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A poker machine is a casino gambling machine comprising three or more cylinders that spin when the machine is activated. We call them poker machines here in Australia (or pokies for short), but they have different names all around the world. In many places they are called ‘slot machines’ after the slot that accepts a player’s coin. In Vegas, they are ‘one-armed bandits’ – they used to be operated (and sometimes still are) by a lever on one side of the machine, and they have a habit of leaving an unwary punter without the pennies that make them work! In the UK, they call them ‘fruit machines’ after the symbols that appeared on the reels of the first machines – cherries, watermelons, lemons and oranges...
Operated by coins, pokies contain an inbuilt detector which identifies and authorises the coin inserted by the player. Traditionally, the machines featured three rotating cylinders decorated with various symbols, but newer models now substitute a video screen for the real reels – an innovation that not only allows more than three reels, but also innovative bonus games and special features. When the player activates the machine, the cylinders spin, eventually coming to a stop with a combination of symbols prominently display. If it’s a ‘winning’ combination, then a prize is won – simple! Of course, different combinations pay out different prizes, with the rarer combinations generally paying out bigger jackpots. It takes only moments to play a single game on a pokie, and you know immediately if you’ve won, and if you’ve won big. Maybe that’s why pokies are currently the most popular way of gambling in casinos all around the world, accounting for around 70% of the average casino’s revenue...
A man named Charles Fey, of San Francisco, California, U.S.A. is credited with inventing the first ever poker machine back in 1887. Fey didn’t have computer chips to put to work, and he was working with a much simpler piece of engineering altogether, so he found that it was almost impossible to base the game on poker: the number and variety of possible winning outcomes was so high that it made the payout scale far too complicated, and demanded a very complex machine. In the end, he came up with a device comprised of three spinning cylinders adorned with five different symbols – horseshoes, hearts, diamonds, spades and a patriotic Liberty Bell. It was this last symbol that gave the groundbreaking machine its name. Different combinations of symbols resulted in different payouts, with the highest-paying being three Liberty Bells in a row. It was a hugely successful machine, and effectively the start point of the massive modern pokies industry.
Around the same time that the Liberty Bell machine was becoming popular (he couldn’t make them fast enough, by all accounts...), a pair named Sittman and Pitt, of Brooklyn, New York, were working on their own machine, and it was this device that brought the poker to the pokies. Unlike the Liberty Bell, this machine was effectively a simulation of a game of poker, featuring five drums with 10 different card faces on each – effectively a pack of cards. Interestingly, Sittman and Pitt’s machine had no automatic payout facility: players were entirely dependent on the owner of the establishment paying out their prize. The prizes usually took the form of free drinks or cigars from the bar, and they were popular: before long they were seen in almost every bar in New York. It was fairly common for bar owners to adjust the machines in order to reduce the likelihood of players winning, of course – without the organisations that today police the fairness of the casinos, the player was at the mercy of the establishment. The cheat was usually to remove a couple of cards from the ‘deck’, generally the ten of spades and the jack of hearts, in order to reduce the odds of a royal flush. It was also common for the bar owners to re-arrange the machine’s cylinders to further reduce the chances of a win. It’s a testament to the draw of a pokie machine that even in the face of some pretty shameless cheating, punters quickly grew to love them!
Whilst you can see how the law was keen to get involved to protect punters from sharp practice, it wasn’t long before the legality of the pokies themselves was brought into question. Amazing to think that Australians are still taking sides in a debate that has been running for more than a hundred years! One variation on the theme that saw attention from the courts was a machine that gave out chewing gum instead of cash as winnings. It was these machines that depicted fruit instead of playing card symbols on the reels – something you still see today, and the reason the Brits call pokies ‘fruit machines’. These machines were the first to use the now popular melon and cherry symbols as well as the BAR symbol which was the logo of the Bell-Fruit Gum Company who made them. The payment of prizes in the form of sweets or chewing gum was intended to circumnavigate anti-gambling laws, but even that wasn’t completely successful...
