Why It Hurts Everyone (Except Ploppies)
There was a time, at my local casino, that it wasn't terribly difficult to find a reasonably good play on a must-hit machine. I certainly wasn't in there popping $500 majors multiple times a day, or anything like that, but I would probably find a reasonably good Minor for $50 on one of every two-and-a-half visits or something along those lines.
In any event, that was a bygone day in which perhaps only 5% of the slot floor was comprised of the must-hit machines. At this time, I would venture to say that somewhere between 10-15% of the floor is some kind of must-hit machine or another (counting only slots, not Video Poker or Video Keno) and certainly at least half of the new arrivals in the last year have been must-hits.
One would think that the newfound prevalence of such machines would create more opportunities rather than fewer opportunities, and one would be precisely wrong in this case. I'm going to offer a theory as to why this might be the case, and if my theory is correct, in the second Article I'll address why this fact might be bad for casinos and low-level AP's, (such as myself) but good for ploppies.
Playing a Must-Hit
The first thing that needs to be understood is when the appropriate time to, 'Jump-In,' on a Must-Hit is, but short of it being ridiculously close, even that is impossible to know. Many AP's to whom I have spoken, both on the board and live, suggest that the first thing to do is look at it in terms of, "Halfway," meaning that one would assume it is expected to hit halfway between its current point and the must-hit amount. It's up to you whether or not you use that, I usually play under the assumption that I'll have to push it 75% of the way (I do this, generally, to avoid being too aggressive) but we'll use the halfway point for the remainder of this Article.
In order to determine the starting play point on an individual unit, one would actually have to be aware of the base return for the unit. Short of having access to the PAR Sheets and knowing what setting the casino is using for the game, it is very unlikely that one will gain access to this information. Empirical study is possible, except for machines upon which the Bonus Games operate on different reel strips, and it would also be difficult to study expanding reel games and things of that nature. One way to study it would be just to watch the results (in terms of win/loss) over a bunch of spins...but the acceptable number to really know anything would likely be in the tens of thousands.
In other words, it is possible (in some cases) but it is probably never practical to do an empirical study in an effort to deconstruct the reels on these machines. It would result in a ton of work and very little return because such an activity might reduce your, 'Jump in point,' by a dollar or less and result in a player taking advantage of one extra marginal play in what, maybe once every three months?
The one thing that both can and should be known is the meter move and the contribution to the return provided by same. Fortunately, this part is really easy. You simply play some spins at a minimum bet, wait for the meter to move, and then from that point count how much you are betting until the meter in question moves again. There are some machines, however, that seem to have a meter move based on player win, (as opposed to straight coin-in) but the vast majority of machines I have encountered operate on a coin-in basis.
The meter move is important because it enables a player to determine how much coin-in it will take to push the meter to the halfway point as well as to push it all the way. This information will enable the player to guesstimate an Expected Loss that the player will incur prior to hitting the must-hit jackpot. For example, if there were a must-hit by $500 machine that is sitting at $470, and the meter move is $0.01 per $3.00 coin in, then that is going to take 3000 meter moves at a coin-in of $9000 for the lock and 1500 meter moves at a coin-in of $4500 to hit the halfway point.
This is the time that we arrive at a very important assumption that a player is going to have to make and that will determine your level of aggressiveness in going for this play. If you look at the above play and assume the machine has a base return of 90%, then you are going to lose $450 getting to the point that the meter is at $485 (where you are assuming it is expected to hit) and will, therefore, win $35. As such, you are winning $35 on $4500 coin-in which results in a 0.7778% advantage not taking players club points or other comps into consideration.
Needless to say, that thin advantage is also going to come with a good bit of Variance which is not unusual for a slot machine. You will often either win or lose much more than $35 even if all of your assumptions are correct. With respect to your performance on these machines (and whether or not you even had a good play) it is this Variance that can make it difficult to determine. It would, quite probably, take no fewer than a few hundred samples starting at that point to be reasonably confident of whether or not the play is good.
In terms of what a player could definitely safely assume, a player cannot definitely safely assume 90%. If the player knows the minimum setting possible for the Base Return of the game, then the player should assume that. If the player lacks the minimum possible setting for the Base Return of the game, then the only thing that the player can assume is that it is not less than the minimum return allowed for that jurisdiction, wherever it may be.
In the case of my local casino, the minimum possible base return for the game (which may even include the meter increases) is 80%, but I tend to assume 85% and I believe that I am still underestimating it. When it comes to these, however, I would rather underestimate it and miss a few VERY marginal plays by being overly conservative than play overly aggressive and be at a disadvantage. Remember, every percentage point you assume is $10 in expectation for every $1,000 coin-in, so if you overestimate it by 5% and you need to put through $2,000 coin-in to be at that halfway point, then you're going to be looking at an additional $100 of Expected Loss that you aren't, well, expecting.
