Few casino games are as mesmerizing and appealing as slots which attract hoards of gamblers to casino floors worldwide on a day-to-day basis. Part of this appeal can be attributed to their exciting, fast-paced gameplay. Slots have a way of enticing one with their ceaseless purring, flashing lights, and vibrant symbols. But most of all, they lull players with the promise of big and easy wins that can change lives with a simple push of a button.
Gamblers have been chasing the elusive dream of turning consistent profits on these constantly buzzing machines ever since one-arm bandits made their first appearance in landbased casinos. Following the launch of the first online casinos in the late 1990s, slots have gradually taken the gambling community by storm, establishing themselves as the single most popular casino game of all times.
Few lucky devils have indeed managed to make their dreams a reality by winning huge jackpots on the slots, causing many others to ask themselves “Can I win consistently on these machines and if so, what’s the secret recipe for success?”. In this article, we shall attempt to answer this question as comprehensively as possible, help you understand how slots actually work and provide you with several pieces of advice that can help you maximize your return.
Can You Really Beat the Slots?
The short answer to this question is “No” but let us elaborate on this matter a bit more. The first thing you must understand about slots is that the outcomes of all spins are invariably based on chance. Similarly to other games of chance like craps, baccarat, and roulette, slots are governed by independent trials processes, which is to say future results are completely separate from past results. What has happened in the past has no impact on what is about to happen on the next rounds of play.
It is for this very reason the odds in chance-based games like slots never change. The secret to casinos’ long-term profitability lies in the fact the house always structures its games in such a way so as to skew the long-term theoretical return they render in its favor. Worst of all, there is nothing you can do to change this.
No playing strategy or betting system can ever help you escape from the advantage the casino has over players in games governed by independent trials. The more time you spend hitting the spin button of a slot machine, the higher the chances of these unfavorable odds catching up to you and the bigger the likelihood of you suffering serious losses.
There are lots of scammers claiming to be able to beat the slots consistently in an attempt to profit at the expense of gullible players by selling them different books and “learning” materials. What they fail to mention is that each slot is literally programmed to return less money than it takes from players. It is impossible to win at slots over the long run since the games are designed to give the house a long-term mathematical advantage.
This is not to say you will consistently lose money when spinning the reels, though. Everything is possible over the short term, even you winning a progressive jackpot on the very first press of the button. The most important thing to remember is there is no beating the slots. The best you can do is view these games as a potentially profitable form of entertainment in the short term, have fun, and try to play within the boundaries of your budget.
The Odds of Hitting Winning Combinations
Before we proceed to tackle the theoretical return percentages and the house edge in slots, let’s say a few words about how you can calculate the likelihood of hitting a payout on a given slot machine. The probability of scoring a winning combination is related to the number of reels the slot has and the number of symbols each of these reels contains. But how do you calculate this probability?
Determining the Total of All Possible Combinations
We shall illustrate with an example using the simplest of fruit machines imaginable, one that plays on 3 reels and has 6 symbols on top of each of these reels. The first thing we must do is calculate the number of all possible symbol combinations in the game. This is done by multiplying the number of symbols each individual reel contains by the number of symbols on each one of the remaining reels.
So with the above example, the calculation will run as follows: 6 * 6 * 6 = 216 possible symbol combinations on a 3-reel slot with 6 symbols per reel (a lucky 7, a lemon, a watermelon, a cherry, a plum, and an orange). Remember this is the overall number of all possible combinations but not all of them will result in a win.
Figuring Out the Number of Winning Combinations
You can figure out the number of winning combinations by examining the slot’s paytable. Let’s suppose it looks like this for the slot from our example, assuming there is only one payline across the middle of the reels and you bet a single coin per spin:
- Triple 7s pay 20 coins
- Triple oranges pay 10 coins
- Triple lemons pay 10 coins
- Triple cherries pay 10 coins
- Triple plums pay 10 coins
- Triple watermelons pay 10 coins
- Two 7s pay 4 coins
- One 7 pays 1 coin (i.e. you break even on this bet)
Respectively, the hypothetical winning combinations on this fruit machine will be the following ones:
- 1 combination of three 7s for the maximum prize of 20 coins
- 5 combinations for each of the fruits – lemons, watermelons, plums, cherries, and oranges
- 15 combinations for two 7s since one of the three reels will inevitably contain a fruit symbol
- 75 combinations for a single 7 because the remaining two reels will contain one of the five fruit symbols
Understandably, you can figure out the total of all winning combinations by adding up the figures from above. From this, it follows there are 96 winning combinations on this 3-reel slot, with a single payline, and 6 symbols per reel. You can use this number to derive the probability of hitting a payout by dividing the total of winning combinations by the overall number of possible combinations like this: 96 / 216 = 44.44%.
