An Analysis of Slot Machine Payback Percentages at Seminole Casinos in Florida

by Steve Bourie

The Seminole Tribe of Florida has six casinos in the state: Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino-Tampa; Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino-Hollywood; Seminole Casino-Coconut Creek; Seminole Classic Casino-Hollywood; Seminole Casino-Brighton; and Seminole Casino-Immokalee.

All of their casinos offer slot machines and five of them also offer blackjack, as well as other kinds of house-banked card games. According to the Miami Herald, it was estimated those casinos generated about $2.3 billion in profits in 2016 http://www.miamiherald.com/entertainment/article166085722.html. Since the average U.S. casino generates about 65% of its profits from its electronic gaming machines, it would be fair to estimate that the Tribe’s machines earn about $1.5 billion a year for them.

The only other competition for the Tribe’s casinos are the eight local pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties which all offer slot machines, but are not allowed to offer live table games, such as blackjack.  All of these pari-mutuel casinos, also known as racinos, are in competition with the Seminole’s three Broward county casinos, but the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood alone generates more profits than all eight of the racinos combined.

Florida gaming regulations require all of the pari-mutuel casinos to report how much their slot machines actually pay back to the public. This “Average Payout Percentage” information is available to the public and can be seen on the state’s website at http://www.myfloridalicense.com/dbpr/pmw in the “Slot Revenues” section. Additionally, each racino must post a sign in the casino showing the average monthly payback percentage for all of their gaming machines. Usually, the average for all of the casinos is around 92.5%

The Seminoles are not required to release information on the payout percentages for any of their casinos and they keep this information a closely guarded secret.  They say that their machines pay out at a rate comparable to the pari-mutuels, but no one knows for sure, and the topic is sometimes a source of controversy.

If you read reviews of Seminole casinos on Yelp, Tripadvisor, or on our website at americancasinoguide.com you will see some reviewers say they believe the machines are set to around 60%, or lower. As someone who has written about casino gambling for more than 25 years, I know that isn’t true. The procedure for deciding what a slot machine is set to pay back to the public is rather simple. When a casino orders a slot machine the manufacturer will offer them a choice of chips to put in the machine and that chip is what controls the long-term payback percentage in that machine. Generally, there are about six to eight different chips to choose from and the payback percentages can be as high as 98 percent to as low as 82 percent.

Casinos, almost universally, put the highest-paying chips in the highest denomination machines and the lowest-paying chips in the lowest denomination machines. This means that $25 slots will have chips returning around 95-98 percent and the penny machines will have chips returning around 86-89 percent.  

The lowest payback I ever heard of for a chip was about 80 percent, so I knew that the 60 percent number in the user reviews was not correct, but could there be some way to find out what the machines at the Seminole casinos really paid back to the public? After a lot of research, I believe that I have correctly calculated this information and what follows is my story of how I did it, plus a simple formula to show how anyone can do it. Additionally, we’ll take a look at the returns on some specific machines at some Seminole Casinos and see how they compare to the returns at other casinos. Now, in order to start this discussion properly, you’ll first need some background information on how casinos work.

When discussing how casinos make money, it is important to know the term “theo,” which is short for theoretical. This is how a casino expects to make money on its games. It’s referred to as “theo” because it is a theoretical number that is not guaranteed. However, the casino knows that the longer you play, the more likely your loss will approach the theoretical win for that particular game.

As an example, if you play a slot machine that has a 10% theo, then the casino would expect to keep about 10% of all the money you play through that machine. So, if you played $1,000 through that slot machine, the casino would calculate its theoretical win as $100 because 10% of $1,000 is $100. Now, since this is gambling, anything can happen when you play that machine. You may win $600, or you may lose $400 and, actually, the casino itself doesn’t know what will happen. All they know is that as long as people continue to play that machine, the casino will end up keeping about 10% of the money that goes through that machine because the machine has a “theo” of 10%.

In order for a casino to calculate your total theo for your visit, and what you are worth as a player to them, your play must be tracked and that is done by the player’s club at each casino. All casinos have a player’s club where visitors can join and have their play tracked on the machines in order to earn “comps” such as free food, free drinks, free shows, free gifts, invitations to special events and more.

