We look at the so called one armed bandits which exploded onto the scene from the turn of the 20th century and have since defined what gambling is to huge numbers of people around the world.

One Armed Bandits

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With the desire for gambling being a part of the human psyche since time immemorial it is not surprising that we have combined this desire with our abilities to construct machines for the purpose. Today there are a great many gambling machines which recreate all manner of traditional gambling games and concepts but they all derive from the original one armed bandits which exploded onto the scene from the turn of the 20th century and have since defined what gambling is to huge numbers of people around the world.

The original idea was simple enough; to generate an approximation of poker using a machine which would 'deal' certain combinations to the player. The five cards required by poker were too much however and the first mass produced machine contained three reels which offered up various combinations of three symbols in a winning line. The reels were mechanised, and spun by pulling on a lever at one side of the machine. Thus they were quickly referred to as one armed bandits since they had one arm and deprived you of your money when you came across them.

The real name of the first One armed bandit machine was the Liberty Bell, created by Charles Fey in San Francisco and the bell is still used as a winning symbol today in many machines. It is perhaps with some fondness they are known by many other terms, most notably slot machines or fruit machines. The fruit association comes from a period in which payouts were not cash but rather sweets or fruit-flavoured gum. These obvious attempts at circumnavigating gambling laws by offering food products as prizes was quickly shut down but the fruit and BAR symbols remain as an historical remnant of that time.

One armed bandits today may still take your money but if they have an arm at all it will be for show or old school appeal rather than any functional part of the machine. Just as Charles Fey implemented the technology of the time for the Liberty Bell, modern machines use modern computer technology in their design, internal structure and gameplay. Tokens are generally in use instead of cash and in casinos there are also machines with card readers or some other form of credit technology which allows players to continue playing a machine without handling a lot of change.

The machines may have changed over the years but the objective remains the same; to get a winning line of symbols in return for your money. Certain combinations pay out predetermined prizes and the machines pay out at frequent regular intervals which enhances the experience and provides the motivation to continue playing in the hope of greater returns. Although payouts are frequent they most often small with jackpot wins a much less frequent occurrence.

Modern machines also introduce a greater degree of player interaction such as reel stop, hold and nudge functions creating an apparent element of skill into the game which broadens their appeal. So broad is that appeal that one armed bandits are ubiquitous in all places where people may find themselves with time on their hands, such as bars and cafes, airports, bookmakers, casinos and holiday hotspots. Casinos in particular may have a bewildering array of machines and they account for up to 70% of the total income a casino generates.

Even with machines which offer increased user interaction, the results are purely a matter of chance and rely on predetermined probabilities. In the original mechanised machines with three reels, each reel had ten different symbols and so there were 1000 different possible combinations. While this gives the regular payouts which make playing the machine so popular, jackpot payouts are severely limited since no combination has longer odds than 1000 to 1.

With the advent of electronics, a measure of differential weighting could be applied to certain symbols and so certain larger payout symbols would occur less than their number would be suggested by random probability. This allowed for much bigger jackpots since the probability of the sequence to win them would be much lower than expected by the user. Modern machines are fully computerised with few mechanical parts at all and, as with most modern gaming, computer graphics represent the traditional spinning reels.

In this virtual environment the combinations of symbols are dictated by computer algorithms and so prior probabilities will be determined, allowing for a much broader range of play options. Typically five virtual reels are provided, each with some 50 different symbols. Weighting certain symbols is therefore not required and each symbol is merely designated a certain probability. For users the gameplay is the same with regards to the chances of winning and it also means the play is enhanced with 'near misses' which are written into the system. In reality the payout percentage of every modern machine is determined at the outset, when the machine is made, and is typically within a range between 82% and 98%.

With astronomical numbers of combinations possible jackpots can now be counted in the millions and within casinos machines are often linked for even greater potential payouts. Gameplay is certainly improved with the use of graphics and increased interactivity commonly found in modern one armed bandits but the technology also eliminates any possibility of sequence prediction with the objective of beating the machine. Random number generators are used and while they are not strictly random in the true sense they are being generated even when the machine is not being played and are therefore any pattern is impossible to detect.