05/27/2013 10:47AM

Jay Bergman: Converting the penny slot players


Who plays the penny slot machines?

Walking through the casino it’s fascinating to see mostly all of the penny slot machines taken. Granted they aren’t the dominant denomination on the floor, but there are enough and they do get used.

And whom are we kidding anyway? The penny slot machine is far from a penny per spin creature it may have been at one time. With multiple options the machine generally plays somewhere in the neighborhood of 48 cents per spin with players wishing the most options and the chance to score a jackpot.

In a sense the penny slot player is one that isn’t looking to get rich and isn’t looking to get poor. Even with the multiple options players don’t risk much while at the same time are getting the fulfillment of gambling.

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Slot machine manufacturers should be given credit for crafting something that works to thrill people even when not giving them a chance to become rich. If there is a lesson to be learned from the penny slot experience it is that it provides action and enjoyment while theoretically convincing the player that it is not costly.

It is with that in mind that I wondered why racing has never tried to tap into the market of players who by their very nature want the experience of gambling if not the pain associated with losing big.

To say it clearly slot machines are fixed to pay out at a certain rate. When penny players choose multiple options they have more chances to win each spin, but at the same time are likely to lose money. In other words 48 cents a spin may return 10, 15 or 20 cents when some of the combinations hit. The player gets the visual of a winning experience even while losing money.

Gambling on racing is not a fixed proposition. There are many variables that need to play out along the way for a gambler to be successful. To date the only theoretically safe way to play cheaply while covering multiple options is the across-the-board wager, something that is near extinct at most racetracks.

But perhaps that’s where our industry has gone wrong. Instead of trying to configure new ways to appeal to that across-the-board bettor, we have looked for more intricate options such as guaranteed pool multiple-race wagers. While those appeal to the “jackpot” hunter, they also require a greater amount of handicapping skill, something not likely to be found in the novice across-the-board player.

While some voices in the crowd have asked for a simplified program to more easily explain the nuances of handicapping horses, perhaps the time has arrived to explain nothing and simply offer our own “fixed” way of playing the horses.

What we need is something that gives the novice a chance at making some money while at the same time limiting the exposure. Too often our first-time players get a sour taste because they play some numbers, don’t hit and get zero bang for their buck. In casinos the first time player is greeted with at least some highs if they play for a period of time.

What racing needs to accomplish is a $2 wager where the novice player purchases a pre-selected series of wagers on exactas, trifectas and perhaps even superfectas. In mimicking the penny-per-option of the slot machines I’d like to see something that covers as many options as possible while at the same time limiting the risk.

For example let’s say we’re looking to cover an exacta in an eight-horse field. There are 56 potential winning combinations. A computer can randomly select 16 of those and apply a 2-cent value to each. In the same eight-horse field there are 336 possible trifecta combinations. Allow the same computer to randomly select 168 or half the total and apply a 1-cent value to each. In this example the player would have a full 50 percent chance of hitting the trifecta and a 28.6 percent chance of hitting the exacta without having a clue how to handicap.

Now of course we know there’s a very good chance the player will win and not earn his $2 back, but at the same time there’s a chance that a longshot will appear in that race and produce a payoff which far exceeds the originally $2 buy-in.

And therein lies the beauty of trying something like this. It gives the novice the potential to want to handicap if the player believes there is real money to be made. The penny or two-cent combination isn’t supposed to make the player rich, it’s just supposed to get them interested to the point where they can see the potential for money to be made, should they actually want to wager at a higher level.

The key to the pre-packaged type of wager is much like the slot machine, it can provide instant thrills when used across multiple racetracks.

It’s no secret that slot machine manufacturers are constantly looking for new and better ways to entertain their players while at the same time increasing their own profits. Racing can imitate the slot technology to do the same thing, but only by veering from the same path we’ve been on for a century and attempting to appeal to a very important part of the gambling demographic.

I often think that the penny player is the type of gambler that doesn’t want to talk about the fact that they gamble. The guy or gal who tells friends they play for a penny so not to be deemed a real gambler, but instead just someone looking for a little fun and excitement.

These penny players find a way to get to the casino and find a way to plant themselves in front of a machine. What if racing could provide a similar machine that packaged the product and issued a programmed ticket and then showed a two-minute race? Better yet, how about a 20-second stretch run of a particular race?

For a sport that complains about all the people it has lost along the way, it’s not a bad idea to look at where many of those lost souls are currently gambling for inspiration.

It just makes sense.