SLOT MACHINE MYTHS

Because most players do not understand how slot machines work, whole sets of beliefs have grown over when to play a machine and when to avoid it. Little truth is in any of them. Here’s a look at some of the more pervasive slot myths:
Change machines after a big jackpot — the machine won’t be due to hit again for some time. From a money-management standpoint, it makes sense to lock up the profits from a big hit and move on. But the machine is not “due” to turn cold. In fact, the odds against the same jackpot hitting on the next pull are the same as they were the first time.
Play a machine that has gone a long time without paying off — it is due to hit. Slot machines are never “due.” Playing through a long losing streak all too frequently results in a longer losing streak.
Casinos place “hot” machines on the aisles. This belief is so widespread that end machines get a good deal of play regardless of how they pay. It is true that not all machines in the same casino are programmed with the same payback percentage. And it’s true that casinos want other customers to see winners. But slot placement is more complex than just placing the hot ones at the ends of aisles.
The payback percentage is lowered when the crowds are bigger and demand is greater. It’s not that easy to change a machine’s programming. Changing the programmed payback percentage requires opening the machine and replacing a computer chip. That’s not something to do cavalierly.

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How to Play Slot Machines

In the not-too-distant past, slot-machine players were the second-class citizens of casino customers. Jackpots were small, payout percentages were horrendous, and slot players just weren’t eligible for the kind of complimentary bonuses — free rooms, shows, meals — commonly given to table players. But in the last few decades the face of the casino industry has changed. Nowadays more than 70 percent of casino revenues comes from slot machines, and in many jurisdictions, that figure tops 80 percent.
About 80 percent of first-time visitors to casinos head for the slots. It’s easy — just drop coins into the slot and push the button or pull the handle. Newcomers can find the personal interaction with dealers or other players at the tables intimidating — slot players avoid that. And besides, the biggest, most lifestyle-changing jackpots in the casino are offered on the slots.
The following article will tell you everything you need to know about slots, from the basics to various strategies. We’ll start at square one, with a primer on how playing slot machines works.
How to Play
The most popular slots are penny and nickel video games along with quarter and dollar reel-spinning games, though there are video games in 2-cent, 10-cent, quarter, and dollar denominations and reel spinners up to $100. Most reel spinners take up to two or three coins at a time while video slots can take 45, 90, and even 500 credits at a time.
Nearly all slot machines are fitted with currency acceptors — slide a bill into the slot, and the equivalent amount of credits is displayed on a meter. On reel-spinning slots, push a button marked “play one credit” until you’ve reached the number of coins you wish to play. Then hit the “spin reels” button, or pull the handle on those few slots that still have handles, or hit a button marked “play max credits,” which will play the maximum coins allowed on that machine.
On video slots, push one button for the number of paylines you want to activate, and a second button for the number of credits wagered per line. One common configuration has nine paylines on which you can bet 1 to 5 credits. Video slots are also available with 5, 15, 20, 25, even 50 paylines, accepting up to 25 coins per line.
Many reel-spinning machines have a single payout line painted across the center of the glass in front of the reels. Others have three payout lines, even five payout lines, each corresponding to a coin played. The symbols that stop on a payout line determine whether a player wins. A common set of symbols might be cherries, bars, double bars (two bars stacked atop one another), triple bars, and sevens.
A single cherry on the payout line, for example, might pay back two coins; the player might get 10 coins for three of any bars (a mixture of bars, double bars, and triple bars), 30 for three single bars, 60 for three double bars, 120 for three triple bars, and the jackpot for three sevens. However, many of the stops on each reel will be blanks, and a combination that includes blanks pays nothing. Likewise, a seven is not any bar, so a combination such as bar-seven-double bar pays nothing.
Video slots typically have representations of five reels spinning on a video screen. Paylines not only run straight across the reels but also run in V’s, upside down V’s, and zigs and zags across the screen. Nearly all have at least five paylines, and most have more — up to 50 lines by the mid-2000s.
In addition, video slots usually feature bonus rounds and “scatter pays.” Designated symbols trigger a scatter pay if two, three, or more of them appear on the screen, even if they’re not on the same payline.
