Slot Horror

Once again I find myself with too much gambling stuff to talk about and not enough time to cover it.

The last few weeks have seen inquest information on the Football Index fiasco, the release of harrowing gambling biographies from Peter Shilton and Paul Merson, and an episode of Joe Lycett’s Got Your Back where he takes on shoddy gambling industry practices. All are worthy of proper blog attention, but they’ll have to wait.

In my last blog I extended a sugar-coated olive branch to some gambling gargantuans and I finished by promising I would return full of righteous rage. Well, here I am, and my blood is all a-boil. It’s time to talk about the gaggle of soulless sh#tbags that are slot machine live streamers.

Everything about these people makes me angry.

Hopefully my dislike of slot machines has come across on this blog. Even though I might be one of the tiny percentage of winning slot players on the planet. I had a big win early on in my slot career and it’s possible (but unlikely) that I didn’t lose it all back in the years that followed.

By any measure that relates to the health and wellbeing of humans, slots are awful.

Much like drugs and alcohol, there are hard and soft forms of gambling. The harder the form, the more likely it is to result in problems. I will talk more about the distinction another time, but for now just know that slots are the speedball of gambling, and there are a few excellent reasons why…

They are very fast to play (you can comfortably play 1,000 spins in an hour), they offer a continuous gambling experience (i.e. there is no end to a slot game), and the stakes can go obscenely high. That is a phenomenally dangerous combination.

The most popular modern games have extremely high volatility. Big top prizes and progressive jackpots can only be won by one person and are funded by the losses of thousands of others. To make the games somewhat playable between big payouts, the operator has to drip-feed tiny meaningless wins that just perpetuate additional play.

That prize structure makes it mathematically hard to post a winning session. Substantial wins happen very infrequently, and the small interim wins will never get you back above your starting point. Therefore anyone prone to chasing their losses is likely to be dragged deeper and deeper into trouble.

SIDENOTE: Anyone suffering a bad losing session is likely to face personal problems as a result. Research suggests that, on average, six other close contacts of that person will suffer too. 

Am I done yet? Not remotely (Vizzini, 1987).

The games themselves are horribly opaque. It is hard to find out how much of your money the casino is keeping and impossible to know the probabilities within the game. The best “return to player” rate of 97% (for every £1 wagered you lose 3p) is considered generous by operators, but is stingier than single-zero roulette, craps or blackjack (when played correctly).

The lack of transparency and the volume of play leads to the most insidious of downsides; operators have the big data and machine learning tools required to continually tune these machines for profit. You don’t get to see what’s under the hood, so they can do whatever they want.

And make no mistake, profit is all that matters. I recently asked an employee of a slot provider on LinkedIn to expand on what constituted a successful new machine, and I was conspicuously ignored. Other industry figures were happy to chime in though – the only measure was money.

All of that should be bad enough already, but the wretched hive of scum and villainy (Kenobi, 1977) on Twitch (and other streaming sites) have taken slots to reprehensible new levels.

I’ve known about Twitch since around 2013, when it was a fresh platform for fame hungry online poker players, but it’s mainly used for watching people play FIFA, Fortnight and Minecraft. Presumably more recent games too, but I’m about to turn 40 and my frame of reference is limited. In 2015, I forgot all about their service and got on with my life.  

Well, in the interim Twitch has grown and it now plays host to ‘professional’ slot machine players and they are broadcasting 24/7. Sometimes it’s tricky to pick up on tone in text, so just to be clear, the quotations in this case denote dripping sarcasm.

There is no skill to slots. Literally none. They cannot be played professionally.

The only way you can turn a profit is to trick people into playing them, by making the games look glamorous, fun, and worst of all, profitable. That’s what they’re getting paid to do. They are affiliates who are receiving a fee (or share of revenue) for everyone they refer to a gambling site.

In the world of slots in the UK, that commission is worth at least £500 per person (on average). In the US I’ve heard figures around $800.

These Twitch life-ruiners have a few tricks up their sleeves. The least scummy and most impressive, is the way in which they engage their audience of thousands and make them feel part of the action/community. The viewers feel like they belong in the same way that eight million Radio 2 listeners thought Terry Wogan was talking only to them.

