All about Slot Machines
How they work, Common myths, and Strategies
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Slot Facts vs. B.S.
Slot popularity and gotchas
|Red White & Blue||2400 coins||1 in 262,144||Wizard of Odds|
||1 in 93,
||Bally's par sheet (PDF)
Phantom of the Opera
1 in 155,345
of Odds (estimate)
Par sheets obtained by Canadian researchers (PDF)
Lucky Larry's Lobstermania
Robison in Casino City Times
there are often different versions of machines with
the same name, so the numbers above might not apply
to every flavor of the named machine. What you should take from this is that as the jackpot goes up,
so does the difficulty in actually hitting it.
Incidentally, Megabucks easily has the biggest jackpot of any progressive slot in Nevada, often hitting at around $12 million, but hitting as high as $33 million.
Here are the odds of hitting the top jackpot on the progressive slot machines at the online casino Casino.net, along with the jackpot amount for the $0.25 and $1.00 machines at the time I created the table.
|Progressive Slot Machines at Casino.net|
Jack in the Box
Based on these figures, Jack in the Box is clearly the best bet. The chances of hitting the jackpot are better than with Aladdin's Lamp and Haunted House, and the jackpot is larger than Gold Pirates.
It's significant that Casino.net makes their jackpot odds public. I've never seen another land or Internet casino that's up front with their players like this. Casino.net gets big, big kudos for making these figures public.
It doesn't matter how long it's been since the machine hit its last jackpot. If the odds of hitting a jackpot on one spin are 1 in 250,000, then they're always 1 in 250,000, whether the last jackpot hit last year or five minutes ago. No slot machine is ever "due" to hit. That's the way probability works. The odds of getting heads on a coin flip are always 1 in 2, no matter what you got on previous flips. If you just flipped ten heads in a row, then you're just as likely to get heads yet again as you are to get tails. If you're not convinced about this then see our article about exposing the gambler's fallacy. The point is, past events have no effect on future events. Many people think that they can get an edge by playing a machine that hasn't paid out big in a while, thinking it's "due", but it's not. Slot machines are never "due".
Play the lowest denomination machine you're comfortable with.
Even though lower-stakes machines have worse odds, you'll still lose less money on them. A 90% 5-coin nickel machine loses $18.75/hr. on average, while a 98% 2-coin dollar machine loses $30/hr. (The disparity in payouts between different denominations usually isn't that extreme, but I'm just showing that even when the difference is extreme you'll still lose less money by playing the lower denomination machines.)
Choose machines with the smallest jackpots.
The smaller the jackpot, the easier it is to win, increasing your chances of walking away a winner.
Limit play on progressives with huge jackpots.
On the machines with huge progressive jackpots, a huge portion of each bet goes to feed the meter. For example, on Megabucks, a whopping 10˘ of every $1 goes to pushing the meter higher. Excluding the jackpot, Megabucks returns only about 78% on average. If you must play a big progressive (because you want a shot at a huge jackpot), play a two-coin machine instead of a three-coin machine, and look for a $0.05 or $0.25 machine instead of a $1.00 machine.
Avoid video reels.
Video reel slots often pay back a percentage point or two less than their physical-reel counterparts. That's because the video slots take some time to display all the special little entertainment features, and while that's happening the casino isn't making any money, so they take a little more from you while you are playing. Also, the ability to play 5 coins and 9 lines ($1.45/spin on a nickel machine) could seduce you into betting a lot more than you should.
Use a slot card.
Get a slot card and use it at any casino you play at. While the cashback rewards for slot points are usually insignificant, playing on a slot card means that the casino may give you free meals and will usually mail you offers for free or deeply discounted rooms, and that can save you a bit of money.
Contrary to popular myth, using a slot card has zero effect on whether you win. They're two separate systems and neither has any knowledge of the other. I won several jackpots at Fitzgeralds in Reno with my slot card in. (I was playing only because they were running a special promotion which improved the odds of winning. Normally I don't play slots because I can get better odds at table games.)
Play in the less stingy casinos.
In Vegas, off-strip casinos generally have the best paybacks, downtown is in the middle, and the Strip is the worst. ("Off-strip" means any casino that's not on the Strip or downtown.) In the Wizard of Odds 2002 survey of nickel video reels, off-strip machines paid 92.07% on average, downtown was 91.66%, and the Strip was 91.47%. The exceptions downtown are La Bayou and Mermaids, both of which had terrible paybacks.
Play machines which are advertised as paying back a specific high percentage.
