by Michael Bluejay, Field Correspondent
You've probably seen Flip-It: You insert quarters or dollar tokens into the machine, mechanical spinners flip the coin up onto a shelf, and mechanical pusher arms push the stack of coins towards the edge. You win coins that spill over the edge.
There are two denominations: quarters and dollars. Both varieties can be found at Four Queens (downtown) and Stratosphere (on the Strip). You can also find quarters at Golden Gate and the Sahara. I've also seen lots more of these games around town, but failed to commit to memory which casinos they were in.
Often, coins don't flip, but instead fall through the spinners and straight onto the payout tray. I see people playing the game for the first time who are confused and think they're doing something wrong, especially when the coins fall through repeatedly. If your coin doesn't flip, just keep trying.
The casino makes its money on the coins that spill over on the extreme left or right edges, which get sucked into the machine instead of being returned to the player. This fact is not so obvious, because the chutes that take the edge coins are hidden behind signs that say "Spill Pay Area." These signs have arrows pointing to the middle of bottom shelf, indicating that you receive only coins that spill over the middle, not on the sides.
Your coin goes into one of four slots arranged left to right on the front of the machine. Typically there's a left-hand slot, two middle slots, and a right-hand slot. Coins tend to land in front of the slot they're inserted into, so you'll want to play the middle slots. This is Basic Strategy for Flip It. Playing the slots on the sides will mean that more of your coins will land on the sides, and you won't get those coins back when they spill over.
Contrary to popular belief, the coins don't keep stacking ever higher and higher. Each machine seeks its own equilibrium for the depth of its stack, and will always return to that depth over the long run. That might be 2 coins deep on one machine and 5 coins deep on another; each machine has its own unique personality, because, after all, these machines are mechanical, not electronic.
Also contrary to popular belief, the casino doesn't come in and scoop out coins once they stack up very high. That's because the coins DON'T keep stacking infinitely, and because the casino makes all the money it needs to on the coins that spill on the sides which aren't returned to the player. These facts are obvious enough with careful observation of a machine, but just to be certain, I confirmed this with an employee at the Four Queens casino in downtown Las Vegas.
Machines that gravitate towards shallow stacks have low volatility. You will hit frequently, but get just a few coins when you do. Machines that stack high will have greater volatility: You won't get payouts as frequently, but when you do, they'll be larger. The long run expected return is the same. The machine with the least volatility that I found was the dollar machine at Four Queens, which preferred to be about only two coins deep. The four-deep dollar machine at Stratosphere was much more volatile.
Quarter machines have more volatility than dollar machines because the coins are smaller and tend to stack up higher. Quarters played in the middle slots also tend to flip to the sides much more frequently than dollars do, because they're lighter. Since you ultimately lose coins on the sides, you'll lose almost as much money playing quarter machines as you would dollar machines. The one redeeming value of quarters is that they're more likely to flip into a basket (discussed below), although the baskets themselves are nearly worthless.
There are small baskets at the very top of the game, and if your coin flips all the way up there and into a basket, you win the number of coins listed on the basket (usually 10, 20, 50, or 100 coins). On some of the dollar machines, the 50-point baskets move continuously back and forth, left to right, for added excitement. If you hit one of these baskets, there's a bonus round where slot machine reels on the very top of the game spin, and various combinations pay various numbers of coins, with the top jackpot being $2,500 or $9,999. This jackpot is often listed in an LED marquee to make it look like it's a progressive jackpot, but it's really just a fixed jackpot being advertised with a marquee.
The baskets are nearly worthless. In thousands of Flip-It hands, I hit a basket maybe three times, each time the lowest-payout basket. As further proof, in the six weeks I was in Vegas, nobody hit a 50-point basket at the Four Queens dollar machine to get a reel spin. I know this because for the entire six weeks, the reels were stuck on the exact same combination. (And that was a losing combination to boot, that paid out zero coins for its bonus round). The machines entice you to play the sides by putting the higher-point baskets on the sides. (Don't fall for it. You won't hit the baskets, and your coins going to the sides of the machine won't get returned to you when they spill). Note that although I believe baskets to be nearly worthless, you're more likely to hit them on quarter machines than on dollar machines, because the quarters are lighter and flip up higher.
I estimated the house edge on the dollar machine at the Four Queens to be about 11.1%. This was based on405 coins in, 360 coins out, taking about an hour of play, and using Basic Strategy. On any other casino game, 405 rounds would be pitifully small and not at all statistically significant, but Flip It is different. A few hundred rounds of Flip It easily cycles most of the coins in the machine, and it's very clear from playing even 15 minutes that it's an even-sum game, with the player eventually getting back all the coins he put into it, except for the ones that spill on the sides.
Because these are mechanical machines, different machines will have different house edges. A machine that flips to the middle consistently will have a lower edge, and machines that send more coins to the sides will have much higher house edges. Also, different machines will have different levels of volatility. One machine may tend to stack four levels deep (high volatility), while another tends to stack only two levels deep (low volatility).
