Slot Machine Returns & Paybacks
Last update: March, 2018.
Returns vs. Paybacks
The terms returns and payback are often used interchangeably but on this site I assign specific meanings to be clear.
On this site, 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.
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.
Other writers usually call this the "theoretical return", which seems both complicated and confusing. When they say just "return" are they talking about the "actual return" or the "theoretical return"? So I use return for what you actually get back, and payback for what the machine is set to pay back over the long term.
Note that the longer you play, the closer your return will get to the payback. In the short term anything can happen, but the longer you play, the closer you'll get to the machine's predicted average.
Machines don't get looser & tighter to meet the payback %
A common misunderstanding is that if a slot pays a jackpot, or lots of small wins, it'll then tighten up so it will return the specified payback. That is absolutely not how it works. The reels always land on a random combination, and it's the frequency of the symbols on the reels, married to the paytable, which determines the payback of the machine. Every spin is completely random, and it's that randomness that results in the specified long-term payback. (more...)
How the payback is calculated
The payback on a machine comes from the odds of hitting each winning combination, times how much those combos pay. We'll use an old three-reel slot to make the example easy. 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'd win 249,038 coins. So 249,038 ÷ 262,144 = 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.
How the paybacks are set
For decades, a casino would order a machine with a specific payback from the manufacturer. The slot maker might offer the same slot in various flavors, like 91.2%, 93.5%, 95.4%, and 96.7%. You could have two seemingly identical machines, side by side, that are set to different paybacks. There's no way to tell the difference by just looking at them.
New regulations have seemed to open the door to slots that can be configured more easily by the casino, so that casinos don't have to specify the payback percentage when they order the machine. And the paybacks can be set remotely over the network, without the older, cumbersome method of physically replacing an EPROM chip (and filling out a bunch of paperwork). Even so, there's no reason to believe that casinos constantly tinker with the odds, tightening them up during busy times. See Slot Machine Myths for more.
Paybacks are secret at U.S. land casinos
Land casinos in the U.S. almost never tell you the payback of any machine. Which is ridiculous. We know the odds for games like blackjack, craps, and roulette, because we know the "programming" behind those games and they can be analyzed. The fact that the odds are against the players doesn't stop them from playing. But for slot machines, you'll be flying blind, because that's the way the casinos like it.
Stratosphere and the Riviera used to have a bank of $1 slots labeled 98%. Harrah's has (or had) slots labeled "up to 98%", which is so vague as to be meaningless; that means that one of the machines pays 98%, they're not telling you which one, and the others are all crap. If you know of a land casino which advertises specific paybacks without the "up to" qualifier, please let me know and send me a picture!
Online, it's much different. My favorite online casino, VideoSlots, publishes both the return and the payback for their machines. They were probably the first to do so, and now other online casinos are forced to follow suit in order to compete. After all, why would you want to play somewhere completely in the dark when VideoSlots is happy to clue you in? As more and more casinos are disclosing their slot paybacks, players are coming to expect it, and the websites that rank and rate online casinos are starting to include payback-disclosure in their rating criteria.
Unfortunately, VideoSlots doesn't take U.S. players, and Bovada, which does take U.S. players, doesn't publish paybacks or returns.
Las Vegas slot returns
Vegas casinos are required to report their concerns to the state Gaming Commission. The state doesn't report each casino separately (rats!), they report by area of town. Also, be aware that all video gaming (including video poker, video keno, etc.) is lumped in to the "slot" returns. The data below is for the twelve months ending 1/31/18. For the nickel slots, the second line is from the Wizard's 2001 survey of nickel slots, not including video poker. As expected, the slots-only returns are lower than the slots+VP returns. By the way, at the time I'm writing this, this is the only article on the net that shows both of these figures together. Whoo!
|Las Vegas slot returns|
Some takeaways from the Vegas figures:
- The higher the denomination, the higher the return...in general, but with some caveats. First, it's not always true. Notice that 25¢ machines on the strip pay worse than 5¢ machines, for some reason. Second, don't just automatically switch to higher-denomination machines to get a better return, because you'll likely lose more overall. Do you want 93% of your $1000 back on a 25¢ machine ($70 loss) or 95% of your $4000 back on a $1 machine ($200 loss)? The only way that upgrading to a higher-denomination machine works is if you bet about the same amount or less per spin as you'd do on the lower-denomination machine. For example, if you're betting $1.50 a spin on a penny machine by doing 30 lines and five credits per line, switch to a nickel machine and bet five credits on a six lines ($1.50).
- The strip has the worst returns. Downtown is a little better, but not by much. The Boulder Strip and North Las Vegas casinos have the best odds.
- The bigger separation between the Wizard's slots-only survey and reported returns for the Strip vs. Downtown is probably because the strip has a higher mix of slots and downtown has a higher mix of video poker (which tends to pay better than slots).
Slot returns across the U.S.