Calculating Your Theoretical Return
The knowledge we have about the hypothetical slot from the above example makes it possible for us to determine the game’s theoretical return. The long-term payout percentage of a slot is derived by adding up all possible payouts and then dividing the result by the overall number of possible combinations. The calculation will be the following: ((1 * 20) + (5 * 10) + (15 * 4) + (75 * 1)) / 216 = 205 / 216 = 0.9490 * 100 = 94.90%.
What this number shows us is that the house will give back only $94.90 per every $100 wagered on this slot and retain the remaining $5.10. In the long term, you will lose $5.10 out of every $100 you bet if you are playing this hypothetical game no matter what you do. Respectively, if you flat bet $2 on every round and play 150 spins per hour, this feat will inevitably cost you $16 from every $300 wagered on this slot because 94.90% of $300 is equal to around $284 and the house gets to collect the rest. In other words, the machine would return only $0.95 per each $1 players collectively wager on it over a very long period of time.
The House Edge on Slot Machines
The number of reels has a direct impact on your winning chances since more reels result in a greater number of possible combinations. For instance, if the fruit slot from above had 5 reels with 20 symbols each, the number of possible symbol combinations will increase drastically to 3.2 million!
Any fifth grader out there should be able to calculate the number of winning combinations and the average return percentage of a simple mechanical fruit machine with 3 reels and a limited number of symbols on each.
The more symbols are added to the reels, the more difficult calculations will be, so much so as to render it impossible to perform the calculations from earlier. Keep in mind mechanical slot machines are largely a thing of the past now. Today, the majority of slot machines use microprocessors to control the outcomes which makes it possible to add many more symbols on the reels. Many 5-reel video slots have up to 256 symbols per reel, rendering it next to impossible for the average player to figure out the theoretical return percentages by themselves.
The good news is there is no need for performing complex calculations with advanced slots since the majority of online casinos would readily list their slot games’ average payout percentages.
As you may have noticed from our fruit machine example, the return percentage is directly related to the house edge. You can determine that advantage of the house on any given slot by subtracting its return percentage from 100. Generally, slots are negative-expectation games since their average long-term return to players is under 100%, causing you to lose money if you play for prolonged periods of time. If the payout percentage exceeds 100%, this would mean the casino is actually losing money to players on a positive-expectation game. Needless to say, it makes no sense for a gambling establishment to offer games where patrons have an edge over the house.
Many inexperienced reel spinners misinterpret payout percentages and believe they can sit down for an hour at a 97.80% slot and lose only $2.20 if they wager $100 over the course of the next sixty minutes. This line of reasoning is false, firstly because these average percentages even themselves out over millions of spins made by thousands of players on the same machine.
If you play only twenty rounds on a given slot, your results will deviate tremendously from the advertised return percentage. You may end up winning big or incurring some serious losses. There is no beating the slots but you can do yourself a favor by selecting only games with a high theoretical return, preferably over 96% or even over 97%.
Making Sense of Slots’ Variance
Variance is inherent to all casino games and slots are not an exception. In statistics, the term is used to denote the average of a given set of data. In the context of slots, variance (sometimes called volatility) refers to the amount of risk players expose their bankrolls to when betting on a given game.
It should be specified that variance does not impact the long-term theoretical return of a slot. The more hours you spend playing a slot, the more variance will balance itself out to match the corresponding average return. What variance does impact, however, are the swings players experience in the short run.
Slots can be grouped into two categories, those of low variance and those of high variance. It makes sense slots with low variance are less volatile for your bankroll since you will register frequent but small wins that will prevent you from slipping into the red.
Slots with high variance are the opposite – wins will be few and far between but you will collect much larger amounts on winning spins that will help you rebound after losing streaks. These high-volatility games are recommended to spinners with sufficient bankrolls. Slots with high variance can wipe you out in a matter of minutes when you are grossly under-bankrolled because there is a good chance you will run out of money before you rebound with the coveted big win.
Sadly, the only way to figure out a given slot’s variance is through personal experience as very few online casinos would post such information about their games. Our advice is to find a gambling website where slots can be tried in demo mode with play money and spin the reels until you get a good idea how risky your slots of choice are.
