How do pokies work | Understand gambling | Safer Gambling NZ
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How pokies work

Every pokie machine will ALWAYS take in more money than it pays out, that’s its whole purpose. They’re designed to get you to stay at them for as long as possible, but each spin will have as much chance of winning as the last one, so it doesn't matter if you have a system, you can't beat or cheat a pokie machine.

Safer Gambling Aotearoa

What strategy?

Many gamblers wrongly think if they sit at the same machine or haven’t won for a while that they’re due for a win or that machine is due to pay out. Jackpot rates are based upon hundreds of thousands or even millions of spins, so they don’t reflect what will happen on a particular day in a particular venue. Every spin is random. The machine doesn’t take into account how long you’ve been sitting there or how much money you’ve put in.

Info: resetting the machine. source retrieved from

Skill or chance?

Machines are programmed to give you a feeling that there’s some kind of skill involved. The truth is, there’s NOTHING you can do that’ll increase your odds of winning on any spin. There are no techniques to trick or cheat it. Here’s how they trick you into feeling you have control:

  • You get to decide how many credits you’re wagering
  • You get to decide how many lines you’re playing
  • You choose exactly when to press the spin button
  • The longer you spend of the machine, you may even start to feel a sense of mastering the whole process

The truth is, none of these actions give you a greater or lesser chance of winning. Every spin is random.

If a player gets a small win, this may trigger a range of incorrect thinking, like “my machine is getting hot, I’m going to keep winning”, or “I’ve got the machine figured out now” and “I know what I’m doing now”. These thoughts shouldn't be trusted because each outcome is independent of any previous spin.

Remember, machines are never “due” to pay out a larger prize. A machine is no more likely to pay out the larger prize after 1,000,000 spins than it was after 10 spins.

Source retrieved from
 Schüll, N.D., (2012). Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (May 11, 2014)

What are the odds/chances of winning?

The odds of winning the top prize on a pokie machine may vary from 1 in 40 thousand to 1 in 33 million. For example, the game Black Rhinos - if you’re playing one line at a time it would take 6.7 million button presses and cost nearly $330,000 to have a 50% chance of getting 5 rhinos!

Source: productivity commission (1999), Australia’s Gambling Industries, report No. 10.

Insert $1: what can you expect to get back?

Each machine is programmed with a return-to-player rate. The return-to-player is the percentage of your bet that you’d expect to get back for each spin. The New Zealand Gaming Machine National Standard requires the return-to-player rate in class 4 gaming machines (pokies) to be between 78% and 92%.

For example, if the return was 92%, then on average you’d expect to lose around 8% on each spin. The outcome of each spin is random. So in the short term, you could take a bigger win or experience a bigger loss. But on average, if you inserted $1, you could expect to have 66 cents left after 5 spins. The more time you spend playing, the more likely it is that your money will gradually reduce to almost zero.

Source: schull, N.D. (2012). Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, pg.268. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (May 11 2014)

NZCT 2016. New Zealand’s Pub Gaming Industry. Retrieved from

Time is money

Each machine is programmed to take in more than it pays out. So the longer you play, the higher the chances are that you’ll lose. In other words, you’re likely to be better off playing pokies for 10 minutes than playing for an hour.


If you choose to play online pokies, be wary of high payout rates. If they seem too good to be true, they are! Most online pokies sites/apps offer free trials or lessons. Once they get you hooked, they’ll invite you to buy real credits. The free trials or practice sessions often pay out credits more often than the real game. This can lead to false ideas about how often you will win.

Why are pokies so addictive?

Pokies work on the principles of “operant conditioning”. The original studies on conditioning involved… rats! A rat was put inside a box without any outside stimulus. There was a lever (or pedal) in the box. When the rat hit the lever a small pellet of food came out (like a pokie machine and coins). The rat learnt that by pressing the lever it got a treat (positive reinforcement).

Now came the sneaky part. If every time the rat hit the lever it got a treat, that would be the end of it - it would just hit the lever whenever it was hungry. But that’s not how the operant conditioning works. Enter the concept of intermittent reinforcement. Simply put, it meant that the rewards (pellets) were dispensed on a random schedule - sometimes the rat got none, sometimes a few, sometimes a lot of pellets (sounding familiar yet?)

The rat never knew when it was going to get a pellet so it kept pushing that lever, over and over, and over, and over, even if none came out. This is the psychological principle that slot machines operate on and how they can work on you.

