Free Play on Slots versus Free Bets at Craps

If you’re old enough you may remember back when casinos courted table games players and pretty much ignored slot players. Slots were there for table games players’ wives to occupy themselves on while the real action ran through the pit, and craps was the king of the table games. Funny how the casinos’ opinions have changed through the years.

There was a time when I got covered up with Free Bet table game coupons. But these days those coupons read “Free Play” instead of “Free Bet.” And if you haven’t noticed, many of those Free Play coupons can be fed right into the bill acceptor on your favorite slot machine.

Back in the good old days if low-rollers received any sort of “free cash” from the casino it was in the form of gas money or cab fare. Back then, table games had hosts and floor staff that greeted customers and knew most of the mid-to-high rollers by name. Slot players, on the other hand, were pretty much an unknown – and under appreciated element. There was no way to keep up with slot play like there was table games play. So the table game players were rewarded with air fare, free shows, meals, golf and many other luxuries through their actual or theoretical losses. Slot players, on the other hand, had to beg for a free or discounted buffet, and needed a casino employee to vouch that they had, in fact, played for several hours on a dollar machine to get even that much. Then two things came together that started us down the path to Free Play – technology and casino marketing.

Enter the players club. The concept was simple. The casino marketing folks wanted your personal information so they could entice you into returning to their property to lose more of your hard-earned money. By providing that information to them you not only give them your name and address – you give them the ability to track and evaluate your play. Heck, we even go out of our way to make sure they have us on the clock when we’re playing table games.

When the first player’s club booth opened, however, it was largely ignored by most players. When asked to sign up for a card the players asked, “What’s in it for me?” They were told that they would earn points toward meals, rooms and such. The response? “I really don’t want anyone knowing how much I play.’ There was little or no perceived value in joining the club – so players declined the offer in droves. The casino’s response was two-fold. The casinos started offering “gifts” to players who signed up – a deck of cards, a ball cap, a tee shirt, a half-price buffet – anything of nominal value to encourage players to stand in line and give up their information. And they also introduced “cash back.”

Well, over the course of the years technology improved. Marketing departments were able to determine which players – and which machines – churned out the most profit. Players gravitated toward bonus level machines and there was a gradual migration from dollar slots to nickel machines. A typical dollar slot took $3 in max coin per pull versus $2.25 for max coin on a nickel machine. But the dollar slot only held 3% while the nickel machine held 7%. Do the math. That’s an extra nickel a pull dropping to the casino’s bottom line – which is why you see slot carousels filled with penny and nickel slots these days.

One of the other reasons nickel machines became popular was what we’ll call “face” time with the machine. Players felt their action went farther with the lower denomination machines. And that is one of the driving forces behind the Free Play coupons of today. The customer can sit down in front of their favorite slot, feed the coupon in to the bill feeder and get an additional five or ten minutes of play – often without adding any of his own money to the pot. In fact, many of the machines give you credit for additional coin-in when using Free Play – even though you’re playing on the casino’s nickel and not your own.

Another plus from the casinos’ point of view is that Free Play coupons don’t require human interaction like the old Free Coin coupons you used to get. The old school coupons had to be cashed at the cage – which was labor intensive. Before ticket-in/ticket-out machines this often involved handling coins, which even in their rolled form are labor intensive. One more thing in the casino’s favor. The Free Play coupons allow the casino to take advantage of a tax break on slot revenue. Free Play does not count as revenue for tax purposes – and since it’s really marketing money it can be deducted 100% from slot revenue before that is taxed. And that is the real reason behind Free Play.