Advice on Maximizing Your Long-Term Slot Returns
We hope all of these explanations have sufficed to educate you and dissuade you from attempting to “beat” the casinos at negative-expectation games such as slots. You can, however, approach slots smartly so that you reduce your overall long-term losses, maximize your returns, and have lots of fun in the process. Here are a few pieces of advice that can help beginner players improve their chances of turning a short-term profit when spinning the reels.
Scout for Higher-Denomination Machines if Your Budget Allows It
All experienced reel spinners will confirm slots with higher coin denominations tend to have better payback percentages. This can partially be explained with the fact the overall amount of money wagered on high-denomination slots is larger, allowing gambling operators to loosen their purse strings and offer higher theoretical return for these games. Also, this serves as an incentive for players since they are rewarded for wagering more on these slots.
By way of comparison, the Mississippi Gaming Commission released the average slot return of casinos across the state in October 2015, revealing the machines with coin denomination of $0.01 offered a return of about 92% whereas those with a denomination of $5 returned at significantly higher rates that exceeded 96%.
We should warn you, though, that you should opt for high-denomination slots only if your gambling budget allows it. If you are under-bankrolled, there is a good chance your spinning session may be rather short and disastrous, especially if you are playing slots with high variance.
Another thing to bear in mind is that slots with multiple paylines will often require you to bet one coin of your desired value on every line you activate. Needless to say, this increases the amount you wager per spin so these machines can make a greater dent in your small bankroll.
Research the Theoretical Return Percentages
All reel spinners should do their homework even if they play the slots only occasionally. Not all slots are created equal, especially when it comes to the theoretical return they yield. Make sure you do a little bit of research before you invest your money on any slot machine.
This may be a difficult task if you play in landbased casinos. The minimum return to player of slots is different depending on the jurisdiction, yet most landbased casinos are not willing to release the exact percentages of their machines as logically, this is against their interest. That being said, many trusted web-based casinos are in the habit of posting the theoretical return of all slots they offer, making it much easier for players to figure out which the most lucrative games are.
All licensed online casinos of good standing have their gaming libraries audited for fairness by independent authorities on a monthly basis and would publish the results on their websites. You can usually find this information near the bottom of the website’s homepage.
As a general rule, online casinos would offer higher return percentages on their slots in comparison to their landbased counterparts. Usually, the figures vary between 93% and 99% so playing slots online for entertainment purposes may be worth your while.
If playing online is not an option for you due to lack of regulations in your jurisdiction, we recommend you search for independent websites that publish the average return percentages of slots at different landbased casinos. Casino insiders are sometimes able to obtain this information and would provide it in online newsletters or publish it in various specialized magazines.
The bottom line is you should always choose the games with the highest player return you can possibly find. The casino will have a smaller edge in such games, causing you to lose less money over the long run.
Play for Shorter Periods of Time
Discipline is crucial for all gamblers, no matter whether they are playing slots or any other casino game. You should view slots as a form of entertainment and play responsibly, preferably for shorter periods of time.
The reason for this is quite simple – the house holds a constant edge over every slot player that manifests itself over long periods of time. Ever wondered why there are no windows and clocks inside gambling venues? Casinos are dying to make you lose track of time since the longer you play, the more bets you make. The more bets you make, the bigger the likelihood of the house edge expressing itself and eating away at your bankroll.
Anyone can win big over the course of half an hour if they are lucky due to variance. However, the results will be much different after you have gone through 100,000 spins on a given slot machine, especially if it has a lower payout percentage.
The following question arises – if players are supposed to lose only a small percentage of their bankrolls to the house why do so many people end up losing everything (100% of their sessions’ money) after hours of play? Well, this is because the casino advantage applies to the amount you wager per spin and not to the entire amount you have brought to the casino.
Just to convince you of the truthfulness of this statement, suppose you take $100 to the casino and take a seat at a slot machine with a 94.50% payout percentage and a house edge of 5.50%. If you wager $1 per spin and go through a total of 150 spins for the next hour, you would have wagered a total of $150 even though you have brought only $100 with you.
How is this possible, you wonder? This is because you will win on some spins in the course of your gameplay and would wager from your winnings. If fatigue and bad luck do not take their toll on you after playing for say twelve hours straight, you would have wagered a total of $1,800! And 5.50% of $1,800 is $99 – almost the exact amount of your starting bankroll.
Remember you should approach gambling the same way you approach alcohol – with measure and responsibility. Play slowly and for a short time to prevent the house edge from grinding at your entire session’s budget.
