In the United States, where the games originated, the phrase “one-armed bandits” is sometimes used – this comes from the fact that pokies are considered some of the worst bets in the casino (hence the word “bandits”) and the word one-armed is used to describe the big lever that players used to pull to set the reels in motion. It’s not 100% clear why Australians started to use the word pokies. The fact that early versions of slots (and some modern ones) use symbols from playing cards is probably why the word “poker” got mixed into the name to begin with — us Aussies just had to be different!
Today’s pokies all pretty much depend on random number generators and tiny computer chips, a far cry from the mechanical gambling machines of the late 19th and early 20th century.
Classic mechanical-style pokies can still be bought and sold, usually as decorative items or for in-home entertainment. Actual machines used for gambling are electronically-powered and depend on a fairly complex computer system to determine wins and payouts.
Pokies are made up of a number of different parts. The game’s cabinet houses the machine and is often the most decorative piece, displaying the name of the game and decorated with flashing light effects to attract attention.
Modern pokies use a video screen interface where the game itself is displayed. The interface also shows the payout schedule (how much a player wins depending on the symbols that line up) and can be considered the area of the machine where the game “lives.” Almost all the interaction between player and machine happens on the interface.
Other items you’ll see on a poker machine include a note or coin acceptor where the gambler inserts cash, coins, or other forms of credit with which they’ll place their bets, and the coin try or payout tray where any winnings a player happens on are paid out. Jackpots that are too large to be paid out through the coin tray are paid by hand by a casino employee.
Inside a modern poker machine is where the game’s complexity becomes evident. The game itself is programmed onto a motherboard similar to one you’d find in any computer or video game. This is where the program that runs the game is stored and where most of the action of the game takes place. If a player were to crack open a poker machine, they’d also find a series of meters that record all the data collected by the machine: payouts, how much money has been paid in to the game, and other data.
The first slot machines had physical reels that would spin and then lock in place to determine payouts. These reels had a set number of symbol positions, each of which displayed a different symbol. The combination of symbols spun determined the payout.
Modern pokies have virtual reels rather than actual physical reels with fixed symbol positions. The easiest way to think of a modern machine’s virtual reel is to imagine an actual reel which has positions marked on it, each with a number. Modern poker machine design means the sky is the limit in terms of the number of virtual positions, though for the sake of simplicity, you can pretend that each reel in the game has ten spaces, each with its own symbol.
The symbols and positions that lead to the biggest prizes are going to be few and far between. This is true even on the poker machine with the highest possible payout percentage, which is a theoretical number that tells the pokie player what per cent of money put into the pokie gets paid back. Obviously the higher that number, the more money the player expects to win.
This means a machine’s virtual reels are designed with more symbols that pay a small amount than those that lead to big winnings. For our virtual example, let’s say four of the ten symbols per reel form a part of combinations that pay out just a few credits, while the reel has one or (maybe) two symbols that lead to the game’s biggest jackpots.
Instead of pulling a lever to start the reels spinning, modern games have a “SPIN” button. Once pressed the game’s random number generator spits out a series of numbers at random, one for each reel. Again for simplicity’s sake, let’s say our machine has just three reels and that the numbers on this particular spin are 6, 3, and 1. The game’s interface displays an animated reel spin effect and the symbols that match those numbers appear. Based on which symbols are selected, the machine determines a payout.
Pokies games in Australia, like slots or fruit machines elsewhere, are governed by laws determining minimum legal payout percentages. That means poker machine designers have to set the games up to pay out a certain amount.
In Australia, all poker machines must be designed with a theoretical payout percentage of 87% or higher. That’s the minimum theoretical percentage of bets paid into the machine which will be returned to the player over the life of the machine based on an infinite number of plays. Since there is no such thing as an infinite number of plays (and because the life of poker machines vary based on a number of independent factors) this theoretical number does not indicate a specific amount of cash gamblers will win during a session. In other words, a game with a posted 90% payback percentage is not guaranteed to return 9 of every 10 dollars a player bets on it.
Looking for a new game to play based entirely on that percentage isn’t a smart tactic. Bear in mind that this percentage is entirely theoretical, based on infinite repetitions with an infinite bankroll, and no indication of a player’s expected return for an hour or two of poker machine gambling. Player profits from a machine are going to be a bit higher or lower than the payout percentage advertised.
Another thing to keep in mind when playing pokies is that no machine will ever be labelled with a percentage of more than 100%. The point is simple. In the long run, the more bets a player places, the more they are likely to lose. Overcoming this built-in edge is impossible in the long run, because the games are designed to pay back less money than bettors wager. It’s not necessary for a casino or pub to rig or alter their poker machines. Because of the way they’re designed, pokies will always be profitable in the long run. There’s no need for any casino management trickery.