From serving free food to spotlighting celebrity chefs, casino operators rely on more than a few tried-and-true methods to stack the deck in their favor and keep visitors spending, whether it’s at slot machines or in ritzy restaurants. Here, insiders from the gambling mecca — Las Vegas — offer insights into some casino tricks. Once you recognize them, you might see your odds improve at the casino.
1. Loyalty Clubs
Casinos commonly offer rewards to repeat customers to make them feel as if they’re receiving something in return for their loyalty. For example, members of the Trop Advantage Players Club accrue points toward rewards that include free rooms at Tropicana Entertainment properties or a gratis birthday dinner at a casino restaurant.
“Most of these strategies are meant to alter your thought process so that you don’t even realize how much you are spending,” said Joe Sterf, a certified public accountant who operates the personal finance blog Average Joe Finance. “All you think about is the value of the free item you are receiving. You don’t realize how much you actually spent to earn it.”
2. Putting ‘Easy Wins’ on Display
Slot machines seem less risky than table games or sports betting, but slots brought Nevada casinos $7.16 billion in 2016, compared with $4.09 billion from table games and sports bets, according to the state’s Gaming Control Board.
“The main driver of casino revenues is slot machines. These machines now resemble video games more than traditional slot machines,” Sterf said. “Flashing lights and sounds are no longer limited to winning a huge jackpot. Now even small payouts make it seem like you are a big winner. These changes have allowed casinos to get people hooked on slot machines.”
3. Random Reward Patterns
Unlike table games, video poker machines and the like, slots attract some players because they aren’t a game of skill. Unfortunately, gambling of any type is just one of many ways that people go broke.
The late psychologist and behaviorist B.F. Skinner, who extensively studied actions and their consequences, found the schedule of reinforcement employed by slots prompts people to continue repeating a behavior for the longest time without reinforcement. This “variable-ratio reinforcement” schedule, which doles out rewards at unpredictable intervals, gets people hooked quickly and keeps them coming back.
“The random reward pattern of slot machines also helps build the habit of continued play,” Sterf said. “All of this is set to keep people playing as long as possible.”
4. Free Drinks
Just like theme parks, casinos provide plenty of food and beverage options to keep patrons on the property, said Joyce Orsini, a consultant and associate professor at Fordham University who has experience in the casino industry. But unlike at Disneyland, the drinks in casinos often are free.
“Free drinks and free food, or practically free, will keep you from leaving the casino for libations and sustenance,” she said.
Complimentary cocktails also can limit gamblers’ inhibitions. It’s worth noting, though, that casinos increasingly are installing validation systems that require patrons to reach spending minimums in exchange for free booze. Also, laws in several states, including Indiana and Maryland, prohibit the practice of handing out free alcohol to casino customers.
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5. On-Site ATMs and Credit
Casinos also make access to cash convenient, Orsini said.
“ATM machines keep you there by allowing you to spend more than what you have in your pocket,” she said. “And for the big spender, there are pre-approved credit lines that allow you to drain your bank account — up to pre-approved limits.”
For instance, Argosy Casino in Kansas City, Mo., Dover Downs Hotel and Casino in Dover, Del., and Palace Casino Resort in Biloxi, Miss., are among those that highlight casino credit options online. According to Caesars Entertainment, these lines of credit, also known as markers, are convenient, short-term loans for big spenders — usually coming from out of town — who don’t want to incur fees to get money, such as with an ATM, or carry a lot of cash.
6. Machine Mazes
Planners place payout-friendly machines strategically to draw gamblers. Labyrinth-like layouts then keep them on the casino floor, Orsini said.
“Gambling machines placed right at the entrances to the casino will have many wins, ringing bells and whistles, drawing people in,” she said. “Creating a maze with [the] placement of machines, so people have to wander around even to exit, keeps them there longer.”
7. Planned Payouts
Casinos program machines to offer small wins with the potential for an eventual huge win, Orsini said. “Greed and hope keeps coins coming in,” she added.
Programmed payouts vary, but slot machines will always make more money than they award. For example, Colorado law requires slots pay out between 80 percent and 100 percent of what they take in over the life of the machine, with most machines paying out around 90 percent. Those payouts are determined by software in each machine, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.
8. Themed Displays
Don’t underestimate the lure of a themed game. Whether patrons favor pirates or princesses, they’ll find a machine with sights and sounds designed to draw them in, Orsini said.
“Machines are themed for every taste, from death, destruction and world annihilation to Cinderella, Mickey Mouse and the Three Little Pigs,” she added.
9. Carefully Planned Lighting
While the machines are bright, the overhead lighting is typically on the subtle side to encourage gamblers to focus on the machines or table action, said M.J. King, director of the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, a research and advisory firm that studies human behavior and uses the information to help companies and institutions shape their marketing and other business strategies.
“The point is to create an atmosphere conducive as possible to staying and playing — and casino designers are experts at this art,” she said.
10. Easy Access and More
Some casinos offer free shuttle service to keep customers coming. For example, the Golden Acorn Casino in Campo, Calif., provides complimentary transportation from locales that include San Diego and Los Angeles. Such amenities are particularly appealing to older gamblers, King said.
“For seniors, it’s easy transportation to the casino and nice restrooms that help keep the casino front and center as a destination,” she said.
11. Windowless Rooms
Time might fly when you’re having fun, but it can be hard to tell when you’re in a casino, where clocks and windows are few and far between — or even absent.
“Casinos, like malls, are enclosed public spaces that need to keep people on their turf as long as possible,” King said.