Similarly, special symbols will trigger a bonus event. The bonus may take the form of a number of free spins, or the player may be presented with a “second screen” bonus. An example of a second screen bonus comes in the long-popular WMS Gaming Slot “Jackpot Party.” If three Party noisemakers appear on the video reels, the reels are replaced on the screen with a grid of packages in gift wrapping. The player touches the screen to open a package and collects a bonus payout. He or she may keep touching packages for more bonuses until one package finally reveals a “pooper,” which ends the round. The popularity of such bonus rounds is why video slots have become the fastest growing casino game of the last decade.
When you hit a winning combination, winnings will be added to the credit meter. If you wish to collect the coins showing on the meter, hit the button marked “Cash Out,” and on most machines, a bar-coded ticket will be printed out that can be redeemed for cash. In a few older machines, coins still drop into a tray.
Etiquette
Many slot players pump money into two or more adjacent machines at a time, but if the casino is crowded and others are having difficulty finding places to play, limit yourself to one machine. As a practical matter, even in a light crowd, it’s wise not to play more machines than you can watch over easily. Play too many and you could find yourself in the situation faced by the woman who was working up and down a row of six slots. She was dropping coins into machine number six while number one, on the aisle, was paying a jackpot. There was nothing she could do as a passerby scooped a handful of coins out of the first tray.
Sometimes players taking a break for the rest room will tip a chair against the machine, leave a coat on the chair, or leave some other sign that they’ll be back. Take heed of these signs. A nasty confrontation could follow if you play a machine that has already been thus staked out.
Payouts
Payout percentages have risen since the casinos figured out it’s more profitable to hold 5 percent of a dollar than 8 percent of a quarter or 10 percent of a nickel. In most of the country, slot players can figure on about a 93 percent payout percentage, though payouts in Nevada run higher. Las Vegas casinos usually offer the highest average payouts of all — better than 95 percent. Keep in mind that these are long-term averages that will hold up over a sample of 100,000 to 300,000 pulls.
In the short term, anything can happen. It’s not unusual to go 20 or 50 or more pulls without a single payout on a reel-spinning slot, though payouts are more frequent on video slots. Nor is it unusual for a machine to pay back 150 percent or more for several dozen pulls. But in the long run, the programmed percentages will hold up.
The change in slots has come in the computer age, with the development of the microprocessor. Earlier slot machines were mechanical, and if you knew the number of stops — symbols or blank spaces that could stop on the payout line–on each reel, you could calculate the odds on hitting the top jackpot. If a machine had three reels, each with ten stops, and one symbol on each reel was for the jackpot, then three jackpot symbols would line up, on the average, once every 10310310 pulls, or 1,000 pulls.
On those machines, the big payoffs were $50 or $100–nothing like the big numbers slot players expect today. On systems that electronically link machines in several casinos, progressive jackpots reach millions of dollars.
The microprocessors driving today’s machines are programmed with random-number generators that govern winning combinations. It no longer matters how many stops are on each reel. If we fitted that old three-reel, ten-stop machine with a microprocessor, we could put ten jackpot symbols on the first reel, ten on the second, and nine on the third, and still program the random-number generator so that three jackpot symbols lined up only once every 1,000 times, or 10,000 times. And on video slots, reel strips can be programmed to be as long as needed to make the odds of the game hit at a desired percentage. They are not constrained by a physical reel.
Each possible combination is assigned a number, or numbers. When the random-number generator receives a signal — anything from a coin being dropped in to the handle being pulled — it sets a number, and the reels stop on the corresponding combination.
Between signals, the random-number generator operates continuously, running through dozens of numbers per second. This has two practical effects for slot players. First, if you leave a machine, then see someone else hit a jackpot shortly thereafter, don’t fret. To hit the same jackpot, you would have needed the same split-second timing as the winner. The odds are overwhelming that if you had stayed at the machine, you would not have hit the same combination.
Second, because the combinations are random, or as close to random as is possible to set the program, the odds of hitting any particular combination are the same on every pull. If a machine is programmed to pay out its top jackpot, on the average, once every 10,000 pulls, your chances of hitting it are one in 10,000 on any given pull. If you’ve been standing there for days and have played 10,000 times, the odds on the next pull will still be one in 10,000. Those odds are long-term averages. In the short term, the machine could go 100,000 pulls without letting loose of the big one, or it could pay it out twice in a row.
So, is there a way to ensure that you hit it big on a slot machine? Not really, but despite the overriding elements of chance, there are some strategies you can employ. We’ll cover these in the next section.