To track your play you are issued a card, similar to a magnetic-striped credit card, that is inserted into the machine and it will track your wins and losses, as well as the total amount of all your bets. Naturally, the more you play on the machines, the more free stuff you will get from the casino. When deciding how much to give you back in benefits for your play, the casino must first calculate your total theoretical loss to determine how much they have earned from you.  Then, based on that total, they will rebate a certain percentage back to you in the form of comps and free play. The actual percentage rebated to the player is a trade secret for each casino but, again, it is always based on a player’s tracked theoretical loss.

I live only one mile from the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood and I joined their Seminole Wild Card player’s club shortly after the property opened in 2004.  Although I did not play much in the ensuing years, in late 2013 I began to play rather heavily and it continued through early 2017. My game of choice was video poker rather than slot machines because there is a skill involved in video poker and I used software to learn how to play my hands properly. Eventually, I played at an expert level that allowed the casino to have only a slight mathematical edge over me.

Overall, my results were pretty good as I hit quite a few royal flushes in 2016 and that helped me to come out ahead for my three years of play. In early 2017 the casino made some changes to their video poker games, which made them less desirable, and I stopped playing. During my period of play I used that opportunity to analyze the Seminole Wild Card Player’s club and, following, is what I discovered.

The set-up of the Seminole Wild Card Player’s club is somewhat unusual because at most casinos when you play a machine you will earn points based on the total amount of money you put through a machine. On some machines it may be that $5 earns one point, while on other machines it may be $10 or $25 earns one point.

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The Seminole Wild Card Player’s club is different because players don’t earn points on each machine, instead they earn comp dollars. As an example, for playing $10 through one machine you might earn six cents, while on another machine you might only earn three cents. So, if you ended up playing $1,000 for the day on the same machine, your comps would total $6 on the first machine, or $3 on the second machine. As a player, you wouldn't really know why one machine gave more comps, but you could correctly theorize that the machines that had a higher rate meant that the casino was making more of a theoretical win from you and that's why they  could give you back more comps.

The comps you earned could then be spent like regular dollars at hotels, restaurants, bars, lounges and retail stores at any of the six Seminole Casinos. Besides earning comps, each day's play also earned you status credits and those enabled you to reach a higher player's card level. Interestingly, there was no information on a formula for how the status credits were earned. As a player all you knew was that you could check your account each day to see how many status credits you earned for your previous day's play.

The player's club only has three tiers: Platinum, Elite and X Card. All players start at Platinum and to reach Elite you need to earn 3,750 status credits within a three-month period. X Card is reserved for the casino's biggest players, but there is no public information available on what is needed to attain that level.

I easily attained Elite level and after tracking the comps and status credits I earned each day, within a few months I began to realize that the status credits actually represented my total theoretical loss for each day. I was able to confirm this through test play on certain machines, as well as speaking with other knowledgeable players.

Once I knew that the earned status credits represented my total theoretical loss I was then able to compare that number to the total comps I earned on that same day and I realized that there was a relationship between those two numbers.  As an example, one day I earned $48.75 in comps and I was awarded 828 status credits. By multiplying $48.75 by a factor of 17 the result was 828. Another day I earned $30.83 in comps and 524 status credits. Once again, by multiplying $30.83 by 17 the result was 524. That relationship was absolute and no matter what day I played, I found that I could always multiply the amount of my earned comps by 17 to determine my status credits (theoretical loss) for that day.  

Since I now knew how to calculate my theoretical loss for the day, based on the comps I earned, I then realized that I would be able to calculate what the casino had set as its theoretical payback percentage for any electronic game on the floor.

How to Calculate the Theoretical Payback Percentage on a Slot Machine -  I believe that anyone can calculate the theoretical payback percentage on any gaming machine in a Seminole Casino by using a formula that I created. The key to calculating a machine’s theoretical payback percentage is to track how many comp dollars you earn for putting exactly $100 in play through a machine. For example, if you bet $1 a spin, just track how many comp dollars you have earned after making 100 bets. Once you know that number, you can simply multiply it by 17 and you will know the casino’s theoretical win rate for that machine. Deduct that number from 100, and you will then know the theoretical payback for that machine.

