Statistically speaking, slot machine gamblers are losing more than ever before at the two casinos in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Payouts from slot machines at both the Rivers Casino on the North Shore and The Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Washington County dropped below 90 percent in February, according to statistics provided by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.
It marked the first time since Rivers Casino opened in August 2009 that payouts have fallen that low. It was the second time it has happened at The Meadows, the first being in January.
At Rivers Casino in February, slot machines on average paid out 89.7 cents for every dollar gambled. Or put another way, gamblers on average lost 10.3 cents for every dollar they wagered.
Since the casino's 2009 opening, payoff percentages have been steadily dropping, from a high of 91.84 percent in October 2009 to 89.77 percent in February.
The payout percentage at the Rivers was the second lowest in the state, ahead of Harrah's Chester in Delaware County at 89.44 percent.
At The Meadows in February, slots gamblers on average lost a fraction more than 10 cents for each dollar wagered. Machines on average paid out at 89.93 percent. In January, it was slightly better at 89.99 percent.
In January and February, both casinos rang up payout percentages that were lower than the statewide averages of 90.2 and 90.08 percent, respectively. Like Rivers, payout percentages at The Meadows have been declining since the casino opened in June 2007. The high was 91.98 percent that first month.
While the statewide average topped 90 percent in February, six of the 10 casinos in Pennsylvania had slot machine payout percentages below that, in a range from 89.9 percent to 89.44 percent.
Under state law, slot machines on average must pay out at least 85 cents on each dollar wagered.
Officials at Rivers and The Meadows casinos attributed the drop in the percentage to the advent of live table games last July.
That prompted both casinos to drastically slash the number of electronic table games, all of which were classified as slot machines but with much higher payout percentages than a typical slot machine.
Rivers Casino reduced the number of electronic table games from 16 units with 80 seats -- each a separate slot machine -- to six units with 30 seats. The Meadows went from 12 units with 60 seats to three with 15. Meadows spokesman Dave La Torre said some of those machines paid out as much as 99 cents for each dollar wagered.
When they were removed, it caused the casino's overall payout percentage to decline, officials said.
"It's a big reason," Mr. La Torre said. "When you take 45 of your highest payout machines off the floor due to inactivity, that certainly has an impact."
Despite the drop in the overall payout percentage, Corey Plummer, Rivers' vice president of gaming, said nothing much has changed for the vast majority of gamblers who play regular slot machines. Those gamblers on average are not winning or losing any more today than they were before table games arrived last summer, he said. The casino, he added, has not reduced the overall payout percentages on its slot machines.
"For the regular slots player, nothing has changed," he said.
Nonetheless, the Rivers still posted some big revenue numbers in February, with the casino's so-called "average daily win" per slot machine ranging from $251.38 to $308.27, one of its the highest ever.
Mr. Plummer said one reason the casino has experienced an overall decline in payouts since it opened is that it has added more of the penny and 2-cent games that are popular with gamblers. Those lower denomination games typically have lower payout percentages than quarter, dollar or other higher denomination machines.
At Rivers Casino Thursday, some weren't buying the table game explanation.
"I don't believe it," said Russ Companion of Natrona Heights, who plays slot machines at the casino twice a week. "I just think they got you sucked in and you're going to come down [to play]. You're addicted."
Told of the casino's reasoning, a West Mifflin woman playing slots smiled and then replied, "What I know, I know. I know they're paying less and it's few and far between."
The woman, who did not want her name used, said she has noticed a decline in payouts since she started wagering at the casino after it opened. "Absolutely, they're not paying out as much. The same thing down at The Meadows," she said.
Rhonda Dzudan of Tarentum said she also has noticed a difference in the way machines have been paying out. "In my opinion, it never was very good. But it's a little worse now," she said.
Joseph Weinert, senior vice president of Spectrum Gaming Group, an industry consultant, said such views are probably more perception than reality. He said it would be very hard to tell the difference between payout percentages that vary a point or two.
"For gamblers to notice a difference between a 90 percent payout and a 93 percent payout, they would have to play slot machines until they're brain dead," he said.
Mr. Weinert believes that a prime factor in the overall reduction in the payout percentage at the Rivers and Meadows and other casinos in the state is the reduction in the number of electronic table games. He said another factor that could influence payouts is the number of promotional slots credits issued by a casino.
Overall, for the past 12 months ending in February, slot machine payouts at casinos on the East Coast averaged 91.06 percent, according to Spectrum. In Pennsylvania, it was 90.53 percent. At Rivers and The Meadows, it was 90.42 and 90.37 percent, respectively.
Those numbers were still higher than West Virginia, where the average payout statewide was 89.93 percent.
Mark Belko: email@example.com or 412-263-1262.