Most casinos won't tell you how much their slots pay back, but some do. On the Vegas Strip, Riviera has specially-labeled 98% dollar slots. The last time I was in Reno, Fitzgeralds there had a section of about 50 dollar slots whose average payback was 97.4%. If you're playing dollar slots, I recommend that you play only these machines, or at other casinos which advertise a specific high payback. (If you know of other casinos which list the payback of any machines, please send me a picture!)
Ignore claims such as "Loosest Slots" or "High Payback". Those terms are meaningless since they're not specific. Also ignore specific numbers married to vagueness, such as "up to 98% return". The machines have to be labeled without qualification for the claim to be meaningful.
Learn other games.
Play anything but slots and you'll almost certainly lose less money. Video poker is a good game to graduate to because it's still a machine, for those who like machines. Table games are even better because the odds are better and you get to play with other human beings. Check out how your expected loss for playing 10 hours of slots vs. other games:
Assumptions: Slots played 800 spins/hr. Slot paybacks are average for all machines in Las Vegas Strip & Downtown casinos as published in Jan. 2002 Casino Player (94% for quarters and 95% for dollars). Video Poker played at 400 spins per hour with proper strategy, 99.5% payback machine, with 2% subtracted from the payback to account for not hitting the jackpot in 10 hours of play. Mini Baccarat, Roulette, Blackjack, and Craps played at 30, 150, 100, and 30 rounds/hr. respectively. Table games played as per crash course strategies listed below.
Avg. Loss for
10 hours play
Slots, $1.00 (2-coin game)
Slots, $0.25 (3-coin game)
$360 Video Poker, $0.25 (5-coin game)
Mini Baccarat, $5/h.
($5 Pass, $5 odds)
If this piques your interest, check out our crash course on table games.
This part of the article got so big I moved it to a separate page on how slot machines work.
The terms returns and payback are often used interchangeably but in this article I'll assign specific meanings to avoid confusion.
The return of a slot machine is the percentage of money actually paid out vs. the amount of money paid in. If you put $100 into a machine and get $92 back, your return was 92%. If all players put $1,000,000 into a casino's machines in one week, and they collectively won $967,000, then the return was 96.7%. The 3.3% that wasn't paid out is the casino's profit, in this case $33,000. In most jurisdictions casinos have to report their slot returns to local governments, and that information is public, and published monthly in Casino Player magazine. However, slot returns and video poker returns are usually lumped together, so you can't see the returns for just slots.
The return is contrasted with the payback, which is the theoretical amount the machine would pay back over an infinite number of spins, according to the math. If a machine is set to pay back 95% then if it were played forever it would return 95 cents on the dollar for every dollar played.
But of course you can't play forever. In the short term anything can happen, and that's why people play slots. Obviously a machine isn't going spit back exactly 95 cents at you every time you play a dollar. But if you sat there and played for years, you would get back about 95% of what you put into it. What we know is that the closer our return will come to the theoretical payback.
When a casino orders a slot machine from the manufacturer, it specifies the payback it wants for that machine, which generally ranges from 87-98%.
That may seem like a good deal, but it's not. If you're getting back 95% of your money, that means the casino is keeping 5%. If you play a dollar machine, two coins at a time, 800 spins an hour, for one hour, you're putting $1600 into the machine. The casino's 5% take means you lose $80/hr. on average. Ouch.
This is one reason that casinos don't cheat with slot machines: They don't have to. The odds are so overwhelmingly bad, all they have to do is put the machine on the floor and rake in the money.
Understand that your expected loss is based on how much money you play, not how much money you take with you. For example, you might think, "Okay, I'm bringing $500, and the slots take an average of 5%, so I should lose about $25." Not even. You'll go through that $500 in less than an hour on a $1, two-coin slot, and lose an average of $25 on that. But then when you play the $475 or so that you got out of the machine, you'll expect to lose 5% of that, etc. Losing a bit every time you replay your bankroll is called the grind. The casino grinds you down. It doesn't matter whether your return is 90% or 99%, if you play long enough at any game you'll eventually lose all your money. To figure your expected loss, see our primer on figuring expected loss.
The return on a machine is determined by the chances of every winning combination times how much those combos pay. For example, let's say there are 64 stops on each reel. There are therefore 643 = 262,144 total combinations. If we played through every combination exactly once, on our hypothetical machine we win 498,074 coins. So 498,074 / 524,288 = 95%. Ta-da. (I'm assuming this machine doesn't have a bonus for a multi-coin jackpot to keep things simple.) Here's a more detailed analysis of how the payback on a machine is calculated.
