In early June, I found myself at a pizza party with old friends catching up on what we've been up to over the last year-plus.
One of the old friends was Darla, a pal since college years. She approached with an exasperated look on her face.
"Can you talk to Ned?" she asked, pointing to her husband. "We were playing slots yesterday and he went to the club booth and complained they didn't have sheets showing what slots were paying off. They used to have those in a rack near the entrance. I always told Ned they didn't really do any good, but he never listens to a thing I say."
Ned jumped right into the conversation.
"Of course they help," he said. "Not all slot machines pay the same amount. You need a guide to the higher-paying ones."
I started to explain slot machines don't all have the same payback percentages but ...
Ned was all over it before the "but."
"See?" he told Darla. "He agrees."
The exasperated look returned as Darla responded, "You might want to listen to the rest."
I started again, explaining that slots can have different payback percentages, but those sheets don't give you that information. They merely tell you what games have paid more than usual over a short period and tell you nothing about their future performances.
"Come on, " Ned said. "Even the people who work there know the sheets work. I ask attendants where the hot slots are, and they always point me right to the same games that are on the sheets."
I braced myself for what I hoped wouldn't be a long conversation and told Ned all slot machines have periods when they pay more than usual. All slot machines also have periods in which they pay less than usual.
Hot and cold times grow out of normal probability. With hundreds of thousands of plays, the programmed odds of the game drive results toward an expected payback percentage.
Those sheets — and advice from slot attendants, for that matter -- tell us what games have been in a hot streak. But there is no tendency for a hot machine to stay hot or a cold machine to stay cold. We can't tell by looking at the sheets which machines are high-payers. We know only that the machines were hot for some period before we got there.
Ned had a doubtful look, but I pressed on.
If you had two identical games side by side and only one made the hot list, that wouldn't make it more likely to pay off when you played. They could have the same long-run payback percentage and the same shot to win. In choosing a game, it doesn't matter which game has been hot. There are equal chances of either paying off when you play.
It might be of more value to have a list of games with the highest programmed theoretical payback percentages, though casinos are loathe to give that information. But even if you knew which games were targeted at 93 percent and which at 88, it wouldn't guarantee results. Both have hot streaks and both have cold streaks.
It's not only possible for a low-paying game to make a hot machines list based on a short hot streak, it happens.
Ned didn't buy a word of it. "I still want to play the hot games. Craps players want hot tables, right? Why not slot players?"
Darla caught my eye, said, "Thanks for trying," and led Ned away. One can only try.