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Slot Machines Myth and Fact

Introduction

When it comes to gambling, the easier a game is to understand the worse the odds usually are. This is certainly the case with slot machines. Playing them is as easy as pressing a button. However, between the high house edge and fast rate of play, there is no quicker way to lose your money in a casino.
How They Work

Whether you’re playing a 3-reel single-line game or a 5-reel 25-line game, the outcome of every bet is ultimately determined by random numbers. The game will choose one random number for each reel, map that number onto a position on the reel, stop the reel in the appointed place, and score whatever the outcome is. In other words, the outcome is predestined the moment you press the button; the rest is just for show. There are no hot and cold cycles; your odds are the same for every spin on a given machine.
Slot machines are just about the only game in the casino where the odds are not quantifiable. In other words, the player doesn’t know how the game was designed, so it is difficult to look at an actual game to use as an example. So, to help explain how they work, I created the Atkins Diet slot machine (link). It is a simple, five-reel game with a free spin bonus round, much like IGT’s Cleopatra game.

For information on how it works and all the odds, please visit my Atkins Diet par sheet.

For a more complicated example, featuring sticky wilds in the bonus, please try my Vamos a Las Vegas slot machine.

For information on how it works and all the odds, please visit my Vamos a Las Vegas par sheet (PDF).

Odds

The following table shows the casino win for Clark County Nevada (where Las Vegas is) for all slots for calendar year 2012. They define “slot” as any electronic game, including video poker and video keno. I’ve found video keno to be about equally as tight as reeled slots, but video poker has a much higher return. So, the return for reeled slots should be higher than these figures.

Clark County Slot Win 2012
DENOMINATION CASINO WIN (PCT)
$0.01 10.77%
$0.05 5.96%
$0.25 5.74%
$1.00 5.64%
$5.00 5.51%
$25.00 3.97%
$100.00 4.73%
Megabucks 12.89%
Multi-denomination 5.32%
Total 6.58%
Source: Nevada Gaming Control Board, Gaming Revenue Report for December 2012 (PDF, see page 6).

Most players play penny video slots. Based on past research, I find the house edge on those to usually be set from 6% to 15%. In general, the nicer the casino, the tighter the slots.

Advice

While there is no skill to playing slots, there is some skill in selecting which machine to play and ways you can maximize your return. What follows is my advice, if you must play slots at all.

Always use a player card. Slots may be a lousy bet, but the casinos treat slot players very well. A $1 slot player will probably get comped better than a $100 blackjack player. Of course, don’t play for the reason of getting comps. You’ll give them a lot more than they’ll give you.
The simpler the game, the better the odds. The fancy games with big signs and video screens tend to not pay as well as the simple games. However, slot players always tell me the fancy games are more fun.
The higher the denomination, the better the odds. For that reason, it is better to play one coin per line on a 5-cent game than five coins per line on a 1-cent game.
Don’t forget to cash out and take your ticket when you leave. It is easy to forget after hitting a jackpot.
Try to play slowly and as little as possible to get your fix.
In some games there is a skill feature, like Top Dollar. In such games, advice is usually offered, which you should take.
Myths and Facts

Just about everything that players believe about slots is untrue. Here are the most common myths and facts.
Myth: Slot machines are programmed to go through a cycle of payoffs. Although the cycle can span thousands of spins, once it reaches the end the outcomes will repeat themselves in exactly the same order as the last cycle.
Fact: This is not true at all. Every spin is random and independent of all past spins.

Myth: Slot machines are programmed to pay off a particular percentage of money bet. Thus, after a jackpot is hit the machine will tighten up to get back in balance. On the other hand, when a jackpot has not been hit for a long time it is overdue and more likely to hit.
Fact: As just mentioned, each spin is independent of all past spins. That means that for a given machine game, the odds are always the same. It makes no difference when the last jackpot was hit or how much the game paid out in the last hour, day, week, or any period of time.

Myth: Machines pay more if a player card is not used.
Fact: The mechanism that determines the outcome of each play does not consider whether a card is used or not. The odds are the same with or without one.