Play Max Bets when Shooting for the Progressive Jackpot
Many slot players dream about hitting it big on slots with progressive jackpots but kill their own chances of winning by ignoring the fact many of these games require you to wager the maximum number of coins per spin just to qualify for winning the huge pot.
Not betting the maximum on such games is almost equal to pouring your money down the drain since progressive slots usually have decidedly lower payout percentages to compensate for the massive jackpots they yield.
In some online games, like Microgaming’s progressive Mega Moolah, your chances of landing the big prize are proportionate to the amount you wager per spin – the bigger the bet, the better the odds of triggering the jackpot.
The same applies to many classic 3-reel slots, actually, even if they offer fixed jackpots only. If you take a look at the paytable of one such game, you will observe there is a noticeable disproportion between the maximum payouts offered for winning bets of one, two, and three coins. Thus, betting the maximum number of coins actually increases the slot’s payback percentage.
Here is another example with a Microgaming slot, Cash Clam, where the highest-paying combination awards 2,000 coins for one-coin wagers and 5,000 coins for two-coin wagers. If you hit this combination with a two-coin bet, your return will break down into 2,000 for the first coin and 3,000 coins for your second coin.
Your average payout for this winning combination with 2-coin bets would be 2,500 coins, so you get 500 coins extra. The bigger the average return on max-coin bets, the bigger the overall payout percentage becomes when you wager the maximum. Of course, you should consider whether your bankroll can sustain larger bets because wagering the maximum exposes more of your money to risk.
Have Your Slot Play Comped
Earning comp points in exchange for your betting action is a great way to increase your expected value. Landbased casinos reward players for their action by giving them comp points. Typically when you sit at a table or a slot machine, a floor person will approach you to offer you a players card.
This card is then inserted into slot machines each time you play to track the amount you wager along with your results. The number of comps you get depends on how much you bet and the rate of your play. If a member of the casino’s personnel does not approach you with this offer, there is no shame in asking for a players card yourself. Trust us, they will be happy to oblige you.
Online casinos, too, reward their players with comp points, usually as soon as you register and start betting real money. The play is rated in increments. For example, most casinos would offer you one point per every $10 wagered. You can exchange these points for more credits or even cash. Other casino offers, like deposit bonuses or free spins, can also work to your benefit if their wagering conditions are decent. The bottom line is all these perks can add to your expected value.
Stay within Your Budget’s Limits
This is the most important piece of advice we could possibly give you. It is essential for you to set a separate bankroll for slot play and manage it smartly. This money must be kept separately from the funds you use for day-to-day expenses and bills – these should be off limits.
You determine what amount you invest into slot play but under no circumstances should you gamble with money you cannot afford to lose financially or emotionally. Slots should be played for entertainment and you must stop as soon as betting is no longer fun. Never get fixated on recouping your losses, this can only lead to disastrous results.
If you have a restricted budget on hand, you should coordinate the amount you wager per spin with it. Variance should also be taken into account. If you play high-variance slots with a very small bankroll, your risk of ruin (ROR, i.e. the likelihood of losing your entire bankroll during the session) will be colossal. Your money simply will not suffice to carry you through the longer losing streaks inherent to high-variance games.
Choose the size of your bet per line wisely. You cannot expect to register considerable profits by wagering $10 per spin with a $100 bankroll. Chances are you will be wiped out before you know what hit you. As a general rule, gamblers are recommended not to invest more than 1% to 2% of their session bankroll in a single bet. Respectively, you should not wager more than $2 per spin with a $100 bank.
Last but not least, the surest way to emerge a short-term slot winner is to choose a win goal and a loss limit for your spinning session. Loss limits protect you from being wiped out and require you to quit playing when you have parted with a certain percentage of your session’s bankroll. This predetermined percentage varies between individual players but experts like the renowned author and professional gambler John Patrick advise us to stick to 50% or 60%.
Similarly, you must decide what your win goal should be but do not shoot for the stars. Your goal is to leave the casino with some net profits to your name, not to break the bank. If per chance, you are lucky enough to double your starting bankroll by hitting a high-paying combination or unlocking bonus features, you can pocket half of your net profits and continue betting with the remainder. This way, you still get to keep half of your net wins even if you lose the other half.
Settling for smaller but consistent profits is a sound piece of advice. Do not allow yourself to be tainted by cupidity as the only result you are likely to achieve is lose all your winnings to the house and then some.