It isn’t common to read about cheating on the part of casinos or casino game designers. Discussions of illicit behaviour in casinos are far more likely to focus on gamblers – a team of blackjack card-counters or coin shavers ripping off the house in the old days of mechanical poker machines. The rigging of pokies has been an issue since the first machines appeared in the USA in the late 19th century. It’s likely that many machines in the mechanical and electro-mechanical days of design (before the 1970s) were rigged to favour the house.
Without laws regulating the production of these games it would have been easy for crooked operators to take advantage of bettors at least as much as some gamblers took advantage of the operators.
But to really answer the question posed in the title of this article, we should first pick the question apart to make sure the answer we’re giving fits the real question being asked.
What do people mean when they talk about a “rigged” pokie? A broad definition could go something like this. A machine is “rigged” if it is manipulated to operate differently from the way it was designed to operate, with the intention being to favour either the house or the gambler. The reason for that specific definition is that all casino games are, to some extent, rigged.
Consider the nature of pokies design; would a casino plug in a machine and allow their customers to place bets on it if they were unsure that the game would lead to a profit over the long run? The answer is a resounding “No.” Casinos operate for a profit, like any business, and the way they do it is by hosting games which return a smaller amount of money to gamblers than the amount that is wagered on them.
This difference in a casino game’s payouts and pay ins can be demonstrated mathematically as the casino’s advantage, also known as the “house edge.” Of course, we don’t usually talk about pokies having a house edge. Instead, the player’s odds for a given title are usually described via payback percentages.
A payback percentage is similar to the house edge in reverse. Casinos, land-based and Web-based, sometimes use payback percentages to advertise their machine games. The gaudy sign hanging above a machine on the casino floor that reads “99%!!!!” or something like that is an example of a payback percentage.
Governments who regulate games of chance and skill usually regulate the legal range of poker machine payback percentages on games within their borders. Payback percentage is a theoretical percentage of cash wagered on a specific machine that it will pay back to gamblers over the entire life of the machine. Right there in the definition is one way to answer our question. Yes, pokies are rigged, but the rigging is part of the design and all games in the casino are set up in a similar way.
But this isn’t the kind of manipulation people are talking about when they wonder if casino game operators are fixing their games. Any game with a built-in advantage represents a guaranteed profit for the house. The variation in these different advantages is what makes some casino bets “smarter” than others. Blackjack played according to basic strategy rules gives the casino a tiny edge, around 0.5%, while the bingo-like game keno includes some wagers that grant the house an edge of around 30%. The two games are set up with two very different advantages, but they both favour the casino in the long run.
Think back to our example above – the one per cent difference between the number on the sign hanging over the game (“99%!!!!”) and 100% is the edge the casino holds. All it means is the machine is designed to give the house a profit equal to 1% of its take over its entire life. So is the 99% pokie in this example “rigged?” By the most basic definition of the word, yes it is. But this form of manipulation is legal; it’s a part of the game. When people ask the question that forms the title of this article, they’re not talking about legal manipulation of statistics to turn a profit.
They’re talking about a casino manager or the designers of games intentionally altering or designing a game to allow illegal manipulation. Does this happen? Every industry has its share of scofflaws who rip people off. Thankfully, modern game design (not to mention regulatory practices) has all but eliminated this kind of behaviour from gambling venues.
Because today’s poker machines are run by computers (motherboards have replaced tension springs and physical reels of symbols) it would be very difficult for a casino to alter a game and control the rewarding of jackpots or set a game up so that it hands out short pays on purpose. To do so, a casino’s manager would almost have to collude with a game’s designer or hire someone to come in and mess with a game’s random number generator, software, or other internal parts. That creates a paper trail. It also involves more people, and the more humans involved in a scam, the more likely it is to be discovered.
These days, pokie manufacturers and gambling sites (online or land-based) that host poker machines must adhere to strict regulations and pass testing by third party auditing groups. The games also record all aspects of performance, including wins, losses, pay ins, and payouts, information that would alert the authorities immediately to any wrongdoing.
Some Internet casinos have ripped customers off in the past, and no doubt it will happen in the future. The best way to avoid playing on a rigged pokie is to only do business with Internet betting venues that have randomness and fairness certification for their games. The same goes for land-based gambling venues – if you do your poker machine play with a casino you trust, one that has a good history of customer service, and one that is known to operate legally, you’ve got nothing to worry about.
The bottom line is that pokies are designed to be profitable for the casino, not the player–at least in the long run. There isn’t any way for bettors to overcome the advantage they provide to casinos. They are built to earn money; no one has to cheat at a pokies game in order for it to turn a profit for the casino.