Meanwhile, Wells and his team had developed their first notions of networked jackpots. But the rejection of video systems raised a problem: It was physically impossible to load a standard 20-inch reel with enough symbols—or stops—to get the odds needed for networked, multiplayer play; there were too few stops on each real. "You can't create odds of millions to one on three or four spinners," Wells says. Five-re el units were tested. They yielded enough permutations, but confused players.
Some casinos lure customers by touting how loose their slots are—that is, what percentage of the take is returned in winnings. Nevada law requires at least 75 percent payback; major casinos swing the odds from the mid-80s to the low 90s. The actual data, though, were largely unknown until this May, when a former federal actuary used spec sheets and computers to calculate looseness in popular nickel slots. Gamblers had long speculated on how slots are tuned—loose off the main strip and tighter than a drum at McCarran Airport, where captive customers test 11th-hour luck. Turns out they were right. But slots can't be adjusted at a casino's whim. "It's not like turning a volume control," says Bill Wells, IGT's R&D director. The numbers are monitored by state officials; to make a change, casinos must undergo a rigorous approval process that ends with the installation of a hardware upgrade.
The solution came from a theoretical mathematician named Inge Telnaes. In 1984, the Norwegian scientist—who'd left IBM to work for Bally's in Reno—was granted a patent for an Electronic Gaming Device Utilizing a Random Number Generator for Selecting the Reel Stop Positions. The language Telnaes used to describe his Eureka concept was dry: "Players perceive larger machines," he wrote, "as being less 'good' in terms of winning and payout chances. . . . Large physical machines and a large number of reels develop an attitude in the player which . . . may be more influential on whether or not the machine is played than published figures showing the payoff odds. Thus, it is important to make a machine that is perceived to present greater chances of payoff than it actually has, within the legal limitations (in which) games of chance must operate" (italics added).
That last sentence is the guiding principle of Net Vegas. Every game—slots, cards, sports betting, even bingo—is now attempting to adapt a Telnaes-style solution: Decrease the odds without increasing apparent complexity. That allows bigger prizes, which increases—by staggering quantities—the amount of money people are willing to gamble: In gambler-think, 10 bucks for a shot at a few thousand dollars is one thing; a hundred bucks for a shot at millions is another, even if the odds are much, much worse. The Telnaes system, bought by IGT and licensed to other manufacturers, essentially uses one virtual slot machine reel—with a large number of stops—to control the more limited permutations of each traditional mechanical slot machine reel. The stopping point of the microprocessor-driven virtual reel is determined by a random number generator; the relationship between the many stops on the virtual reel and the fewer stops on the mechanical reel is predetermined by a formula, and weighted to ensure that "near misses" appear to happen often. The gambler, in other words, is playing against three random number generators while looking at the sort of old-fashioned, mechanical spinning reels that seem to communicate a reassuring, physical limit to the odds. Even wholly digital slots often emulate the effect of a spinning reel.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.