Casinos slot machines

How do casinos decide where to put slot machines?

Interiorsidephoto%20%2800000003%29The urinal theory plays a role in where slot machines are placed: The first person in the room will go to the end of the line of machines. The second person in will go to the machine farthest from the first person, and so on. - Nancy Marshall-Genzer

The latest in our "I’ve Always Wondered" series takes on this question, from 29–year-old Brandon Bielich: “How do casinos determine which slot machines to include and when to swap them out?”

Brandon tells me he started wondering how casinos decide which slot machines to buy and when to retire them after he won on some machines, returned to the casino later to play them again and couldn’t find them.

“There’s a part of me that’s a little cynical that thinks, maybe I was winning too much and other people as well were winning on it, and it just wasn’t in the best interest to keep that machine around, ” he says.

Is Brandon being too cynical? Or is he right? I put his question to the experts. But before we get to that, Brandon and I head into the casino. We stake out spots at penny slot machines. Brandon started off winning, but his luck didn’t last. Over lunch in the casino deli, we tally our losses: $4.96 in the red for me, while Brandon lost about $21.

"A little more than I wanted to but not bad for a couple hours of entertainment, " he says.

And that’s part of the answer to Brandon’s question. Because while it’s really hard to get casinos to talk about this, former casino workers and academics on the subject tell me the bottom line is this: Casinos are in the entertainment business. They want slot machines that are entertaining, so they attract lots of players.

“The casino is just like any other business, " says Greg Joslin, who worked at a casino in Mississippi for 17 years. "You have to have something that people want to come in and buy.”

He says state laws only allow casinos to keep a certain portion of every dollar fed into a slot machine. And while each spin is random, the casinos' total take is controlled by a computer chip. But if people aren’t playing a machine, it’s not taking in any money, and a casino will think about getting rid of it or moving it.

Casinos do have some theories on where to put their slots. Some are a bit unusual.

“There’s something called the urinal theory, ” says Anthony Lucas, a professor of casino management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “It’s predicated on the men’s restroom. The first guy that goes in will go to the end of the line of urinals. The second guy will go to the furthest one from the first guy.”

Who knew? That’s certainly something I’ve never wondered.

“And that’s the same way banks of slot machines fill up, ” says Lucas.

So under this theory, a casino might put an unpopular machine in a popular spot. I try to explain the urinal theory to Brandon, and while it's a bit awkward, he gets the point — he even agrees with it. He understands why people want their space when playing slots.

“I like to spread out, " he says. "So yeah I think, if it came down to it and I had a full row to choose from, I’d probably take the end. The last urinal.”

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