In most jurisdictions, casinos are required by law to report their slot returns to the government, so that information is public. Below are the slot returns across the U.S., for 2017 and/or 2018, with some caveats:
- Most jurisdictions lump in video poker, video blackjack, etc. in with the "slots" figures. For areas that offer video poker (not all do), I'd subtract a percentage point from the figures to more closely approximate the return for just slots.
- My figures are the average for all denominations, but lower-denomination games tend to pay worse and higher-denomination tend to pay better. So expect to get worse odds than what's listed below when playing pennies or nickels, even after you've subtracted a point for VP being lumped in.
Some areas report the returns for each individual casino separately. (Nevada isn't one of them.) For those areas, you can see the individual casino returns at American Casino Guide. However, even when returns are broken out for individual casinos, it's cold comfort, because they all suck.
Most states also prescribe minimum paybacks for the machines. I also included those in the table so you can see that they're all but irrelevant; most casinos blow way past the mandated minimum.
As I write this, this is the only such table-ized data available anywhere on the whole Internet. You sure came to the right place, didn't you?
|Legal Minimum Paybacks vs. Actual Returns|
|Colorado||80% (max 100%)||94%|
|Connecticut||none that I could find||91%|
: Pari-Mutuel facilities
no min: boats & Native Am.
|Indiana||none that I could find||90%|
|Iowa||none that I could find||90%|
Native Am. casinos
none for elsewhere
Slots (95% max)
83% VP/BJ (98% max)
75% Keno (95% max)
|Missouri||none that I can find||90%|
@ bars (92%
no min. @ Native Am.
Native Am. + elsewhere
||none that I could find for Nat.Am.;
elsewhere: 90% for VLT, 85% slots
(Nat.Am. don't report)
slots (max 100%)
83% VP/BJ (max 100%)
|Oregon||none that I could find||n/a|
|Rhode Island||none that I could find||91%|
that I could find
(Nat.Am. don't report)
slots (100% max)
83% VP/BJ (103% max)
How much of the payback comes from the jackpot
Most of the payback 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 for various machines. And by the way, as I write this, this is the most complete list of such data anywhere on the Internet.
- 0.13% to 0.15%for Lobstermania (PDF source)
- 0.58% for Double Strike (Wizard
- 0.92% for Red White & Blue (Wizard of Odds)
- 1.93% for Blazing 7s (PDF source)
- 10.2% for Megabucks (Wizard
How the payback affects your bottom line
With the payback, we've been talking in terms of how much you get back. The flip side is how much the casino keeps as its profit. If the payback is 95%, then the house edge is 5%. Here's why that's important: One machine might have a payback of 94% and another 97%. Those might look pretty similar, and 94% might seem fairly decent. But flip it, and the house edge (how much you lose) is 6% and 3% respectively. So, on the 94% machine, you'll lose twice as much money as you would on the 97% machine!
Here's my average loss calculator, which shows slot losses compared to losses at other games.
|Average Loss Calculator|
|Game||Rounds Per Hour||Bet per round||House Edge|| Average Loss for
|Play online casino games with fake money! It's better than losing real money.|
You can calculate your average hourly loss yourself pretty easily:
Bet per spin x spins per hour x house edge = average hourly loss
For example, let's say you're betting $1.50 per spin, playing at a rate of 600 spins per hour, on a 93% machine (7% house edge). Your average hourly loss will be $1.50 x 600 x 7% = $63/hour.
That's a long-term average. In the short term, your loss will likely be a little higher, because you'll probably have to play for a long time before you hit the jackpot. For more on this, see my separate article on average loss.
Understand that your average 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 8%, so I should lose about $40." Not even. You'll go through that $500 about half an hour if you play $1.50 per spin, and lose an average of $40 on that. But then when you play the $460 or so that you got out of the machine, you'll expect to lose 8% 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.
Play slots online
I suggest you play something other than slots because the slot odds are so bad. You could also play online with fake money, because then it doesn't matter if you lose. A good casino for free-play is Bovada, since it requires no download and no registration—one click and you're in. You can play with real money too, though I hope you won't (or at least won't bet more than you can comfortably afford to lose).
All my slot machine articles
- Slot machine basics. How much it costs to play, how much you can win, expected loss, why they're a bad bet, why they're popular, how you can limit your losses, speed of play
- How to play slot machines
- Slot returns. How much they pay back.
- The Randomness Principle. Slots don't continually get looser and tighter as they're played. They don't have to.
- How they work. Explains the randomness principle, and runs through the math to show how a game returns a particular payback percentage. There's a companion page on Par sheets.
- Slot Machine Myths
- Slot Machine B.S. Wrong info that's published elsewhere.
- Strategies. Tips for increasing your chances of winning, and saving money.
- Slot Jackpots. Odds of hitting the jackpot, progressive jackpots, and other jackpot topics.
- Skill-Based Slots. The scoop on the new games in which your results aren't entirely determined by chance.
- Slot Machine malfunctions. How and why slot machines screw up, causing players to think they've won the jackpot when they really haven't.
- Slot Machine Simulator. I programmed an exact replica of the Blazing 7s slot (odds-wise). Click it to play thousands of spins in one second and see how you do.