The first fully electromechanical pokie machine, Money Honey, arrived in 1963, and was developed by Bally. The new technology meant that the machine itself could give out prizes, making it very popular with players and with venues. Whilst the pokie machines and online pokies have their roots in the work of Fey, Sittman, Pitt and others, it’s really in the 60s that they started to take the form that we recognise today. Of course, the technology behind the glossy appearance of a modern pokie has come on in leaps and bounds, but they still look like the machines that sat winking their coloured lights in the corners of the bars and social clubs when we were younger.
The concept of the pokie hasn't changed since the 19th century, and the shiny modern pokies you see at the big casinos are improvements of those original machines more than anything else. Generally speaking, three reels present 20 numbers of symbols per reel, which must be lined up in certain combinations to win. A player inserts a certain amount of money and spins the reels, and then, depending on how much money the player inserted, and what combination of numbers or symbols are displayed, a prize may or not be won – bigger prizes come from bigger stakes.
Pokies with a traditional feel may still feature an arm on the side of the machine which the player pulls down to start the reels spinning – the old ‘One-Armed Bandits – and even some digital machines have kept this feature out of a sense of nostalgia. However, more and more modern machines offer either a fully push-button interface or even touch screen technology. We’re not going to tell you how to play each and every pokie out there – first of all there are simply too many, and second, part of the fun is learning about the special features and bonuses that a certain pokie will give you. You can be sure with a pokie, though, that you’ll rarely be confused – these are perhaps the most simple games in the casino to play and to love!
The payout on slot machines can range anywhere from 80% to as high as 98% per cent, depending on the minimum bet size and the amount of local competition. It’s said that the most generous slots can be found in Las Vegas, because there is the most competition there: average payouts reach around 90%. Looking at that in terms of other casino games, you can think of it like this: on a pokie with a 90% payout rate, the casino has a 10% house advantage.
To understand these numbers, you need to realise that payout percentages are calculated over the long term, so if a pokie advertises a 95% payout, that means it is programmed to pay out $950,000 out of every million dollars it takes in. Obviously that doesn’t mean that if you put a million dollars in that’s what you’ll win: it’s an average, and the payouts will come in fluctuating and random amounts. There’s no substitute for a bit of luck!
Online pokies can have bigger payouts, because they do not have to pay for expensive real estate and staff, which the casinos do. However, always make sure when playing a pokie online that the site is verified and legitimate – it should be backed up by a random number generator (RNG) and should list an auditor that checks the randomness of said RNG. On a similar note, it’s a good idea to read your pokie's pay table before playing – all of the instructions also posted there, too. If there is something you don't understand or you have a question, then ask an attendant or contact the casino’s customer service centre – that’s what they’re there for. It is your responsibility to know the rules about the number of coins to insert at the beginning of the game or how many lines need to be activated in order to collect prizes. It has happened before, and will happen again, that a player will line up the jackpot symbols without meeting the game's requirements, and will not have won. You don’t want that to happen to you!
Look out for the lights on the top of the pokies (they’re called candles), which are a standard indication of how much money can be bet. Red lights are usually the cheapest machines, then yellow, then blue. There are typically two types of pokies in casinos today, progressive and straight machines. Progressive pokies pay a jackpot that grows each time a player feeds money in. Commonly, a number of these machines in any one casino feed into a joint jackpot, from which any of the machines in the group can pay out, thus making the jackpot bigger. These machines can be connected across state lines or just within the boundaries of a casino. Many pokies have a single pay line, while others have up to three, which require a coin to be inserted in each line in order to win. In other words, bigger investments pay off in bigger amounts.
When you win a small jackpot, your prize money will be delivered by the machine. However, when dealing with a jackpot win, the prize money is paid out by the casino. Another way to make a profit from slot machines is to take advantage of the fact that most casinos give away millions and millions of dollars in ‘comps’, whether it be free meals, free rooms, show tickets, invitations to slot tournaments, gifts or even cash, as ‘compensation’ for your business. How much you get is generally based on the amount you spend, and the best advice is to join any and all pokies clubs or comp clubs that the casino offers. Once you join, make sure you understand the system well, as not all programs are alike. Compare programs at different casinos to find out what their requirements are and weigh that against the gifts on offer. However, don't play pokies just to win comps – always aim to win that life-changing jackpot!