Source: schull, N.D. (2012). Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, pg.104. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (May 11 2014)

Did you say Dopamine?

Dopamine is a chemical in your brain that helps to create an expectation of future rewards. Dopamine neurons light up when they spot a pattern that could lead to pleasure and is useful for signalling things that may be good for us. For example, dopamine levels spike if we get a surprise like an unexpected compliment from someone we like, or when we get a bite on a fishing line.

On the flipside, when there are no patterns or hopes for a future reward, dopamine levels will drop and we lose interest.

But pokie machines can distort our expectations. The graphics and sounds give the impression that we are always on the verge of winning. This keeps our dopamine neurons in an artificial state of stimulation. This false sense of expectation prevents some players from stopping, even though they really should.

Did you know that when the brain of a pokies addict is scanned while playing a pokie machine we actually see dopamine neurons light up in the same way as a person with a cocaine addiction? When dopamine is overstimulated, we start to crave activities that aren’t always in our best interests.

Source: S (2013). Behavioural Economics: When Psychology and Economics Collide. The Great Courses, Duke University. Lecture 3.

Breiter H.C., Aharon I., Kahneman D., Dale A., Shizgal P., (2001) Functional imaging of neural  responses to expectancy and experience of monetary gains and losses. Retrieved from

Schull, N.D., (2012). Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, pg. 268. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (May 11, 2014)

In the zone!

Ever felt like you’re in the zone, where nothing else matters except for what you’re doing at that very moment?

Sportspeople, musicians and racing car drivers talk about getting in the zone, where they experience a “perfect flow”. The sights, sounds and motion of a pokie machine can produce a similar effect. It can feel like time, space, monetary value, and social responsibilities are suspended. Many pokie players talk about getting in the zone (also known as “suspended animation”).

The zone can be very powerful. Las Vegas casinos have recorded video footage of slot machine gamblers who continue to play, while failing to notice a man lying on the floor next to them who has had a heart attack. Their eyes remain glued to the machines even as the man begins to receive first aid and defibrillator shocks. Another video shows gamblers so absorbed in play that they fail to notice rising flood waters lapping at their feet or fire alarms blaring in their ears.

Pokie machines are designed to be very absorbing. While this can be entertaining, it pays to be careful - don't lose sight of your surroundings. Make a plan for how much time and money you want to spend, and stick to it. Take regular breaks and remember, the more time you play, the more you are likely to lose.

Source: Schull, N.D., (2012). Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, pg. 34 and chapter 7. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (May 11, 2014)

False patterns

Your brain is wired to spot patterns. Normally this works in our favour because it helps us make everyday decisions. We can often spot the best waves at the beach before they break, and choose the best time to drive to work based on past experience.

But when playing pokies, this strength becomes our weakness. The outcome of each spin is random, meaning past spins don’t have anything to do with the result of future spins.

Basically your brain may start spotting patterns that DON’T EXIST!

Source: Huettel,S (2013). Behavioural Economics: When Psychology and Economics Collide. The Great Courses, Duke University. Lecture 3.

Losses disguised as wins

Many of your wins on a modern pokie machine are actually net losses. This is enabled by multi-line betting. For example, you might wager $2 and win back 80 cents, giving you a net loss of $1.20. However, the machine is likely to celebrate that win with positive graphics and sounds.

A pokie near-miss will trigger the same areas in your brain as if you had really won. These are the same areas that are involved in drug addiction!

Source: Harrigan, K. (2015). Ontario Canada. Ka-Ching!. Pokie Nation film.

Are you really winning?

Machines give the impression that you’ve almost won - so you keep playing. But a loss is a loss! The symbols displayed above or below the payline have nothing to do with how close you were to winning the jackpot.

And then there’s false wins. For example, this is where you may spend $1 per push, and you win back 40 cents. The machine will have lights and sounds that make it seem like you’ve won, when actually you’ve still lost money. Machines will also celebrate any win regardless of the total amount you’ve gambled over the session. More often than not, the total amount spent will be more than you win, so on the whole, you lose.

Can you feel the Rhythm?

Game developers design pokies to keep a rhythmic pace. Each one carries a degree of risk for the player, but a steady tempo of clicks and music gives an illusion of predictability. A constant soothing tempo can give the player an impression that they have a degree of control over the machine when they really don’t.

Schull, N.D., (2012). Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, pg. 54. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (May 11, 2014)

The Cabinet

This houses the game and comes in a variety of types or themes to keep you interested.