Myth: Using a player card enables the casino to report my winnings to the IRS.
Fact: That makes no difference. If you win $1,200 or more they will report it either way. If you have a net losing year, which you probably will, at least the casino will have evidence of it. Such annual win/loss statements may be used as evidence to declare offsetting loses to jackpot wins.

Myth: The slot department can tighten my game with the press of a button remotely. Thus, you better be nice to the staff and tip them well, or they will use a remote control to have the machine take you down in a hurry.
Fact: There is now some truth to the myth that the odds of a machine can be changed remotely. Such “server-based slots” are still experimental and in a minority. Even with server-based slots, there are regulations in place to protect the player from the perceived abuses that could accompany them. For example, in Nevada a machine can not be altered remotely unless it has been idle for at least four minutes. Even then, the game will display a notice that it is being serviced during such changes. (source) Meanwhile, for the vast majority of slots, somebody would physically need to open the machine and change a computer chip, known as an EPROM chip, to make any changes.

Myth: The machines by the doors and heavy traffic flow areas tend to be loose while those hidden in quiet corners tend to be tight.
Fact: I’ve studied the relationship between slot placement and return and found no correlation. Every slot director I’ve asked about this laughs it off as just another player myth.

Myth: Slots tend to be looser during slow hours on slow days of the week. However, when the casino is busy they tighten them up.
Fact: Nobody would take the trouble to do this, even if he could. The fact of the matter is the casinos are trying to find a good balance between winning some money while letting the player leave happy. That is best achieved by slots loose enough to give the player a sufficiently long “time on device,” as they call it in the industry, with a reasonable chance of winning so he will return to the same casino next time. If the slots are too tight, the players will sense it and be unlikely to return.

The kind of place you’re likely to find tight slots are those with a captive audience, like the Las Vegas airport. So, if the slot manager feels that 92% is the right return for a penny game, for example, he is likely to set every penny game all that way, and keep them that way for years.

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How to Play Blackjack

Blackjack is the most popular table game in the casino, and offers excellent odds. The house edge is a tiny 0.5% if you learn the basic strategy (covered below). That’s just about the best odds on any game as you’re likely to find, making blackjack very attractive for those willing to put in just a little bit of work to learn the strategy (a couple of hours or so).

Amazingly, most players won’t make this effort. I’ve played hundreds of hours of blackjack, and have rarely seen anyone who knew proper basic strategy. By guessing at the proper strategy, they’re willingly giving the house a 2% advantage — meaning they lose four times as much. It’s throwing money away. Don’t be one of those people.

Goal

This objective of blackjack is commonly misstated as “trying to get as close as you can to 21 without going over”. But the real objective is to beat the dealer. You can beat the dealer with a total of just 12, which is pretty far from 21, since the dealer could bust. Once you start playing you will often do just that. For now, it’s enough to remember that you want to beat the dealer’s hand.

The Bets and The Deal

Between one and seven players can play at the same table. Each player places his/her bet (chips) in the circle in front of him/her. The dealer deals the cards, two cards to each player, including herself. One of the dealer’s cards will be face-up, so you’ll have a clue as to how strong her hand is. The other players’ cards don’t matter because you’re not playing against them, you’re playing against the dealer.

Counting Cards
You’ve seen the movie 21 or Rain Man so you’ve heard about counting cards. Card counters turn the odds in their favor by keeping track of the cards that have been played. When they see that the odds are in their favor (there are lots of 10′s and aces left), they bet big. They also vary their hit/stand decisions according to the count.

But the advantage they get is tiny. Counters enjoy only a razor-thin edge over the house of about 1%. It’s still nearly a coin toss. The odds are so close that even with an advantage, a counter could still lose for even weeks or months at a time. A counter will come out ahead in the long term, but has to survive into the long term without going broke beforehand.

And that’s why more people don’t count cards. Just like with everything else in life, it takes money to make money.

To ensure that you don’t go bust, you have to have a huge bankroll to weather losing streaks. To make $25 an hour, you’d need $25,000 in capital. If you have that kind of cash lying around, you’re probably already making more than $25/hr. In short, if you can afford to count cards, you probably don’t care to.

