This lawsuit had plenty of food for thought

2013-04-05T00:00:00Z This lawsuit had plenty of food for thoughtJohn G. Brokopp Times Correspondent nwitimes.com
April 05, 2013 12:00 am  • 

A good number of years ago a woman filed a $10 million class-action lawsuit against Detroit casinos claiming the bonus spin feature on Wheel of Fortune slot machines is programmed to pay off an abundance of lower awards.

My first reaction was a chuckle, but then I gave it some more thought and began to wonder just how many people who play Wheel of Fortune machines realize the bonus feature is not a case of (with apologies to Major Bowes) "round and round it goes where it stops nobody knows."

The bonus wheel on Wheel of Fortune slot machines may go 'round and 'round all right, but where it stops is most definitely controlled, not by luck, but by a random number generator, the same type of computer program that is used to determine what combination of symbols you'll get when you activate a play. The programmed odds against winning the top award are definitely higher than for winning the smaller awards.

It doesn't work like a roulette wheel or even the real Wheel of Fortune wheel on TV. If there are 22 partitions on a slot machine's bonus wheel, it isn't a 21 to 1 chance that you'll get the top award. In reality, the chances could be thousands to 1 or even more. But casinos are not obligated to tell you that bit of information.

I first laughed off the suit, thinking it would be like suing the Illinois State Lottery for issuing an abundance of losing "instant win" scratch-off tickets. But all you have to do is flip over a ticket to see that the odds against winning every prize are clearly spelled out for you (by the way, the odds AREN'T good). When's the last time you walked into a casino and saw the odds against winning various awards on slot machines so clearly spelled out. Answer: Never.

Wheel of Fortune slot machines are just like every other game of chance politely referred to as "electronic gaming devices." The disturbing feature about them in particular is the bonus spin gives players the perception they're getting a "lucky spin." It doesn't help  many players equate the slot game bonus wheel with the TV game show wheel. It creates a misleading illusion.

The suit alleged fraud and violation of Michigan's consumer protection act. The woman was in possession of patent documents as exhibits. Her complaint states casinos don't disclose the computer aspect of the Wheel of Fortune play that dictates the function of the bonus wheel.

A casino spokesman from one of the Detroit casinos argued that Wheel of Fortune games have been certified as fair and honest in states with legalized gambling nationwide.

The fair and honest aspect of the game is not in question here. All of us who play slot machines in state-licensed and regulated casinos trust the machines are on the level. What many players don't know are the real odds they're up against when they play slots and the real odds against different levels of awards.

Most of the basic information about modern day slot machines is available in gambling books that cover the topic. However, there is  still a good deal of information about slot play that is proprietary. Quite frankly, casinos tell you nothing about slot machines. They are quite content to keep the devices veiled in mystery and superstition. Slots are more numerous, more popular, and more lucrative for casinos than at any other time in history.

Should casinos be legally obligated to disclose more information about slot machines? I think so.

Knowing you are playing a game of chance is one thing. So is holding yourself personally responsible for your actions and behavior. Not revealing what the real odds against winning are, or creating illusions or false perceptions about those chances, are something else.

The Detroit woman's lawsuit appeared on the surface of things outrageous, but perhaps there's a message inherent in the suit that will make the casino industry "fess up" to its obligation of advocating responsible gambling, or better yet, being legally bound to telling the facts about slot machines.

The opinions expressed are solely the writer's. Reach him at jbrokopp@comcast.net. John Brokopp's Beat the Odds tips air Sundays at 8:20 a.m., 2:50 p.m. and 10:42 p.m. on WBBM Newsradio 780.

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