Gamblers Ignore Statistical Slot Machine Odds In New Warning Label Experiment

Written By Martin Derbyshire on September 14, 2018 - Last Updated on December 6, 2023
Gamblers Ignore Statistical Slot Machine Odds In New Warning Label Experiment

With the help of a pair of university professors, a Canadian casino launched a pilot program placing warning labels on slots.

Players appeared to gain a better understanding of how the machines worked and the odds of winning. However, the labels and the information each contained about the odds stacked against players wasn’t enough to stop most from continuing to gamble.

False wins and near-misses

University of Waterloo professors Kevin Harrigan and Dan Brown started out studying real money casino slot games. In their findings, the games appeared to hook people by making them think they win more often than they actually do.

These efforts include flashing lights and celebratory sounds when a player wins 80 cents on a $1 bet, and when they have near-misses and close calls.

Harrigan said player reaction to false wins is the same as a real win. Additionally, players almost always overestimate how much they’ve won on a machine with losses disguised as wins.

The near-misses and close calls also make players think they’re getting close to winning. This is despite the fact each spin is actually independent from any other.

Facts Up Front labeling on slot machines

Armed with this information, the pair looked at the success of the Facts Up Front nutrition labeling program in the US, and decided to design something similar for slots.

Facts Up Front stickers sit on the front of food packaging showing the caloric, fat, sodium and sugar content of what’s inside. Ideally, this informs and warns consumers so they ultimately make smart lifestyle choices.

The pair approached the Ontario provincial government casino operator Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. It agreed to test a similar method, but applying it to slot machines and clearly pointing out the following:

  • A game’s volatility and frequency of both small and large payouts
  • The chance of hitting a bonus round playing the game
  • Each game’s return to player rate and house edge

The result? Players gamble anyway

The labels were placed on some 250 slot machines at the Grand River Raceway in Elora, Ontario, Canada. According to the project’s final report, players surveyed recognized how volatile the games are. They could readily identify which machines were taking more of their money than others, but that information didn’t stop them from playing.

Apparently knowing about a game’s odds and its volatility didn’t bother most players because they were busy chasing big jackpots.

In fact, several people surveyed showed personality traits associated with problem gambling. Those people lost even more money after the labels were put on the machines.

The professors think the labels only served to make players more confident they could beat the machines. This was despite the statistical realities presented.

A nudge in the right direction

The casino operator considers the trial a success. Overall, it did help players better understand how slot machines work and the odds involved. They figure that the labels can help them do their part to promote responsible gambling, an initiative that’s frequently in the news.

But like most responsible gambling initiatives, this appears to be one that only works for players that actually heed the tips and advice.

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Photo by Icews /

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Martin Derbyshire

Martin Derbyshire has more than ten years of experience reporting on the poker, online gambling, and land-based casino industries for a variety of publications including Bluff Magazine, PokerNews, and PokerListings. He has traveled extensively, attending tournaments and interviewing major players in the gambling world.

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