In general, the higher denomination the machine, the higher
the payback. For example, in the Wizard's
survey of video slots, looking at casinos that had
multiple denominations of the same machines, nickels paid 91%,
quarters paid 92%, and dollars paid nearly 94%. But even
though the odds are better on the higher-stakes machines, you'll
still lose more money playing them, because you're wagering more
money. If you want to limit your losses, play the lowest
stakes machines you're comfortable with. If you want a
better chance of winning even if it means losing more money,
play the higher denomination machines.
Most of the return on a typical slot comes from the small pays, not from the jackpot. In fact, the jackpot usually comprises less than 2% of the total payback. The exception are the huge progressive slots like Megabucks, where the jackpot is a huge part of the total return. Here's what portion of the total payback is comprised of the jackpot:
Casinos rarely disclose the paybacks on their machines. I don't know what they're so scared of, because that knowledge doesn't put the odds in the players' favor. I could see why the casinos with the lousy odds wouldn't advertise them, but why don't the casinos with the good odds trumpet them up and down the street? It's a mystery.
The only casino I know in Vegas which advertises a specific
payback on specific machines is Riveria, which has a bank
of 98% dollar slots. (Harrah's doesn't count because their
"up to 98%" wording is so vague as to be meaningless.) If
you know of other casinos which advertise specific returns
without the "up to" qualifier, please let
me know and send me a picture!
Casinos in most jurisdictions are required to file reports on their slot returns to the local government, and since this is public information, Casino Player magazine publishes the results every month. Unfortunately, this isn't ideal for a number of reasons.
(1) While you can see the returns for individual casinos like Tropicana and Showboat in Atlantic City, the Nevada returns lump all the casinos in an area together.
(2) The returns listed are actual returns for one month, and an unusual number of jackpots (or lack thereof) can skew the results.
(3) Video poker machines are mixed in with the slots, so you can't see how much is from slots and how much is from video poker.
(4) Most Native American casinos don't have to report their returns, so they don't.
What's most useful about the return tables is seeing what geographic regions have the best slot returns. For example, Atlantic City, surprisingly, seems to have some of the worst slot returns in the whole country. Nevada has the best, and within Nevada, the best returns are usually in North Las Vegas and Reno, followed next by Downtown Vegas. Not surprisingly, the Vegas Strip has the worst returns in Nevada, but even so, they're still way better than most of the rest of the country. As high as Vegas slot returns are, though, you'll still lose less money on average by playing blackjack, craps, or baccarat at $5/hand. Heck, with proper strategy you'll less at blackjack at $25 a hand than you will on a five-coin nickel machine with a 94% return. (If this gets your interest, see our crash course on table games.)
Slots accept multiple coins per spin -- 2, 3, or 5 coins on mechanical slots, and 45 or more on video reels. When you win, your payout is matched to the number of coins you played. For example, three single bars may pay out $10 for one coin played, $20 for two coins played, and $30 for 3 coins played. Most machines have a bonus for the top jackpot. For example, 1 coin pays $1000, two coins pay $2000, but three coins pays $5000 (not $3000). This is to try to get you to play more coins at a time, since the casino makes more money that way.
Most gambling experts tell you to always play maximum coin, and if you can't afford to play maximum coin, move down to the next denomination (playing quarters instead of dollars, for example), in order to get the highest payback. These "experts" are wrong. The penalty for playing maximum vs. one coin is usually less than 1% of the total return, while the penalty for downgrading to a lower denomination slot is usually more than 1%. So you'll usually enjoy a better return (and have a better chance of winning) by continuing to play your high-stakes machine for one coin at a time rather than downgrading. Besides, the difference in return only becomes an issue if you hit the jackpot, and how often does that happen? (On typical slots, you can expect it to happen about once a month with full-time play.)
The advice to downgrade is good for a different reason, though: You'll be putting less money into the machines, so your expected loss will be smaller. You'll lose less on lower stakes machines even though the odds are worse, because you're not pouring as much money into them.
The above advice is geared towards typical slots. If you're playing progressive machines where the top jackpot is huge and keeps escalating higher (like Wheel of Fortune and Megabucks), then obviously you'd want to play the maximum coins, since the only reason to play progressives is for the shot at hitting the big jackpot. But limit your play on progressives, because the house take is often twice what it would be on a regular slot -- meaning you'll lose your money twice as fast.
The outcome is NOT affected by:
Frank Scoblete's 1994 book Break the One-Armed Bandits said that casinos place higher-playing slots in certain places, such as the ends of the aisles instead of in the middle. He based this on an interview with a casino slot machine manager. That might have been true at the particular casino Scoblete visited decades ago (and it might not have been), but that's not the case today. Independent research by the Wizard of Odds confirmed that either all machines are set to the same payback level or placement is random. And a casino slot machine technician confirms that the casino doesn't put higher-paying slots in certain areas.