That five percent is going to be the difference between a playable situation and an unplayable situation on multiple occasions if you spend any time looking at these. For me personally, that's why I always like to assume that I'm going to have to push the meter 75% of the way, I figure that will somewhat balance out my assumption of a Base Return of 85% if I am overestimating by a couple percentage points.
Aside from that, the two things that a player can absolutely KNOW on a machine that works on a coin-in basis are what amount of coin-in will definitely cause the machine to hit the must-hit point, and what the minimum possible return could be. Unfortunately, if you refuse to play unless you have an advantage even under this truly, 'Worst Case Scenario,' you're almost never going to find any plays.
Think about it: If a machine had a meter move of $0.01 for every $3.00 and you assumed that you would have to push it all the way AND you were losing $200 of every $1,000 coin-in, then your break-even point on a must-hit of $500 is going to necessitate that you only have $2,500 coin-in, which is 834 meter moves, which is a Major at $491.66. Granted, I have seen it that close once, but that machine had a $0.01 per $5.00 coin-in meter move. Under my parameters, it would take 636 meter moves to get to the point that I am assuming it should hit, at a total coin-in of $3,130 and an expected loss of $469.5 to win $497.92 and profit $28.42 thereby. That's a return of $3,158.42 on $3,130 coin-in for an advantage of just under 1% not including points...etc 0.908%, roughly.
This isn't meant to scare anyone off or dissuade anybody from playing these machines, quite the opposite, I wish more people would play them! Even for a player who plays at a small disadvantage, looking for these machines in a, 'Decent spot,' will often result in a better Expected Return than just sitting down at some random non-Progressive slot machine. My point is that, if you want to play these bad boys at an actual advantage, you are going to want to be conservative and you're not going to get to play them very often.
Where Players Make Mistakes
In order for a player to be playing at any kind of an advantage at all, the machine must first reach a playable spot. Let's consider a machine upon which the meter move is $0.01 for every $3.00 coin-in that starts at $250 and must-hit by $500. Let's also consider that your personal, 'Jump-In,' point (for the purpose of an example) is $480.00. What that means is that 23,000 meter moves have occurred at a staggering $69,000 coin-in. Most of which was presumably at a disadvantage. To put that in perspective, if you don't count Video Poker, I would be lucky to put that much coin-in on slots in six months with most (95%+) of that coin-in being at an advantage.
I doubt if the casino is going to seed these must-hits artificially, though, so we have to assume that coin-in must have happened. My theory is that this takes place over a long process consisting of a few different stages. The first stage is people just sitting down and playing it as they would any other Non-Progressive slot machine and not even thinking of playing at any kind of advantage whatsoever. The most basic mathematical concepts elude these people and they're just happy that they can play the machine and watch it inch closer to that $500 mark. Some of the people end up liking the base game and playing more, although it doesn't take long to see that $500 isn't going to happen for them.
As an aside, there is also my favorite type of player who thinks that these are going to hit low because that, "Saves the casino money." That is somewhere between the Martingale System being a guaranteed winner and, "Never change your Keno numbers," as being among the most ridiculous gambling theories I've ever heard in my life. In any event, people subscribing to this belief will sometimes play it at a very low number. I like those people.
The second stage of the process is a combination of people who like the game, people who are essentially picking a machine randomly and people who think that the Progressive being halfway ($350, in this example) is a good thing. Provided that it doesn't hit, these people will drive it up to the third stage.
The third stage consists of all of the people in the second stage as well as some mathematically disinclined people who think that the machine may be at an advantage as it eclipses that $400 mark. For the people in the latter category, they kind of have the right idea, but the math really isn't there for them.
Enough play in the third stage without the Progressive hitting will result in the final stage of the machine, and that final stage is, 'Beatable state.' This is where, based on the halfway point assumption and a reasonable estimate of the Expected Return of the Base Game that the machine could be beaten. Again, my assumptions make me much more conservative to, 'Jump in,' in the early goings of the fourth stage, but I'll get in at a later time.
Mistakes can even be made in the fourth stage, if you want to call them that. Quitting is obviously a mistake if the machine is at an advantage. Some people also consider being under bankrolled a mistake, but I tend to disagree. My Philosophy on people who play things under bankrolled is that they are still playing into an advantageous situation, and that if they do so enough times, even if they don't get the value out of every individual play, the early wins will make it all, 'Come out in the wash." For an example, consider a Video Poker game that is for dollars and has a 100.8% return: A player who sits down and plays 18,250 hands over the course of a few days (it would be 22.8125 hours consecutively at 800 hands per hour) has the same exact expectation as the player who plays one hand every day for fifty years, but doesn't play on leap day. Both players have an expected profit of $730 on this machine, despite the wildly varying amounts of time within which they are playing the 18,250 hands.
Either way, there can be value added in the fourth stage by players who, for one reason or another, have stopped playing at some point during the fourth stage.
In the second part of this two-part series of Articles, I am going to discuss why an over saturation of these must-hit machines is a negative for casinos and AP's alike, but why it actually benefits ploppies.