What Are The Odds?

Columnist : Albert Paschall

Odds are that gambling is coming to Pennsylvania. Soon you’ll be able to go to your favorite horse track or slots parlor and roll up to the one armed bandits that will gladly take your rolls of nickels, dimes, quarters or even $100 tokens that you can buy.

Odds on winning at slots are weird. The win/lose ratio is not handicapped in the same way as sports gambling or table games. While casinos in Atlantic City buy huge billboards howling about how often and how much can be won, generally you’re always playing against the house. The numbers on the billboards usually are culled from ‘loose’ slots. Strategically positioned machines, pre-programmed to win often to attract the people in the nearby buffet line. That’s one of the reasons that slot machines are generally viewed as light weight propositions by serious gamblers. Some machines will pay out on 1 out of 10 rolls but some are as high as 1 out of 100 rolls. The best chance of winning seems to be playing machines that take tokens of $5 and up. Casino owners like to let these machines roll out the illusion that you are winning until you go to scratch the bottom of your empty coin bucket.

There’s actually some science on how long you can play with any given coin. Assuming the machine is capped at 3 coin bets at a time, if you play nickels you’ll need about $6.50 an hour to keep on playing. If you’ve got rolls of quarters in your sock drawer that you want to get rid of, figure that $120 will last from breakfast to lunch. If you’ve spent years filling jars with coins and figure the casino is a good place to get rid of them pick up $800 worth of $5 tokens and you can probably play all night.

Pennsylvania’s gambling licenses could be the best bargain since the Manhattan purchase. If gaming is limited to a dozen locations in Pennsylvania and the Governor’s calculations are right then $50 million for a license is a give-a-way. A similar license for an Illinois riverboat recently sold at auction for nearly $400 million. Some analysts say that the administrations’ numbers ignore broader bases of gambling in surrounding states including Delaware, New Jersey, West Virginia and New York.

But think of the good things you’ll be doing when you make your donation to the casino. According to Governor Rendell you’ll be contributing a billion dollars a year to help lower property taxes across the state. That’s a lot of money right? Especially when you consider that the nation’s two biggest gaming states, Nevada and New Jersey, took in combined tax revenue of about $1.2 billion in 2002.

Force a casino to admit its return on a slot machine and your chances of coming out with more money that you brought in average about 1 in 5. There are about 4.7 million households in Pennsylvania. One in five betting against a billion dollars in revenue for the state means that every household will have to spend about $1,000 a year for those same households to someday get $209 back in property tax relief. I wonder what are the odds of that actually happening?

Albert Paschall
Senior Commentator
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.
[email protected]