I started to do a trial to determine the house edge on a quarter machine, but I was losing so quickly I got frustrated and gave up. I found that quarters tended to flip to the sides more often than dollars because they're lighter and their trajectory is all over the map. I made a rough estimate that you could easily lose almost as much on quarters as on dollars, just because of all the extra quarters that go to the sides.
Blackjack players can move beyond their basic strategy and count cards, giving them an advantage over the house. Flip-It players can likewise move beyond their basic strategy and count coins, so the odds are in their favor. The concept is simple: Play only when the machine is primed, so that coins are more likely to spill than stack. I tested this theory by playing a trial of 558coins over several days, playing only when I thought the machine was primed, and I wound up ahead 9 coins. This is a 1.6% advantage, which is more than you can get from counting cards at blackjack. (Blackjack is still more profitable, obviously, because you can bet more than a dollar at a time, and because profitable decks occur more frequently than profitable Flip-It shelves). At one point in a separate trial, my advantage was 83% after playing only 24 coins. Had I played more conservatively (playing only when the machine looked especially favorable to the player), I'm confident that I could have achieved greater than a 101.6% return. But the return is not the ultimate indicator of how much money you make. What you ultimately walk away with is a function of your advantage multiplied by your action (how much money you put into the machine). Playing 500 coins conservatively with a 4% advantage yields the same profit as playing 1,000 coins more aggressively with only a 2% advantage ($20, either way).
To count a machine accurately, you must first know how many coins deep that machine gravitates towards, which I'll refer to as the machine's "level". You could find this out by playing the machine for 15-30 minutes, or you could back-count the machine by simply watching someone else play. Once you know the machine's level, you can use a simple +/- count. Count only coins in the middle, not on the sides:
|-1||Every space and level where the stack is less than the level. For example, if this is a 3-deep machine, and there's a spot that's only 2 levels deep, there's one coin missing, so that's -1. If there's a spot that's only one level deep, then that's -2. Count every deficient spot this way.|
|-1||Every half-coin space and level where there's about a half-coin hole. The coins are not pressed together snugly, and you can see straight through to the shelf. When this happens and gap is about the size of half a coin in square inches, count -1 for each level. Let's say you have a 3-level machine with four half-coin gaps. You have 4 x -3 = -12.|
|+1||Every space and level where the stack is greater than the level. For example, if this is a three-deep machine, then count every coin on the 4th level as +1.|
|+1||Every coin that is teetering over the ledge by at least 1/3 coin.|
Add these all up and you have a rough idea of your advantage, or lack thereof. When you have a positive count, play the machine. If the machine is negative, don't play. If the machine is positive, and you play, and you win, count the machine again. If it's still positive, you can continue playing. Unlike blackjack, the pit bosses don't care if you back-count and Wong in when the count gets high, but you can't Wong in whenever you like, since only one person can play the machine at a time. You'll just have to hope that the person playing the machine leaves when you want them to.
I had an interesting experience at the Four Queens. I had been playing the machine for a while, and had relinquished it to a young woman who was watching me and was eager to play. I waited for her to finish, and then she turned the machine over to me (in about the same condition as I'd left it), though she continued to watch me although she was ostensibly done playing. Soon I had a major hit for a bunch of coins, which instantly made the machine seriously negative. But as she jealously watched me get that big hit, she asked anxiously, "Can I play now?" I was only too happy to turn the negative machine back over to her at her request, so she could prime it for me again.
The summary, though, is that although you can play Flip-It at an advantage, you can't make a living at it, unless you can live on a few dollars a day.
Casino Player Magazine
In the Dec. 2001 issue of Casino Player, the executive editor ran an article about how she lost $240 playing Flip-It. It was hard for me to believe that someone could be so bad at Flip-It as to lose $240 playing for quarters. That's a LOSS of 960 coins! You'd have to play at least two hours straight AND LOSE EVERY COIN to lose that much money! Further, I had always suspected that with proper play, Flip-It could actually be played at an advantage — in other words, profitably. I was further challenged by the editor's assertion that "You simply can't win on this machine." That's why I set out to prove that I could win at Flip-It.
Unfortunately, Flip-It doesn't accept slot club cards. It should, considering that the house edge (~10%) is way higher than the edge on a typical slot machine.
Most machines have a sticker that says "Game is over 35 seconds after last coin is played. Coins spilled after this time will not be returned to the player." So if a batch of coins is teetering on the brink and about to spill, and you're waiting and watching while it takes awhile for them to actually drop, you might not get them. But don't worry, 35 seconds is longer than it seems. I timed it and found that it took 20 strokes of a pusher arm to equal 35 seconds, so while waiting for coins to fall, I simply made certain that I didn't go longer than 15 strokes before I played my next coin.
I now know more about Flip-It than any man ever should. I'm not sure which was the bigger waste of my limited time on this planet: Trying to beat an insignificant casino game for an insignificant amount of money, or writing a lengthy article about it. Either way, this probably explains why I don't get many dates.