Tribal Casino Slot Machines: The Insider Scoop

These are just a sample of the dozens of complaints the Tribal casino slot host hears every single day – most are unsuitable for repeating in mixed company. Even in the less vocal slot players, the frustration is evident in the somber, frowning, or downright angry expressions on their faces. They slap or kick the machines, tear losing tickets to shreds, and unfairly mistreat the lowly casino staff, which for the most part understand and sympathize with their plight. Tribal slot hosts know what players only suspect – the payback percentage on Tribal casino slot machines is terrible, particularly when compared to gambling meccas like Vegas or Reno or Atlantic City.

How terrible is it? No one can say for sure. Few things get the casino boss' skin prickling the way talk of tight slots can and the hold percentage on their slot machines is a secret more closely guarded than the gold in Ft. Knox. Where state law and gaming agencies regulate the hold/payback percentages for casinos, the player can get a fairly good idea of what those percentages are regionally, although not for individual casinos. In one recent report, Reno casinos averaged 94.9 percent payback on slots and video poker while casinos on the Las Vegas Strip (the tightest in Nevada) were at 93.8 percent. Similar information is nearly impossible to ascertain for individual Tribal casinos because the sovereign nation status of the Tribes and minimal oversight by state gaming agencies protect their casinos from having to make disclosures. We can, however, make an educated guess.

Nevada law requires a minimum 75 percent payback on slots, but most machines are not programmed that tight because gamblers would not play them. "If the payback isn't much, the machine is going to take your money very quickly," said Bob McMonigle, sales and marketing consultant for slot manufacturer Aristocrat Technologies Inc. "If you go beyond about 12 percent (88 percent payback), people will play and not come back. (Reno Gazette-Journal 12/03/03). Gaming analysts, like Bill Eadington at the University of Nevada, suggest that monopoly markets like tribal casinos gravitate toward a 91 percent to 92 percent payback. Additionally, when selling slots to casinos, manufacturers such as IGT and Aristocrat offer machines with different payback percentages as low as 85 percent.

Given this information, then, we can guess that tribal slots are set to payback something within the 85-92 percent range. Interestingly, the median of that range is 88.5 percent – just slightly above that level of payback that McMonigle claimed is the lowest where people will continue to play. If the numbers of slot players at your local casino is declining or if the casino is planning for or undergoing major expansion, you might also guess that the payback percentage is even lower than that median.

Unfortunately, there's little comfort in this knowledge for you, the slot player. It merely confirms what you already suspected – slot machines in your local Tribal casino are tight and may be getting tighter. It might have to do with the casino's lack of competition, or a need to generate more revenue for expansion, or simply out of greed.

Whatever the reason, slot players are not without the power to pressure the casino into loosening things up, even if only a little. You begin by complaining about the low payback percentage (both verbally and in writing) directly to the casino management. While the General Manager is typically only available during normal weekday hours, the number two person on the totem pole, the Shift Manager, should be available to hear your concerns. Fill out a guest comment card, too, to be sure your complaint goes beyond the ears of the Shift Manager.

Remember, also, the power of your pocketbook. Follow through on your threat to stop playing their slot machines. Nothing gets the attention of management faster than losing casino guests and declining revenues. Just be sure to tell someone, anyone, in management or guest relations why you have decided not to gamble in their house anymore. Suggest that they invite you back to play if/when they can offer you a more enjoyable gaming experience.

Lastly, if you are unwilling to give up gaming at your local casino, you might try changing your slot play to machines with a higher denomination. The payback percentages on dollar and high-limit slots are normally the best in any casino, including Tribal.

Whatever you decide to do, be aware that winning on the slots is completely random and payouts are volatile. Very few people win a lot of money; some win a fairly large sum and still more will break even. The vast majority, however, will lose all or most of their gambling stake. If it's difficult for you to accept that you will regularly be among that vast majority, it may be time to consider other avenues of entertainment. Just something for you to think about…