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April 25th, 2012 MARTY SMITH | Dr. Know
 

Dr. Know: One-Screened Bandit

Does the Oregon Lottery tweak video poker machines to entice people to play?

drknowILLUSTRATION: Hawk Krall

Does the Oregon Lottery manipulate video poker machines to be “looser” at certain times—like when Social Security checks come in, or at the end of the month when people are low on money? Or is this just gamblers trying to see a pattern where none exists? —Bob from Jackpotland

Think about it: You’re the Oregon Lottery. You have a legal monopoly on a surefire process for converting human ignorance into cold, hard cash. Why on earth would you feel the need to game a sweet system like that?

For the record: no. To the extent that a game with a house edge of 7.5 percent can be called “fair,” these are.

That figure, incidentally, had to be culled from 2010 Oregon Lottery statistics. The lottery itself claims that “[in] video poker games, player choices affect the actual payout percentage of the game.”

This statement, while technically true, is evil. It bolsters the cognitive fallacy underlying both your question and the lottery’s success: “illusion of control.” That’s our human tendency to believe we can control external events, and it’s behind such diverse human activities as blowing on dice, consulting psychics and taking the pope seriously.

It’s also the reason games that boil down to pressing a button to see if you won are dressed up as complex tasks that require skill to play successfully: Researchers find that the more “skill cues” are present, the more likely you are to believe you control the outcome, which leads you to play more.

Luckily for the lottery, folks like you are more than happy to dream up additional skill cues lottery makers never considered, having to do with best times to play, which machines are “hot,” etc.—all to disguise the awkward truth that, 115 times out of 200, you’re paying for video bupkis.

 
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