Before the advent of video and online pokies, spinning mechanical cylinders were used in order to display and determine what, if any, wins were due to a certain player. Older machines used five reels, but the use of three soon became the norm, because of their greater reliability and ease of use. Three-reel machines were, however, limited, as only 1000 possible combinations of symbols existed, meaning that even the least-likely combination would turn up once every 1000 plays on average. Those kind of odds meant that really large payouts of jackpot prizes were not possible without bankrupting the pokie. The answer was found by increasing the number of symbols on each reel, and thereby multiplying the number of possible combinations. However, outcomes and jackpot sizes were still very limited, and so in an effort to negate the randomness of combinations, weights were used by slot machine manufacturers to make certain, losing, symbols, appear more often, and thus reduce the odds of a win.
In 1984, a patent was filed for a catchily-named device: The Electronic Gaming Device Utilizing a Random Number Generator for Selecting the Reel Stop Positions. Inge Telnaes’ patent claimed that it was “important to make a machine that is perceived to present greater chances of payoff than it actually has within the legal limitations that games of chance must operate.” Immediately popular (and why wouldn’t it be?), the patent was bought by the International Gaming Technology (IGT), and now all pokies using the device must licence the patent from IGT. And whilst it sounds like it’s a clever device that makes you win less often, what that little gizmo has done is make the sort of multi-million-dollar jackpots that we see on modern progressive pokies possible.
As you can imagine, over the years people have come up with more than a few ways to cheat at gambling. The old style mechanical pokies were particularly susceptible to gambling cheats, and tricksters came up with a number of techniques. One common method was to attach a piece of plastic wire to a coin and then spin the coin as it was inserted into the machine. The machine would award the player their credits, but the wire made the coin spin in such a way that it was re-directed into the paying out tray – thus earning the cheat a free play. Cheating became much more difficult once pokies became computerised, but still in many of the larger casinos, pokies only take paper money or credit cards, so there is no way to cheat using sleight of hand.
The majority of pokies these days are computerised, and are fitted with computer chips designed with highly developed anti-fraud software included. However, in the early days of computerised pokies, a man called Tommy Glenn Carmichael earned his name as a notorious pokie cheat. Carmichael invented a cheating device called the ‘slider’ or ‘monkey paw’ which was used to defraud the machines. His device was inserted into the machine and used to trip the payout switch. Eventually, the manufacturers of the machines became wise to this ruse and changed the design of their machines to stop people being able to use the device, but in order to counter these adjustments, Carmichael then invented a tongue-shaped device which would add credits to the machine to be collected as cash.
The methods of cheating the machines became more complicated as the machines became more advanced. In order to cheat modern machines, you would have to have a good working knowledge of the computer software used within them. Some fraudsters have managed to alter the software in the machines to get them to pay out and in some extreme cases, microwaves have been used to affect the machine’s computer chips. We’re not telling you this to give you ideas, of course – just don’t be surprised to see a security camera watching you whilst you enjoy the pokies!
Pokies can be found not just in casinos in Australia, of course, but also in pubs and clubs, depending on which State or Territory you are in, and it’s worth remembering that the laws regulating the use of gaming machines in Australia are governed by State law and so vary between States. The first Australian State to legalise pokies was New South Wales: in 1956 they were made legal in all registered clubs across the State. Some have suggested that the rise of pokie machines was directly related to an increase in the level of problem gambling, but the truth of this matter is still open to interpretation, and very much the subject of debate
A report from the Australian Productivity Commission in 1999 said that the country had around 180,000 poker machines, and that New South Wales was home to over half of them. That figure meant that over a fifth of all pokie machines in the world were in Australia, around five times as many as in America! In ’99, the pokies brought in revenue of over AU$2million, which was more than half of the gambling revenue collected by State and Territorial Governments.
Rules and payouts differ between States and Territories. For instance, in Queensland, Pokies must provide a return rate of 85% in pubs, and 90% in casinos. In Victoria, the minimum return rate is 87% in both pubs and casinos, and the State has also banned machines with support for $100 notes, except at Crown Casino, where a high-roller who has a VIP loyalty card can still insert $100 notes. A similar rule (and exception) surrounds the use of the auto-play button. The strictest rules are in Western Australia, where pokies are only found in Burswood casino, and even there only certain types of machine are permitted.