report above, there are numerous factors that can be ‘programmed’ into pokies – all of which have been painstakingly studied by the manufacturers and teams of scientists, Doctors and Psychiatrists/Psychologists to induce and encourage addiction. Aristocrat (for example) have invested millions of dollars into making sure the algorithms controlling their games include any and all of the following tricks or ‘characteristics’ that (to quote the report above)

“can lead to multi-level reinforcement schedules (different reinforcement schedules for frequent and infrequent gamblers playing the same game) and how they may provide an illusion of control and contribute in other ways to irrational thinking, all of which are known risk factors for problem gambling.”

These characteristics (let’s just call them dishonest immoral and unethical business practices because that is exactly what they are) are listed below and include a brief description of how they work and why they contribute to the overall effect of stimulating addiction in the average Australian punter…

  • Speed of Play
    Pokies are known as High Intensity games due to the speed at which a player can lose, I mean gamble their money. The average pokie can take around $1500 an hour from the unsuspecting punter while some machines can cost players in excess of $3000 an hour! *Source
  • Stop Buttons
    Pokies provide two methods to speed up the game by approximately 50% (i.e., approximately 1.5 s per spin). One method is for the player to press “spin” to begin play, and then press spin again as the reels begin to spin, which causes the reels to stop quickly. The second method is for the player to touch one or more of the reels as they are spinning, which causes the touched reel(s) to stop quickly.
  • Bonus Modes
    Free spins and bonus games are the biggest con of all – with players sometimes willing to lose more than they chance to make in an attempt to “chase that feature” – the bonus modes and ‘stacked bonus symbols’ are the greatest con of all and the Casinos and Clubs love this ‘feature’ 😉
  • Near Misses
    Near misses are those ‘almost wins’ that every pokie player has experienced and knows all too well. The reason they know it all too well is because the manufacturers of the pokies and slot machines create this type of near miss by using virtual reels and a technique called clustering;
  • Clustering
    Using the clustering technique, game designers put a high ratio of blanks adjacent to the high-paying symbols in the virtual reel thus creating the above ‘near miss’ which is proven to keep a player pressing that bet button.
  • How some wins are in fact losses, and
    When playing pokies, wins are accompanied by characteristic sights and sounds. The majority of these wins are low in value. In research conducted by Harrigan & Dixon as referenced throughout this page they ran extensive tests on 2 different slot machine games and found that when playing Lobstermania, approximately 82% of the wins are for 10 credits (50 cents) or less (22.5% + 52.7% + 6.7%). Nevertheless, the sounds and sights associated with a win, even if it is for a small amount, serve as sensory cues that differentiate in the gambler’s mind winning spins from losing spins. Some of these small wins are actually losses. Recall that players on a nickel machine such as Lucky Larry’s Lobstermania can wager on up to 25 cents per line and can wager on up to 15 lines per spin. For those playing the maximum, this translates to $3.75 per spin. For a gambler playing this maximum, two-thirds of their spins (66.48%) will result in losses, but one-third (33.52%) of the time, the lights and sounds of the machine will indicate a win. Crucially, however, on 60.73% of these wins, the amount gained will be less than the amount that they wagered on that spin. In other words, on these spins, the sensory cues (flashing lights and sounds that are so important to classical conditioning) point to a win, even though the net outcome of the spin is in fact a loss. 

Pokies are designed to cause addiction and keep you playing Pokies are designed to cause addiction and keep you playing. Do NOT underestimate their sneakiness

Further Reading and Resources:

  • Learn more about how slots work and specifically what the Return To Player and Payout rates are for slot machines and other casino games at www Free Slots  – How Slot Machines Work
  • Get a better understanding of the games involved and more importantly, the etiquette associated with playing the slots – online and in real world casinos – How To Play Slot Machines and Casino Slot Games
  • Finally – use your smarts to increase your odds and improve your gameplay on any slot machine you pick  – check out our genuinely useful Pokie and Slot Machine Tips and how to win on the pokies more often – or at least stack the odds slightly back in your favour 😉
  • Choice Not Change is New Zealand’s Gambling Support service and apart from providing a wealth of information and free confidential support, they also have an excellent resource on How Pokies Work
  • ProblemGambling.sa.gov.au have published this pdf titled  The Pokies: Before you Press the Button, Know the Facts.