Understanding Gambling’s Allure: The Concept of a Progressive Jackpot

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Readers of this site might remember an article posted in December detailing how a player won $1 million from a $5 poker bet in Atlantic City. The piece aimed to detail how casinos can dazzle players with big prizes, but that the size of these payouts sometimes belies the astronomical odds against success and that ensures the casinos are always in a healthy profit.

In light of that, we thought we would look at the probabilities, mechanics and, well, illusionary nature of a casino staple – the progressive jackpot. If you weren’t aware, a progressive jackpot is a prize that is ever-growing and funded by players’ wagers. You will see the progressive prizes ticking upwards on slot machine displays if you walk through a casino floor in Las Vegas. So, how do they work? And, what are the chances of winning one?

The first place is to start is with a misconception. Namely, the casinos do not manage these progressive jackpot prizes. Instead, it is the software developer of the game that manages the jackpot through its network. For example, if you won the top prize for Age of the Gods at mansioncasino.com in the UK, it would be Playtech, the game’s developer, that pays you the big cheque, not Mansion Casino. Although, in practice, the casino would probably pay you and recoup the money later from the developer, but you get the picture.

Games use economies of scale

These jackpots are not housed in one casino, where, eventually, one player will come along and trigger the top prize. The jackpot network is connected all over the globe. So, you could be playing in Auckland, New Zealand, and aiming for the same award as someone playing in Toronto, Canada. This allows the jackpot network to grow at an accelerated rate – economies of scale, basically.

Indeed, when you evaluate the numbers, you’ll see how the global network is necessary to grow the big jackpots. If we take the example of the Age of the Gods game above, we can see in the game rules that 1% of each wager is used to fund the jackpot (there are actually four jackpots in the game, but we won’t complicate things further). If we say that the average stake on the game is £1, then each spin pays 1p into the jackpot fund. To grow the jackpot to a £1 million – not uncommon for these types of games – it will, therefore, take 100 million spins. That’s a lot of spins even for a popular casino. So, the burden is shared across many casinos. This ensures the jackpot grows fast, and that it can pay out more frequently, albeit to a larger pool of players.

RNGs determine the winner – but is it truly random?

So, how is the winner determined? Unfortunately, no dastardly Blofield-like casino boss determines the winner with the push of a special button while stroking a cat. A random number generator (RNG) is used to decide on the final jackpot amount, usually within some set parameters. So, the software developer (not the casino) will, for instance, know that the jackpot will pay between £1 million and £3 million, but not the exact figure. The player whose bet pushes the jackpot over that threshold is the one that is awarded the prize.

But here’s the kicker: The awarding of a progressive jackpot prize is deemed to random. Technically, it is random; after all, nobody knows who will be the player to trigger the top prize. However, let’s go back to what we said earlier about the 1% of each wager going to fund the prize. If I bet 50p on a game, I will be adding half a penny to the prize each time. If someone is betting £200 per spin, they will be adding £2 per spin. That means the player playing the high stakes is 400 times more likely to break the threshold than my 50p spin. In that sense, while still random, chance favours the high stakes players.

Look, there is still a chance for the low-stakes players. In 2015, the Mirror ran a story about how soldier Jon Heywood won the Mega Moolah progressive slot jackpot on a 25p stake. But, by and large, the odds tilt towards those spending the big bucks. The best way to think about it is like a lottery ticket, and that means assuming you won’t win. Perhaps it’s better still to keep your money firmly in your wallet.

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TD
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TD

Or more simply, the odds of winning are about the same whether you play or not.

Denise Weiss
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Denise Weiss

I don’t think sticking an image in the middle of the article of the gambling game was quite so necessary

Addolff
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Addolff

Remember being in the CO-OP on Norwich station behind a, how shall we say…., ‘challenged’ member of the public, who asked if buying two lottery tickets instead of one increased his odds of winning.

jgh
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jgh

Don’t tell me – he was going to put the same numbers on both tickets.

MrYan
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MrYan

There is some logic to this although not to increase your odds of winning. Let’s say you shared the win with another – with a single ticket you get 50% of the jackpot, with two you get 66.66%.

Quentin Vole
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Quentin Vole

NFN: Normal for Norwich.

James
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James

Interesting. The game design favours high stakes which increases the profit per pay. If you could stake £3m you would be guaranteed to win therefore I expect the maximum stake is capped. Evil but elegant.

peter
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Hmm. For an excellent analysis of gaming machines I can recommend “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schüll” In turns disturbing and fascinating, the author describes how highly intelligent, well-paid people design machines to focus on gambling weakness. Discounting almost-impossible Progressive Jackpots, its the lower payouts (sometimes less than the stake) that are calculated to reinforce the addict. (And the symbols displayed bear no relation to the RND algorithm – there are far more “winning” symbols adjacent to the payline than can actually appear if the machine had real reels.)

Boganboy
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Boganboy

I do remember my dear nephew, a skilled mathematician who designs games for Aristocrat, assuring me that I couldn’t win. Since I know nothing about maths or games, it was pleasant to have my preconceptions confirmed.