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by Frank Kneeland

Frank Kneeland was the manager of the largest progressive video poker team in Las Vegas, and has authored a book about his adventures entitled, "The Secret World of Video Poker Progressives". You can get the book as well as some extra info about Kneeland on his website In addition, there you'll find the show archive for his radio show on pro-gambling, "Gambling with an Edge" that he co-hosted with Bob Dancer for six months.

Note: The Confidence Quantifier download that I mentioned in my article in last month's BJI was severely delayed because of a programming flaw that was caught late during its development. I apologize for the delay. You can get the Confidence Qualifier now on the home page of my site Onward and forward.

I think someone has been selling me fake placebos. ~FK 2012

In one of my very first articles for the BJI entitled, Highway to Hell, I discussed a hypothetical 20-mile stretch of unmaintained road that was marked every mile with named "adopt a highway" mile markers, placed there by juvenile delinquents as part of fraternity hazing. The article talked about the assumptions one would make if you saw a mile of road littered with trash, allegedly belonging to a particular family (keeping in mind the signs were fake). Because this stretch of road was dirtier than the rest of the road, how it is human nature to ignore the base rate information, which in this case was the random distribution of trash. Even if the mile markers had been real, the family responsible for cleaning is not also responsible for distributing the trash. Even the best road cleaning family could still have the dirtiest stretch of road. The information in "Highway to Hell" was easy to understand with very clear examples of how our minds can deceive us if given the chance. (If you'd like to read this article in its entirety, it can be found in the archived BJI newsletters here: Highway to Hell

At the end of the piece, I wrapped back around to video poker and briefly listed some VP examples where the dynamic of self-deception and seeing non-existent patterns was similar. I didn't have room to elaborate at that time, but I'd like to now. The particular subject I'd like to discuss in more depth is:

Changing Machines

Definition being discussed:

Changing Machines – Getting up from one machine to play an identical machine (same game type, same pay table), perhaps because you have been doing poorly that day on that particular machine.

We aren't discussing changing game types, since it is assumed that when you entered the casino you chose the best pay-table available in that casino and wouldn't switch to a worse game type under any circumstance. Failing to always play the best pay-table is a separate and more serious problem and not what I am are talking about right now.

When I've discussed changing machines before on various forums, it has always been a ridiculously controversial topic that either never gets resolved, or never gets resolved amicably. The reasons for this are complicated and involve several cognitive biases, which work to reinforce each other, and essentially make it close to impossible for someone that favors changing machines as a strategy to ever understand why they shouldn't, or why it has no effect. Here are the basics:

  1. In order to know if one did better by changing machines, they would also have had to NOT change machines and then compare their results. This is, of course, impossible. Those who are "sure" they did better after changing machines are actually coming to this conclusion with only half the information they would need—how they did after changing. Though they have no data on how they would have done had they not changed machines, they simply assume they would have done worse. This is related to Attentional Bias and reinforced by Confirmation Bias, when players think changing machines might make a difference. They take any improvement over their original machine results as proof they were right. This leads us into point #2.
  2. Results are not actually proof of anything. Even if they cloned themselves and had changed AND not changed machines and then compared their results, it still proves nothing, since VP involves a strong random element that overrides all other considerations over short time-scales. In theory, a Chimpanzee could win during five minutes of "play" on video poker by carelessly banging on the buttons. It does not prove that the chimp is playing correctly. Strange how quickly people attribute good results to something they personally did. This brings us to #3.
  3. Perhaps the most severe cognitive distortion associated with changing machines as a strategy is relating anything one does, other than playing correct strategy, to the results one has. One can say, "Hey, I did better after changing to machine B than I did on machine A" without misspeaking, as long as one leaves out the word, "because." If someone thinks they did better because they changed machines, the bias in play is Illusory Control, which is the natural human tendency to overate how much control we have over events, such as the output of a RNG in a video poker machine...which in reality allows for no control whatsoever. Toss in Hindsight Bias, the tendency to see past events as more predictable than they really were, and you have a nearly complete picture of why people, in retrospect, believe changing machines is anything other than a waste of time.

If people employ the strategy of changing machines when they are doing poorly, it's a near slam-dunk that in short order they will be convinced it has merit. Eventually they'll do better on the second machine, and the death of rational thought isn't far behind. If they'd been running really bad, regression to mean makes it extremely likely the second machine will do better. Of course, it was equally likely they would have done better on the original machine, because really bad runs are rare and usually short. All in all it's not merely self delusion, it's self delusion at its best, taking advantage of nearly every single known failing of human perception. Nevertheless, how bad is it and should people who only play for fun worry about doing something that is perceived to be at worst pointless?

Mostly Harmless???

Not all people think changing machines is a useful strategy, but even in the camp of people who know and believe it is a waste of time, you'll find those that think it is, at worst, a waste of time with no other ill effects.

The common advice is both:

  1. It doesn't matter if you move or not because the machines are random and each hand is an independent event.
  2. Since it is neither good nor bad, do it if you like.

I couldn't agree less and I caution against it, but not for financial reasons. You may remember in my interview with Dr. William G McCown that he mentioned how cognitive distortions play a key role in the development of gambling disorders. Knowing this, there simply is no reason to tempt fate. Our, oh so less-than-perfect- human-minds are so primed to look for patterns, if we give them ANY excuse, they will start finding meaning in meaningless things, creating what I like to call, "The lucky underwear phenomenon".

Lucky underwear

Imagine, for a moment, if instead of changing machines, you frequently changed underwear. You would indeed notice that you did better wearing certain unmentionables and ran badly while wearing different ones. Some of your underwear would be "hot" and others would be "cold." Some might be "due" while others might simply have doodoo. You might then start favoring certain undergarments over others. (Preferably the clean ones.)

I hope we can all realize that your choice of underwear doesn't affect what hands you are dealt or what you draw on a video poker machine. Neither does changing machines, but it will be nigh impossible to convince yourself of this if you create situations where your mind can deceive you once you have accumulated a mental list of times you tried it and "it worked." I put "it worked" in quotes because, as we discussed earlier, proving that it worked is impossible, and randomness alone is all the explanation one needs. Of course, this isn't about what one needs, it's about what one wants; which is some way to control the uncontrollable.

Rather than being your friend and faithful companion where randomness is concerned, your mind is ready, willing, and able to send you so astray, you'll never find your way back to the straight and narrow road. The best insulation is not to give it a chance.

If you switch machines, you'll start noticing hot and cold machines.
If you switch games, you'll start noticing hot and cold games.
If you switch casinos, you'll start noticing hot and cold casinos.
If you switch underwear, you'll start noticing hot and cold underwear.

If you don't switch anything, and play only one machine in one casino, you'll be left with hot and cold playing sessions...

Oh, and some really smelly least change those.

Changing machines as a strategy and thinking that it makes a difference does not rise to the level of "problem." but it is a "tip of the iceberg" issue and clearly a sign of the type of thinking which is known to be a risk factor for problem gambling. Just say no, and know why you are saying no. It does no good to abstain because someone told you to. You have to understand and believe it.


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