A cottage industry has sprung up reselling the information from Break the One-Armed Bandits. All over the Internet you can buy the "secrets" for finding out where the casinos put the higher-paying slots. But it's no secret, and it's not accurate anyway.
Lots of people still insist that higher-paying slots are
located in certain areas of the casino, but not a single one of
them has offered any evidence to back their assertion. And
the evidence that is available suggests the exact
You can't. That's because the machines are 100% random (just like every other game in the casino). With a 100% random game, there is no pattern that can be discovered, and no style of play that can overcome the odds. Every game in the casino, slots or not, operates on that same, basic principle: The game is completely random, and the chances on the game result in a small average profit per bet for the casino. If you were a casino manager, which of these would you do?
No casino is so stupid that they would put a game on the floor
with a vulnerability that could be discovered.
Anyone who thinks that it's possible to find any sort of pattern in slot machine payouts is just wrong, plain and simple.
If a system could beat a slot machine and had been discovered
and the first few people who knew about it started winning a lot
of money, the casino would quickly notice and fix the
problem. They wouldn't just leave a game on the floor that
was losing money for them.
All this doesn't prevent people from selling systems that supposedly make you a slot winner. One website claims you can "start making a minimum of $1,000 a day playing the slot machines". If it were true then why aren't they raking in $365,000 a year playing slots instead of having to resort to making $47 a pop from selling their system? And how is it that all the people who have bought the system are each taking a third of a million dollars a year out of the casinos and the casinos aren't noticing, or going bankrupt?
For years I've challenged system-sellers to prove that their
systems actually work, but not a single one has accepted.
pretty clear why. My $5000 challenge is as follows:
- 0 -
I will meet anyone in Vegas to execute this challenge.
Slots are typically played at around 600-800 spins per hour
(sph). In 2011 I surreptitiously watched some
players playing video slots to figure playing speed. A
slow player played at 300 sph (6-min. sample). A fast
player played 780 sph (4.3-min. sample). An extremely fast
player played at 862 sph (5.5-min. sample).
It's easy to find slot machine myths and misinformation, even in published books, national magazines, and professional websites. I could spend forever providing examples of wrong info, but here are just a sample of what I've run across.
"There are plenty worse gambles [than slots] in the casino. Take a stroll down to the keno lounge or wheel of fortune, make some of the proposition bets at craps, make idiot plays at blackjack, bet a parlay at the sports book. An average loose machine pays better than roulette." --Slot-Machine-Games.net, Nov. 2004
While keno has a higher house edge than slots, slot machines definitely suck your money away faster. (Slots: 3-coin quarter machine x 6% edge x 800 spins/hr. = $36/hr. loss. Keno: $1 game x 28% edge x 7 games/hr. = $1.96/hr. loss.)
While an "average loose machine" may pay better than roulette how are you supposed to know which machines are loose? Most casinos don't disclose the odds on their slots. The average slot machine in general pays worse than roulette. And once you factor in that slots are played 25 times faster than roulette it's easy to see why you lose much slower at roulette than slots.
"[Casinos often] put their better-paying 'hot slots' in heavy-traffic, highly visible locations, with room for crowds to gather and cheer winners on. Such locations include crosswalks, elevated carousels, and banks of slots near the casino bar, lounges, change booth, and coffee shop." --Slot-Machine-Games.net, Nov. 2004
This isn't true, and not surprisingly, those making this claim never back it up. They certainly don't put their money where their mouths are. I've had an open challenge of $1000 to those who claim that location matters: They pick a "good" location for their machine and a "bad" location for mine, and after 1000 spins we see who's ahead. The number of "experts" who have accepted this challenge to date? Zero.
"The best odds in the casino are the dollar slot machines. After that, craps gives you the best chances of winning." -- The Travel Channel; I caught this one the Travel Channel in Aug. 2004. It's not an exact quote but it's pretty close.
They're way off the mark. Blackjack, craps, baccarat, single-zero roulette, video poker, and many other games give better odds than the typical dollar slot machine.
"Most slot machines are set to a 75% payback." -- The Travel Channel, as per above
Absolutely wrong. In fact, almost no slot machine is set that low. The typical range is around 88 to 97%. Even nickel video slots at McCarran Airport in Vegas (which have the worst odds in the city) pay in the mid-80's.
"You don't really have to know much to get into the game....