Each machine has been created by up to 300 experts (from artists to script writers, mathematicians, marketers, musicians and engineers) and can have more than 1200 individual parts all designed to draw you in and keep you there!

He’s looking at you kid

Often the main graphic on the top box will feature a character with an attractive pair of eyes staring or winking right at you. This technique is used by designers to grab your attention and pull you into the machine.

Source: jacksons, B (2015). Director of Game Development, Bally Technologies. Ka-Ching! Pokie Nation film.

VideoScience (2013). How Slot Machines Use Psychology and Design to Keep You Coming Back. Retrieved from

Video Screen Graphics - if looks could thrill!

Pokie machines are tailored with different graphics to appeal to different players. Whether the theme is motor racing, farming, adventure or fantasy, the animations play like “mini movies” pulling you into the world of the pokie machine.

Source: jackson, B (2015). Director of Game Development, Bally Technologies. Ka-Ching! Pokie Nation film.

If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is!

Machines use positive sounding music to hold your attention. This may lift your spirits and provide an escape from negative thoughts.

With a win, you’re likely to hear coins dropping or people celebrating… but when there’s a loss, there will be no corresponding negative sound. This is because game designers do not want to reinforce a loss that could cause you to rethink how much you’re losing and whether or not you should continue to play.

The presence of multiple machines in a venue produces a continuous chatter of winning sounds. These may condition your brain into thinking a win is on its way, even though it’s just as unlikely as the last spin.

Source: Munro, C. (2015). Ex-Poker Machine composer. Ka0Ching! Pokie Nation film. Livingstone, C. (2015). Monash University. Ka-Ching Pokie Nation film.

At your fingertips

Machine designers space out the buttons on the console just right, so that you don't even need to move your hand to push the buttons. This results in faster play!

Schull, N.D., (2012). Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, pg. 54. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (May 11, 2014)

Buttons galore!

A range of buttons allow you to select the number of pay lines and the number of coins you bet on each line. These options give you an interactive experience and can give you the illusion of skill. The truth is no combination of button pushes will increase your odds of winning.

Schull, N.D., (2012). Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, pg. 54. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (May 11, 2014)

The reels aren’t real.

It may come as a surprise for some people that there are no mechanical reels spinning around the modern pokie machine. Behind the scenes is a random number generator that uses a program to map onto virtual reels. The stops on the virtual reels are what you see on the video screen.

Schull, N.D., (2012). Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, pg. 54. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (May 11, 2014)

Confused by multi-line betting?

You’re not the only one! Old school pokie machines had just one payline. New machines allow you to bet on more than one payline at a time. These paylines may run horizontally across the screen, diagonally or even in zig zags.

In 2005, some machines introduced 50 paylines, then they introduced 100 lines! This complexity makes it difficult (some would say impossible) for players to keep track of the logic of winning. If you choose to play multi-lines, the odds are that the games will pay out more frequently but usually for less than the amount of the initial bet. This gives you the sense you’re winning all the time. But are you really? You’re putting in $2 and getting back $1.50. You’re putting in $4 and getting back $2.50, over and over.

Schull, N.D., (2012). Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, pg. 125. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (May 11, 2014)

Are free spins really free?

Free spins are another feature of machines to keep you interested by making you think you’re getting close to a bigger win. They give you the feeling that you’re doing better than you really are. Small wins like free spins are solely designed to keep you playing for longer, they’re not getting you closer to winning.

Speed is not your friend.

You can play pokies much faster than other types of gambling. You don't have to wait for horses to run, a dealer to shuffle, or a roulette wheel to stop spinning. As players grow in experience, there’s a tendency to increase the speed of play. However, unlike other skill based games, speed of play is not a sign of mastery, it just means you’re likely to lose faster. Faster games can be more addictive because they deliver the result quickly, providing even stronger reinforcement that leads to repeating the behaviour.

Designers know that forcing gamblers to play faster or slower than their natural tempo creates frustration. To get around this some machines are sophisticated enough to adjust their tempos to match the player’s preferred groove.

Source: Mcrone, J. (2008). Spinning and losing: the reality of pokies. The Press. Retrieved from

Comfy chair?

Players who are physically and psychologically comfortable will occupy their seats for longer periods of time. This encourages you to gamble for longer and risk losing more money.

Schull, N.D., (2012). Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (May 11, 2014)

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