As an example, let’s say you put $100 through a penny slot machine and you earn 54 cents in comps. Just multiply .54 x 17 and you will get 9.18, which represents the casino’s theoretical win rate for that machine - 9.18%. Then, deduct 9.18 from 100 and you get 90.82 which would represent the casino’s theoretical payback percentage for that particular machine - 90.82%.

I found this method to be accurate and I tested it on dozens of machines at four different Seminole casinos. It should also work at the other two Seminole casinos since they all share the same player’s club. One word of warning, however, is that I found the method to only be accurate for single-denomination machines. If you play a multi-denomination machine the method cannot be relied upon to give you an accurate payback percentage for all of the denominations.

How Do Slot Paybacks at the Hard Rock in Hollywood Compare to the Other Local Casinos? In trying to determine an average payback percentage for slot machines at the Hard Rock in Hollywood, I realized that it would not be possible to get an actual accounting and I would just have to make an educated guess based on the results of playing some machines in different denominations.

Therefore, I randomly played 10 different machines throughout the casino in three different denominations: pennies, quarter and dollars. As mentioned previously, I had to play exactly $100 through each machine and in some instances it wasn’t possible to play exactly $100, so I might have gone over by a few pennies.

In the table below you can see the results for playing 10 random penny slots and the average theoretical return was 88.37%

Date Played Machine # Name comps earned for $100 coin-in Theoretical Hold Theoretical Payback
30-Nov 012714 10130 Moon Maidens $0.68 11.56% 88.44%
17-Aug 040312 04892 Quick Strike Mystery Rewards 0.69 11.73% 88.27%
30-Nov 010103 11114 Desert Dawn 0.59 10.03% 89.97%
17-Aug 034106 09083 Quick Hit Platinum 0.64 10.88% 89.12%
17-Aug 050907 10010 Fu Dao Le 0.69 11.73% 88.27%
30-Nov 012106 11952 Jungle Riches 0.69 11.73% 88.27%
17-Aug 013504 10609 Super Wheel Blast  Lion of Venice 0.70 11.90% 88.10%
17-Aug 013510 10618 Wild Leprecoins 0.70 11.90% 88.10%
17-Aug 043702 08245 Buffalo Special Edition 0.72 12.24% 87.76%
14-Oct 051502 12178 Rumble Rumble Bison 0.74 12.58% 87.42%
  Average 11.63% 88.37%

In the table below you can see the results for playing 10 random quarter slots and the average theoretical return was 90.89%

Date Played Machine # Name comps earned for $100 coin-in Theoretical Hold Theoretical Payback
30-Nov 067510 11231 The Enforcer $0.45 7.65% 92.35%
30-Nov 032301 32091 Triple Double Diamond 0.53 9.01% 90.99%
30-Nov 013704 09830 Thunder Eyes 0.54 9.18% 90.82%
30-Nov 074701 11731 Quick Hit Platnum Plus 0.63 10.71% 89.29%
30-Nov 101406 08598 Cash Cove 0.49 8.33% 91.67%
16-Oct 064103 09534 Colossal Cash Grand Dragon 0.47 7.99% 92.01%
16-Oct 034708 12048 Double Hot Fire 0.54 9.18% 90.82%
16-Oct 075307 10059 Black Diamond 0.59 10.03% 89.97%
16-Oct 101309 09950 Mystery Rewards Glistening Jade - Rapid Hit Fever 0.53 9.01% 90.99%
30-Nov 075305 09528 Crystal Star 0.59 10.03% 89.97%
Average: 9.11% 90.89%

In the table below you can see the results for playing 10 random dollar slots and the average theoretical return was 91.40%

Date Played Machine # Name comps earned for $100 coin-in Theoretical Hold
Theoretical Payback
17-Aug 075504 50787 Spin & Win Instant Spin $0.47 7.99% 92.01%
17-Aug 069001 09079 Quick Hit Platinum 0.51 8.67% 91.33%
12-Oct 069710 09348 Wild Red Sevens 0.44 7.48% 92.52%
12-Oct 069707 09345 Triple 777 Red Hot 3 Reels 0.44 7.48% 92.52%
12-Oct 041806 05563 Black & White 7s 0.47 7.99% 92.01%
30-Nov 067804 10546 Double Jackpot Lions Share 0.59 10.03% 89.97%
14-Oct 065405 10508 Midnight Eclipse 0.47 7.99% 92.01%
30-Nov 068904 08728 Dragons Luck 0.59 10.03% 89.97%
30-Nov 068105 10158 Sky Rider 0.58 9.86% 90.14%
16-Oct 055307 50806 Blazing 7s 3 Reel 0.50 8.50% 91.50%
Average: 8.60% 91.40%

So, now that we have analyzed the theoretical payback percentages on these machines, how do they compare to the actual returns on slots at other South Florida casinos in those same denominations?