12. Stimulating Shows and More
Casino gambling isn’t the only way gaming establishments make money. Restaurants, bars and big-name performers can encourage visitors to part with their cash or pull out their credit cards at these resorts and hotels, King said.
For instance, Britney Spears’ “Piece of Me” show at The Axis at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas drew more than 710,000 attendees between its debut in late December 2013 and the end of January 2017, grossing more than $103 million in ticket sales, according to Billboard. The show is slated for its last performance on New Year’s Eve 2017.
“Several casino tactics are well-known,” said King. And, it’s “the shows, restaurants and people-watching that encourage gamblers to stick around.”
13. Celebrity Chefs and Sumptuous Spas
Las Vegas, in particular, has upped the ante when it comes to non-gambling entertainment and dining options, including high-end retail, restaurant and spa offerings, said David Yeskel, a veteran travel journalist who operates social media profiles under the name The Vegas Guru.
“While the time-tested strategy of using inexpensive food to lure gamblers hasn’t changed, that strategy has evolved to include celebrity-chef-driven restaurants — at obviously higher prices, top-tier entertainment (such as Cirque du Soleil shows), lavish spas and shopping,” he said. “Food and beverage, shopping, entertainment and spa receipts now comprise an ever-larger piece of the revenue pie for casino resorts, which no longer rely solely on gaming for profits.”
14. Scantily Clad Servers
Both the drinks and the alluring attendants who serve them are meant to goad gamblers to spend more. As just one example, several Wynn Nightlife venues showcase sexy servers.
“Requiring female servers to wear revealing outfits is part of the hypnotic mindset and part of the waking-state placebo effect,” said well-known hypnotist Richard Barker. “Let me explain: The mind is expecting pretty cocktail servers in revealing clothing…. The gamblers’ experience matches their expectations and so it sparks a match in the brain. This connection allows the mind to rest and be lulled further through the casino’s hypnotic trance tactics.”
Don’t expect casinos to retire this lucrative trick anytime soon. “Casinos have been using this tactic so long that they no longer can break the cycle,” he said. “The mind expects what it gets — therefore, the server reveals to the mind that gambling is rewarded with free drinks and a free view.”
15. Multiplying Machines
Even if a casino features penny and nickel slot machines, bets can still add up fast for gamblers who aren’t careful with their cash, said author and frequent casino gambler John Wiankowski, who wrote “How to Win at Slots: Take Home Money,” under the pen name Jak Martin.
“Let’s say you are looking at a nickel machine to play,” he said. “There are choices of one, three, five, seven and 10 times the bet. Then you have to choose how many lines to play. The more lines equals more chances to win. You decide to play 10 times the bet and 10 lines. You hit the ‘go’ button, and you just spent $5 on a nickel machine.”
16. ‘Winning’ at a Cost
Blinking lights and happy music signal a slot payout, but savvy spenders should know they’re not always making money.
“A lot of the time, you will be playing, and the machine next to you keeps dinging every time a bet is made. If you were to look, the person is betting 20 cents. They win, and the payout is 16 cents. They won, but they are losing,” Wiankowski said.
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17. Baiting to Prompt Betting
Many machines are programmed with patterns to get gamblers’ hopes up, Wiankowski said. It’s one of the tactics that makes gambling one of America’s guilty splurges.
“Let’s say that when five joker symbols, one on each line, come up, the player goes to the bonus round. [The casino customer] may have no symbols come up for several plays and then get four. The thought process is that it must go to the bonus round the next spin,” he said. “The player maxes their bet and, 99 percent of the time, they do not go to the bonus round. You just got baited.”
These near misses, which are often accompanied by a buildup of lights and sounds from the casino machines, elicit many of the same reactions in the brain as a win, encouraging players to keep trying until they succeed, according to Barker, the hypnotist.
Although that reaction makes sense when it comes to activities that require skill — such as sinking a free throw — it only encourages more spending on slots and other casino games in which the gambler has no influence on the outcome.
18. Pulse Music and Pattern Interrupts
Casinos long have pumped in subtle, biorhythmic pulse music that’s composed to keep gamblers spending. In recent years, they’ve added what Barker calls pattern interrupts — distinct sounds or shouted phrases deliberately designed to stop people in their tracks.
“The certain sounds of these programmed machines are enough to disrupt the pattern and equilibrium of the passerby,” Barker said. “Someone that normally wouldn’t have stopped will now find themselves transfixed to the machine. The tactic is deliberate, complex and timed.”
So how exactly does this trick draw people in? “The ambient sounds and the machine’s shouting are a deliberate attempt to bypass the critical faculty and conscious decision-making brain,” he said. “The stimuli then goes to the subconscious part of the brain with the desired outcome the casino needs.”
19. Subliminal Messages
Casinos abound with such subtle messaging, whether on posters displaying happy, attractive gamblers raking in their winnings or with bars and lounges sporting names such as “High Rollers’ Lounge,” Barker said.
“Count how many times you see the word ‘Win’ or ‘Jackpot.’ The job of the casino is to promote the lifestyle and winning culture without actually displaying it [overtly]. There is a fine line between selling sizzle and displaying the end result. The messages of success are everywhere.”
20. Sensory Overload
Barker recommended that vulnerable vacationers stand at the center of a casino floor and take a 360-degree look around to get a sense of the wide variety of tricks and tactics used.
“You will catch a glimpse of cashiers handing out money, food venues, bar and social areas, winners yelling with excitement, attractive women,” he said. “What you won’t see are clocks and washrooms. This deliberate attempt is to distract and confuse but also to heighten your senses, to overload your sensory capacity and to trigger emotion. People act upon emotion and justify it later with logic.”