There are two kinds of slot players: those who play to win and those who play for entertainment. What’s fascinating about slot players is that nearly all of them will tell you they play to win, even if their behavior indicates otherwise. I can’t think of another activity where the distinction between perception and reality is so great.

Take for example the drug addict who can go days without using and whose usage doesn’t cause problems at work or home. (Yet.) While this person insists there’s nothing abnormal about their behavior, they will at least acknowledge that there are those whose drug use has gotten out of control. Not so the slot player, for whom the notion that someone would pay all that money simply to be entertained is so strange that it can barely be comprehended. Of course they’re playing to win! Except they’re not.

The sound that most associate with slots is the rattle of coins hitting the tray. Now that paper tickets that are cashed out at the cage have replaced coins, this sound is simulated electronically. At Thunderclap, the main hall was built above the basement. As the casino expanded and more slot machines were installed, the floor had to be bolstered to support the weight of the machines with a full load of coins. Shortly after this retrofit was completed, slot machines went coinless.

Slot players who play to win are system players. If you’re not playing with a system, you’re not playing to win. You’re just paying rent on a stool.

Different games require different systems. Video poker has the most complex system. There are many different kinds of video poker games and they each require a different system of play. If you go through the trouble to learn them (and the information is readily available; there are countless books on the subject) you can neutralize the house’s advantage, making video poker the best bet to break even in the casino. Play the games they way they are meant to be played, and they’ll pay. But people don’t go to casinos to do math, they go to have fun.

Anything can be a system: Only playing certain machines on certain days is a system. Limiting how much money you spend is a system. Wearing green socks on the first Friday of every month is a system. The key to systems is consistency. If you don’t stick to your system, there’s no way to gauge its effectiveness, i.e. there’s no point to even having one.

Every dollar that gets put into a slot machine cycles through the game approximately 2.5 times before it ultimately ends up in the player’s pocket or the casino’s vault.

Here’s a system you can use. Let’s say you’re playing an old-fashioned three-reel machine at a dollar a spin with a max bet of three. A reel is a mechanical wheel that spins inside the machine. When the symbols on the reels line up in a designated pattern, the player wins. This line is called the payline. If you put in $10, the credit meter will display 10. You can bet one, two, or three credits. If you bet three credits, i.e. max bet, when the reels spin your credit meter adjusts to 7. Congratulations, a single spin on a $1 machine just cost you $3. It’s particularly frustrating when the first reel of your $3 bet stops between symbols. At this rate, you’ll be broke in no time. So start with a single credit. If the first reel doesn’t stop with a symbol on the payline, stick to a single-credit bet for the next spin. But if that first reel puts a symbol on the payline, up the bet, even if the second or third reel doesn’t. As long as the first reel puts a symbol on the payline, keep upping the bet all the way to max bet. But as soon as the first reel stops cooperating, drop back down to a one-credit wager. I call this system the Rule of Firsts. The thing about this system, of course, is it’s not really a system.

This is what happens when you press the spin button on a slot machine: the button sends an electromagnetic signal to a random number generator, which assigns a value to each reel that determines its position. In other words, before the reels even begin to spin the outcome of the game has been decided. So much for systems.

The only parts of the transaction that are not ruled by chance are time spent on the machine and the amount of the wager. That’s why someone playing for money and not for fun always looks to maximize their bet on the fewest number of spins. This isn’t what most players want to hear. Most players want a little drama, a little suspense. Most players just want some action. The machine may know the outcome, but you don’t, and that’s good enough. Most players will tell you they’re hoping to hit the jackpot, but will settle for minimal payouts. Players tend to stay on the machines that pay out frequently because they feel as though their time is being rewarded, even when they’re losing, which makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

The posture of the player playing for money is distinct from the player playing for fun. If body language is a spiritual “tell,” system players are miserable people. Playing for fun is more fun than playing for money. No surprise there. Sometimes you win even when you lose.

Most experts will tell you that gambling is a game of chance; those experts are wrong. Gambling is a psychological phenomenon. Gambling takes place in the mind, not at a slot machine, horse track, poker table or back alley dice game. Gambling is the metaphysical absorption and dispensation of risk for the purpose of sport with real-life consequences. This is why gambling makes no sense to people who are risk-averse and is vastly appealing to fabulists. Gambling taps into our imagination. Gambling makes us believe things we ought not to believe, which is as good a definition of fiction as one is likely to find.

What about luck? Luck has nothing to do with anything unless you’re the kind of person who thinks it has everything to do with everything. People who believe in luck tend not to be system players. Luck isn’t what’s making the casinos rich. Luck doesn’t pay the rent or the car payment or the cosmetic surgeon. Luck doesn’t keep the lights on at Thunderclap. But going to a casino and not believing in luck is like going to church and not believing in heaven.