Well, unfortunately, Florida’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, which compiles the statistics on payback percentages for all racetrack casinos only releases information on the average payout for all machines within each casino and not for specific denominations. We did put in a public records request asking for a breakdown of those stats by denomination, but we received the following reply: “The Division does not maintain information responsive to the following request: slot machine gaming revenue reports by denomination (one cent, nickel, quarter, dollar, etc.).”

Since we couldn’t get information on payback percentages by denomination, it was not possible to compare the Hard Rock’s machines with those at the pari-mutuels. However, it was possible to make an educated guess about the overall returns on the Hard Rock’s machines. For the 12-month period from July 2016 through June 2017, the pari-mutuel casino with the highest average returns was Magic City at 93.55% and the lowest returns could be found at the Isle in Pompano where they averaged 90.91%. Therefore, based on the numbers shown in the tables above, I would have to agree that the Hard Rock Hollywood’s slot paybacks are “comparable” to those at other local casinos and they are not set to pay back at the low rates that some people would suggest.

How Do Returns on Machines at The Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa Compare to Returns at Casinos in South Florida?  On the American Casino Guide website visitors can leave a review for any U.S. casino and the Seminole Hard Rock in Tampa has gotten almost 200 reviews - https://www.americancasinoguide.com/florida/seminole-hard-rock-hotel-a-casino-tampa.html The vast majority of those reviews are complaints about how bad the paybacks are on the slot machines. The thinking seems to be that, once again, the machines are set to pay back at a very low rate, especially since the Tampa casino has no competition because the nearest non-Seminole casino is about 250 miles away. That sentiment seemed somewhat logical to me so I thought I would investigate further by making  a trip to Tampa to visit the casino.

I arrived late in the day and I spent a few hours that evening, as well as a few more hours the next morning testing  various machines using my formula. My thought was to find some of the exact same machines I played at the Hard Rock in Hollywood and to see if the theoretical payback percentages were lower. This turned out to be harder than I expected as I found it difficult to find the same machines in the same denominations. One other thing I noticed was that there did not seem to be too many penny slots. Instead, the vast majority of the lower denomination games were two-cent slots. This was not the case at the Hard Rock casino in Hollywood, where penny machines were abundant.

Eventually, I did find a few machines, in three specific denominations, that were the exact same as the ones I played in Hollywood and the table below shows how the results compared.

For penny games there were three machines I tested and, interestingly, all three had the same theoretical payback percentage as at the Hollywood Hard Rock.

Date Played Machine # Name comps earned for $100 coin-in Theoretical Hold Theoretical Payback Location
14-Oct 051502 12178 Bison Rumble Rumble $ 0.74 12.58% 87.42% Hollywood
23-Oct 082802 05797 Bison Rumble Rumble $ 0.74 12.58% 87.42% Tampa
17-Aug 050907 10010 Fu Dao Le $ 0.69 11.73% 88.27% Hollywood
23-Oct 092206 6026 Fu Dao Le $ 0.69 11.73% 88.27% Tampa
17-Aug 070712 04056 Buffalo Special Edition $ 0.72 12.24% 87.76% Hollywood
23-Oct 043702 08245 Buffalo Special Edition $ 0.72 12.24% 87.76% Tampa

Finding quarter games proved to be a bit harder. I only found two machines that were identical to ones at the Hollywood casino and, once again, the theoretical payback percentages matched up for both casinos.