[B]e aware that nothing improves your odds of winning." --
Gambling Magazine (page no longer exists)
Not true. Choosing the right game greatly affects your chances of winning. Choose a flat-top over a progressive and your chances are better. Choose a mechanical slot over a video slot and your chances are better. Play in an off-strip casino and your chances are better.
"For many gamblers, the big decision isn't whether or not to
play slots, but which slot to play. You'll be happy to learn
that within certain limits, there is no right or wrong answer;
it's just a question of what kind of machine serves your
personal desires and style best." --Gambling Magazine
(page no longer exists)
Wrong. See the above answer.
"If you aren't playing max coins, you're gambling very
poorly. If the maximum number of coins seems too
expensive (for example, $3 on a $1 slot), move to a lower
denomination slot." --Gambling Magazine (page no
"If you don't feel comfortable playing the maximum coins you
should drop to a lower coinage. Play the quarters
instead of dollars." --Gambling Magazine (page no
"My advice is to fill the machine with the maximum amount of
coins and play every available payline. If you find
yourself at a machine that is out of your budget then move on
to a smaller denomination machine..." --Gambling
Magazine (page no longer exists)
This common (and wrong) advice is addressed above. In short, the penalty for downgrading to a lower stakes slot is higher than the penalty for playing only one coin. You'll generally have a better chance of winning by playing only one coin on the higher stakes slot. On the other hand, it's a good idea to play lower stakes machines simply because you're wagering less and you'll likely lose less money, even though the odds are worse.
"Slots tend to pay off from 80 to 98 percent, meaning that for every $100 that somebody puts into the machine, the machine will pay back from $80 to $98." --Gambling Magazine
Probably the author knew what he meant, but just worded it poorly. The machine won't pay back $80 to $98 each time someone wagers $100, but rather will pay back $80 to $98 for all $100 insertions played on average over the long term (an infinite number of spins).
[Alludes to the highest return on a slot being 97%.] --Gambling
Magazine (page no longer exists)
Riviera in Vegas has 98% slots. Fitzgeralds in Vegas and Reno actually have a couple that pay slightly over 100% (but of course, they're not telling you which ones).
"Ask an employee in the slots area which machine is the best to play (based on how often they have noticed people winning at it). Offer them a percentage of your profit for pointing you in the right direction." --Slot-Machine-Games.net, Nov. 2004
"Ask the staff. You have waitresses, coin attendants,
and the machine attendants who do nothing but watch the slots
all day. They will know best the machines that payoff
more than others or which machines are due for a large
jackpot." --Gambling Magazine (page no longer exists)
This is ridiculous. First of all, no machine is ever "due" for a jackpot; every spin is independent and completely random. Second, if employees knew of profitable situations in the casino, they wouldn't be working those low-paying jobs to begin with. Third, the volatility in a slot machine is so high that you can't get a feel for which machines pay out better even if you work with them day in and day out. The only way to find out is to play a lot and record your results. Even then, all you'd find is that the odds are so poor you'd be better off playing table games anyway.
Incidentally, a high-paying slot doesn't give the jackpot more frequently; it gives the small returns more frequently.
"The strategy calls for picking one Online Slot Machine.
Spend an hour playing at different times during the day or
night. You might find that some slot machines fall into
a payout cycle and they tend to pay off around the same time
every day or every couple of days. " -- TopSlotMachines.com
It doesn't matter when you play. There is no such thing as a payout cycle. The results are always random. Random, random, random -- that's how slot machines work. (More on how they work...)
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Online Casino Guide
Reason I like Bovada #3:
The odds are always against you when you gamble, so it pays to play at a casino that offers good odds. I spent some time looking for an online casino with good odds, and I found it in Bovada. Let me first tell you about the competition, though.
It's disappointing that most online casinos are greedy when setting the odds on their games. They think they'll make more money by setting the games tighter, so the player has less chance of winning, but they're wrong. Most gamblers eventually gamble away all their playing budget anyway. They're going to lose the same amount of money no matter what, the only question is how long it takes them to do so. And when they play at a tight casino and lose quickly, they're less likely to return.
A casino which offers good odds will make just as much money as a tight casino, because the players will usually gamble away whatever they deposit anyway, no matter what the odds. The only difference is that with better odds, they'll get to play longer before they go bust. And that means they had more fun in the process, and they're more likely to return.
Bovada is one of they few casinos that understands this. They offer games with good odds, knowing that if your money lasts longer, you'll be a happier, loyal customer. Among their offerings are:
You don't have to play at Bovada, but wherever you play, make sure they offer odds at least this good!
Try their blackjack for free.
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Also, know that Parkinson's drugs encourage gambling.