There is something to be said for providing a social product, but there is a dark side. Psychology research shows that people can be highly compliant when they are part of a collective. It’s one of the ways cult leaders get people to follow their bonkers beliefs and madcap rituals. I don’t want to alienate any particular religion here, so just pick your favourite, the cap fits for all.

Beyond this superficially positive but sinister inclusivity, the rest of the show is pure deception and turd-glitter.

A common practice of a Twitch broadcast (they take place in shifts) is to begin with a Bonus Open. This is where a selection of slots has been played off camera until the user has earned a feature in each – that’s the bonus round where the biggest prizes are generally awarded. Essentially, they’re skipping all the tedious regular game play, then going straight to the juicy bit.

That would be bad enough practice, but I believe they are lying about how much they have spent to get to the juicy bit. As part of the Bonus Open schtick they publish a breakeven value, which supposedly represents the cost of getting the bonuses. The interactive audience is then asked to predict how much the total win will be.

In the short time I watched, the most popular bracket for predictions was 25-50% above the breakeven value. Just a few percent predicted actual breakeven and virtually none predicted a loss. This is for a game that is rigged to pay out at best 97% of what has been invested.

For an audience to be so confident about a profitable session (when it is exceedingly unlikely across dozens of bonus games), suggests they are either an incredibly optimistic bunch, or they have become accustomed to seeing what they think are wins.

I speculate that it is the latter. Psychological gambling studies have found we are hard-wired to take note of such things, because metaphorically speaking, it pays to know which trees bear the most fruit. People are predicting profit not from blind hope, but from learned expectation.

The obvious explanation to me is that the breakeven value provided is a fabrication, designed to make the games look beatable. They are making slot play seem like a valid career choice.

That is egregious misinformation, but it gets worse still. These people are supposedly playing for real money at the highest possible stakes ($100+) with enormous bankrolls ($500K+). These values make the most generous prime time quiz show prize money look paltry.

And yet, the anger and misery I’ve seen on the faces of people playing slot machines in real life, at a thousandth of the stakes, is nowhere to be seen. You would think a $100K downswing would be cause for some apprehension or negative emotion, but it is only smiles and jokes on Twitch. Laugh it off, profit is just around the corner. Keep gambling.

I can’t say for sure, but it seems to me as if this isn’t real money at all. That would involve some level of collusion between the streamers and the slot providers, which admittedly seems a little far-fetched. But if you’ve stuck with me this far, you must admit that it is plausible. Just a part of the façade to separate people from their money.

And that leads me to the final piece of this ugly jigsaw – the actions of the operators themselves.

In the UK at least, there are some regulations in place that offer a modicum of protection. As of February, slot machine operators should allow their games to spin no more than once every 2.5 seconds. Just about everyone involved in responsible gambling agrees that is not long enough, but it is something, and to their credit licensed UK operators largely abide by the rule.

Similarly, in this country you’re no longer allowed to make gambling deposits by credit card (an excellent restriction). You’re welcome to spaff your overdraft up the wall (Johnson, 2019) via debit card, but you are restricted on how much of other people’s money you can waste.

Neither of these restrictions are present in the slot streaming cesspit. VPNs are routinely used (or encouraged) to virtually locate the customer outside of the UK and bypass speed of play regulations. Payment solutions are knowingly rigged to facilitate deposits by credit card.

All of this goes on under the brazenly unwatchful gaze of tinpot offshore licensing regimes, giving the illusion of integrity and credibility whilst offering no protection or recourse.

Unfortunately, this problem is very hard to solve from the outside; technology has not moved on enough to allow any form of effective policing. The only people with the power to stop this borderline criminality are the companies themselves, who could shut it down at their discretion for being outside their videogaming remit.

There is a tech precedent. Twitter eventually turned off Trump, even though it was bad for their business. But I doubt it will happen because slot streaming must be very profitable, and it would take some moral fibre to stop it. And Twitch are owned by Amazon.

Bobby’s Bets

I’ve had a few successful football bets this week, a very rare occurrence indeed. I had the draw in the Man Utd vs Everton game and that’s put my sports betting bankroll up to a dizzying £40. That’s £20 up since the end of the Euros, so it’s been a bit of a summer long hot streak!

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