Date Played Machine # Name comps earned for $100 coin-in Theoretical Hold Theoretical Payback Location
16-Oct 075307 10059 Black Diamond $ 0.59 10.03% 89.97% Hollywood
23-Oct 324002 30380 Black Diamond $ 0.59 10.03% 89.97% Tampa
30-Nov 075305 09528 Crystal Star $ 0.59 10.03% 89.97% Hollywood
23-Oct 015205 30371 Crystal Star $ 0.59 10.03% 89.97% Tampa

At the dollar level I found four machines that matched up with their Hollywood casino counterparts. On the first one, Triple 777 Red Hot Three Reels, the comps earned were the same as at the Hollywood casino. This was great because the comp rate on every machine was matching up perfectly, so far, but that soon stopped.

Date Played Machine # Name comps earned for $100 coin-in Theoretical Hold Theoretical Payback Location
17-Aug 069707 09345 Triple 7 Red Hot Three Reels $ 0.44 7.48% 92.52% Hollywood
23-Oct 380605 50232 Triple 7 Red Hot Three Reels $ 0.44 7.48% 92.52% Tampa
16-Oct 055307 50806 Blazing 7s Three Reel $ 0.50 8.50% 91.50% Hollywood
23-Oct 040111 50330 Blazing 7s Three Reel $ 0.39 6.63% 93.37% Tampa
17-Aug 069001 09079 Quick Hit Platinum $ 0.51 8.67% 91.33% Hollywood
23-Oct 180209 50437 Quick Hit Platinum $ 0.41 6.97% 93.03% Tampa
17-Aug 075504 50787 Spin And Win Instant Spin $ 0.47 7.99% 92.01% Hollywood
23-Oct 353601 50197 Spin And Win Instant Spin $ 0.56 9.52% 90.48% Tampa

On the three-reel blazing 7’s machine the comp rate was 39 cents, which would correspond to a theoretical payback percentage of 93.37%, which was higher than the 91.50% figure for the same machine in Hollywood. A similar thing happened with the next machine I tested: Quick Hit Platinum. The comp rate on this game was 41 cents which would equal a theoretical payback percentage of 93.03% which, again, was higher than the 91.33% figure for the same machine in Hollywood.

Then, on the last dollar machine I played, Spin & Win Instant Spin, the results were slightly worse. That machine gave 56 cents in comps, which would correspond to a theoretical return of 90.48%, versus the same machine in Hollywood which came in at 92.01%

So, interestingly, the theoretical payback percentages for the first eight slot machines in Tampa were either equal to, or better than, the same machines in Hollywood. This was very surprising as I thought they would be lower at the Tampa casino because they had no direct competition.

But what about all those player reviews complaining that the slots in Tampa paid less than the slots in Hollywood? Well, my research showed that the machines were set to pay back at about the same rate in both places. However, there didn’t seem to be quite as many penny machines in Tampa, most of them were 2-cents and higher, and this could offer an explanation.

Penny machines are the most common denomination found in U.S. casinos. For example, at the two Indian casinos in Connecticut, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, penny machines make up about 60% of all the slots on the floor. While I didn’t take an inventory of all the machines in Tampa I was struck by the fact that penny machines were not in abundance. Since the Tampa casino has no competition, it could be that they were forcing players to make a higher average bet simply by having fewer penny machines available. If so, a higher average bet would result in players losing their money faster, thus explaining the sour sentiments of some players. Keep in mind that the Hollywood casino would not be able to easily do the same thing because of competition from other casinos. If a player in Hollywood didn’t think there were enough penny games available they could just go to a different casino. A player in Tampa would not have that option.  

Now, looking back, it is true that one slot machine in Tampa did come in with a lower theoretical rate, but that could have simply been a mistake. Keep in mind that the casino knows what the chip in each machine is set to pay back to the public on a long-term basis and, in turn, they will set the player’s club comp rate to approximate that number. Sometimes mistakes are made and the rate could be set too high, or too low. That could be what happened here, or perhaps it was intentional and there was a specific reason for that particular setting.

In conclusion, I hope that everyone reading this report understands that it is not a complete analysis of all machines at either casino. To undertake such a project would have required a huge amount of manpower, plus a rather large bankroll to withstand the gambling losses that would be expected.

I am just one person who set out to investigate this subject as it is my area of expertise. I have been writing about payback percentages at casinos for more than 25 years and I believe that my work is accurate. Should anyone from Seminole casino operations want to present any further information on this subject I would welcome hearing from them. I would be also be glad to print any rebuttal that they might want to send to me concerning this article.

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