Of course, even if you don’t pursue card-counting as a career, if you’re playing blackjack while on vacation anyway then you might as well learn how to count so you can put the odds in your favor.

For more on counting cards see the Wizard of Odds’ Intro to Card Counting.

The Play

Play begins with the right-most player (“1st base”) and continues player by player to the left. Your objective is to beat the dealer’s hand; the higher hand wins, as long as it doesn’t go over 21 (bust). If both of you bust, you still lose. This is why the casino has the advantage in blackjack.

When it’s your turn, you have the following choices:

Hit. Take a card. You can hit as many times as you want.
Stand. End your turn and pass to the next player.
Double Down. Double your bet, take exactly one more card, and then end your turn.
Split. If you have two of the same card (like two 8′s), you can split them and play each as a separate hand. You’ll get one more card for each, and then you hit or stand on each hand. You have to put up another bet since now you’re playing two hands.
Surrender. Most casinos no longer offer this option. Surrender allows you to bow out of your hand and lose half your bet. This is a good option when you’d likely lose your whole bet if you stayed in, such as when you have a total of 16 vs. a dealer upcard of 10.
Once you’ve played your hand, that’s it; play will not come back to you. Each player gets only one turn per hand. You can hit as many times as you want, but once you’re done hitting, that’s it.

After each player has played, the dealer plays her own hand. She flips the hole card over first so everyone can see both her cards. The dealer must hit (take cards) until she has 17 or higher. That’s the rules; the dealer isn’t allowed to make decisions on whether to hit or stand depending on what the players’ cards are. If the dealer could vary her play depending on what the players have, the house edge would be so high that no one would play.

Note that on most tables, the dealer will hit her 17 if it’s a soft 17, meaning that it has an ace that counts as 11, and is therefore unbustable.

Scoring (Win/Lose)

Face-cards (J, Q, K) count as ten. An ace counts as 11, unless an 11 would cause a bust, in which case the ace counts as 1.

So here’s what can happen:

Bust. If you go over 21, you’ve busted, and you lose. Even if the dealer busts.
Win/Lose. Providing that you didn’t bust, then you win if your total is higher than the dealer’s, or if the dealer busted. (If you bet $10, you get another $10.) You lose your hand (and your bet) if your hand is lower than the dealer’s (assuming the dealer didn’t bust).
Push. If you and the dealer have the same total, it’s a push, or a tie, and you neither win nor lose your bet.
Natural. If you’re dealt an ace plus a ten (or a face card, which is worth ten), that’s called a natural or a blackjack, and pays 3 to 2. That means if you bet $10, you win $15. But if the dealer also has blackjack, it’s a push. If you’re dealt three or more cards that total 21, that’s just a plain 21, not a natural, sorry. If you or the dealer has a blackjack and the other has plain 21, then blackjack beats plain 21. Do not play the fake single-deck blackjack on the Strip where naturals pay only 6:5! More on this below.
Remember, it doesn’t matter what the other players have. You’re not playing against them, you’re playing against the dealer.
Hand Signals

You indicate your desire to Hit or Stand differently depending on whether the cards are dealt face-up or face-down. If the cards are dealt face-up, don’t touch them, or the dealer will yell at you. If you want to hit, tap the table (between you and your cards) with your finger. To stand, wave your hand over your cards. To split or double down, place a second bet next to your original bet.

In a face-down game, hit by scratching the table with your cards, and stand by sliding your cards under your bet. To double down or split, turn your cards over and place your additional bet next to your original chip(s). When you get a natural or you bust, turn your cards over right away so the dealer can pay you or take your losing cards.

Insurance

When the dealer’s up card is an ace, she’ll ask if you want Insurance. This is a side bet on whether the dealer has a natural (a 10 in the hole). This bet has a high house edge so you should never take it.

If the dealer shows an ace and you have a natural, the dealer will offer you “even money”. This is really just another way of taking insurance, so you should refuse it. Don’t take even money.

Here’s how even money works: Say you had bet $10. If the dealer shows an ace and you have a natural, and you take even money, the dealer will pay you $10 and then it’s over. You got a guaranted $10, no matter what the dealer has. If you decline the even money, then you’ll get the 3:2 payout ($15) if the dealer doesn’t have a natural, and you’ll push and win nothing if the dealer does have a natural.

Most players (and most dealers) think you should take the even money because it’s a guaranteed payout, and if you refuse the even money then you risk winning nothing. What they’re missing is that 69% of the time the dealer will not have a natural and you’ll get the 3:2 payout, which more than makes up for the times that you push and make nothing. In fact, the house edge on insurance is a whopping 6% or more.

You might not be confident about refusing even money when even the dealer will be aghast that you’re refusing it, since surely the dealer should know what she’s talking about, right? Wrong. I’ve rarely met a dealer who even knew basic strategy. Dealers are trained to deal the game, but that doesn’t mean they know the odds. Most dealers have never cracked a book or a website about the game. If you don’t trust me, then note that the Wizard of Odds (who was a professor of gaming math at the University of Nevada Las Vegas) says the same thing.

Never take insurance. Never take even money.

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Who has the best slot paybacks

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.)

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Slot Returns and Paybacks

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.

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Strategies for Saving Money

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.

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Slot popularity and gotchas

In the 1980′s slot machines surpassed table games like craps and blackjack as the most popular game in the casino. Slots and video poker now account for more than 70% of the casino’s total take. The reason is simple: Bigger jackpots. When slots got computerized it became possible to make the jackpot hit less frequently, which means the payout can be bigger when it does hit. And players love big jackpots. If you put $5 on a blackjack table, the most you can win is $7.50. But $3 in a slot machine could net you thousands or millions.

But for all their popularity, there are three big problems with playing slot machines vs. table games. First, the casinos usually don’t disclose the odds on individual machines, so you can’t really be an informed player. (They disclose the odds in the U.K., but not in mosty other places.) Second, whatever those undisclosed odds are, they’re usually bad—far worse than table games like craps, baccarat, and blackjack. And finally, slot machines are usually played much faster than table games, so they suck away your money much more quickly.
I therefore recommend that you don’t play slots very much, if at all. Playing a table game with the same amount of money, you can play a lot longer, have more fun since you’re playing with other human beings, and have a much better chance of walking away a winner. And isn’t winning the most fun of all?

And remember, if the reason you prefer slots is for the chance of a big jackpot, you can try for the same kind of big win on a table game, with a lot better chance of actually getting it.
So I hope you’ll consider playing table games instead of slots, and I have a crash course in table games to help you do that.

Since I know many people will play slots anyway, here are some tips to help you lose the least amount of money, and to help you understand the games better in general. If you work hard for your money, you might as well keep as much of it as you can. By the way, these are better tips then you’ll find just about anywhere else (until everyone starts illegally copying this website, that is).

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Slot Facts vs. B.S.

Myths and misinformation about slots could fill a book! So let my start by explaining why you can trust this article over what you might see elsewhere:

I use the very best sources, such as actual slot machine par sheets from the game manufacturers, and the actual Nevada Gaming Commission regulations (PDF) on slots. The par sheets describe the actual probabilities of the games, and the laws regulate how the games work.
I was an assistant to the legendary Wizard of Odds for ten years; he’s done the programming for countless slots for online casinos (which work exactly like their real-life counterparts), and I helped him with his early slot research, even before he published his infamous survey in 2001-02 of how loose and tight various Vegas casinos were.
I’ve done the actual mathematical design of actual slot machines myself, professionally, for-hire.
Casino Player magazine ran one of my articles as a cover story.
I also put my money where my mouth is. To show that there’s no such thing as a winning slot system, for years I’ve offered hard cash to anyone who could demonstrate a winning system. (The current challenge is listed further down, and is currently at $5000.) No system-seller has ever dared take me up on it. I also used to offer a separate challenge to those who claim that higher-paying slots are located in certain areas of the casino, but I retired that one after many years because it was hard to keep up with all the loopholes people kept trying to find to exploit the test, and nobody ever took me up on it anyway.
To summarize how slot machines work, every spin is totally random, just like a coin flip. Nothing influences the outcome, not how long it’s been since the last jackpot hit, not whether your slot card is inserted, not whether the machine has been running hot or cold, nothing. Every spin has identical chances as the previous spin, period. There’s more about this on my How Slot Machines Work page.

With that out of the way, let’s talk slots.

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Slot Karate Pig + 15 Free Spins Bonus

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