I have never been a gambler. On a few occassions when in Las Vegas or Reno, I played the slots for a while. Here in Washington, casinos are everywhere. A few weeks ago I went to a local casino and tried the slots. As luck would have it, on my fourth or fifth try on a penny slot (50 Lions), I won $1,600. This got my attention. I played for a few more hours and actually increased my take by a couple of hundred. Very cool.
I discovered a few things that day. The most surprising is that I really have fun playing slot machines. My prior experience was that mostly playing a slot is a dull, repetitive activity with little of interest. However, the new video slots were actually fun! You get little shows, bonus rounds, all sorts of activity that captured my interest. So, I found a new hobby of sorts.
The first thing I did after that fun weekend was to see what I could find on the web. There is a lot of slot machine advice out there. Most of it is really stupid. I did manage to learn how slots work and what, if anything, you can do to improve the outcome. Of course, I tested these theories by observation and actual play. First here is what I will discuss:
- Slot machine location in the casino
- Payout percentages
- “Loose” and “Tight” slots
- Best bet for winning (0r at least not losing much)
Location in the Casino and tight and loose slots
Virtually every article says that slot machines near the entrances and gaming tables are tight (don’t pay often) and machines near the snack bar, rest rooms, and cashiers are loose (pay frequently). The theory is that if people eating (in the case of the snack bar) see winning going on, they will rush their meal to get back to win money. The same is true of rest rooms and cashiers, though in those cases the theory is that a player who may have decided to leave will stay to join in on the winning.
There may be some truth to this. Casinos do move machines around all the time. However, the ability to have tight or loose machines is debatable. All modern slot machines work the same way. There is an internal computer that contains something known as a random number generator (RNG). This RNG spits out numbers at the rate of thousands per second. When you push the button (pull the handle), the slot’s computer takes the next several numbers (one number for each reel) and uses them to determine what you will see and win. The final outcome of the spin is known within a fraction of a second after you start the play. All the rolling around of reels and other stuff is just showbiz. The actual pay or no pay is calculated in that split second.
Knowing that, it’s hard to understand how some slots are tight or loose. Now just because random numbers determine the outcome of any spin, doesn’t mean the casino is gambling. It’s not. Let’s take a quick look inside the machine’s brain. Each reel has a certain number of symbols (cards, animals, whatever). Let’s say in one game there are 10 symbols. One symbol if it comes up across all the reels will pay the jackpot. The number of symbols is not the number of choices available to the computer. While you see ten symbols, the program has 64 “slots”…the random number is going to end up between 1 and 64. The program assigns slots to each symbol. So, probably only one slot is assigned to the jackpot on each reel. Other symbols will have more than one slot assigned to them. You can calculate the machine’s payout over time by knowing how these slots are assigned. If one of 64 slots is assigned to the jackpot on each reel, and the machine has 3 reels, the probability you will win that jackpot is 1 in 64 x 64 x 64 or 1 in 262,144. So you can see that the probability any combination will show can be calculated.
The slot machine maker can program any payout rate the casino wants. In most states there is a legal minimum, usually around 75% (the machine pays $75 out of every hundred taken in). In practice, most casinos buy there machnes with at least 90% payout. If they don’t pay high percentages, people will go to another casino. One myth is that in the “control room” of the casino, slot payout rates can be changed at any time. That’s not true, it’s illegal, and in fact a new chip from the manufacturer would need to be installed in the machine to change the payout rate.
As any slot player knows, some machines do seem to pay more often than others. Well, random determined actions can certainly clump (ten jackpots in a row), who knows. The fact is that the chance of a jackpot is the same on every spin, regardless of when the last payout was made.
Chances are good (though no one will admit it) that machines in a casino will have different payout rates, thus creating loose or tight slots. I think the machines near the snack bar do pay better. But what do I know?
As I mentioned before, the overall payout for a machine is mathematically determined by how the slots are assigned for each reel. That means over time (years sometimes), a machine will pay back the assigned percentage to the player and the casino gets the rest.
This has no effect on what will happen when you play. But there is a strategy buried in this data for the player. We know that over a long period of time (lots of bets), we will lose at the rate determined by the slot payout. So if the slot pays 90%, over time we should lose 10% of our money. Over a shorter period of time we could lose everything or win a fortune. That’s what makes playing random-determined games fun.
Knowing this, you can reduce the chances of losing it all by planning your bets. To do this, you have to be careful about which machines you choose. The minimum size of your bet should be determined by what you can afford and how the slot pays. Slot wins are calculated using two variables: pay lines and mulitpliers.
The pay line is the position of symbols on a reel that will win you money. In the simplest case, the pay line is a straight line drawn horizontally across all the reels. The payout is based on which (and how many) of a symbol appear in that line. Most modern machines have many pay lines that zig zag across the reels. Usually you “buy” the paylines. On a penny machine, a one-cent bet buys the center pay line, additional money buys more pay lines. Always buy all of the pay lines. You will regret it if you don’t. So if you need to bet 50-cents on a penny machine to get all the pay lines, that is the minimum you should bet. If you can’t afford that, find a different machine with a better deal.
Multipliers reward you for increasing your bet. If a machine has 15 pay lines (penny machine) then the minimum bet to cover all of those lines is 15 cents. On many machines, larger bets will multiply your winnings by some factor. If you want to bet more than the minimum, look for machines with fair multipliers. In this example, a 50-cent bet would probably have a 4x or 5x multiplier. On other machines, particularly progressive jackpot machines, you must bet the maximum to be eligible for the big wins. On machines of that type, if you can’t afford the maximum bet, walk away.
How do you determine what you need as a bankroll? First, what you can afford to lose. You should always assume you will lose all the money you gamble. If you end up winning, or not losing it all, good for you! If all you can afford is $40 and you play a machine that requires a dollar bet to cover all the lines, you have 40 spins to get a payoff. Most modern machines pay off at least 50% of the time, but the payoffs are usually less than your bet. So it slows down cleaning you out, but in the end you will drop it all into the machine.
If, on the other hand, you have enough money for say, 200 spins, you improve the chance that some of those spins will be for more than you bet, possibly considerably more. If you could afford thousands of spins, and have the patience to sit long enough to play them, the odds are pretty good you will lose that 10% (on a 90%) machine that is the casino’s share. That’s why it is called gambling.
So, as far as I can tell the best slots strategy is:
- Determine how much you can afford to lose. That is your bankroll
- Pick machines that allow you to bet the maximum or at least cover all lines at a cost that will let you execute at least 200 spins.
- If you believe the common wisdom, pick machines away from table games and entrances and near snack bars, cashiers, and bathrooms.
- Pick machines that are fun to play, that may not offer giant jackposts (which you probably won’t win anyway). Pick the ones with extra features, free spins, exciting sounds and music. Remember you are buying entertainment, not trying to beat the casino.
- Quit when you have lost your bankroll or get tired of playing. Note, I am not saying to quit while you have any amount of winnings. You aren’t going to the casino to win, but to have fun. Let the fun level drive your decision to stay or leave.
I am very sure of the math. I am not so sure about where machines are located mattering. I do know that I really like playing slots. The ones I play make me laugh and provide me with suspense and entertainment. If you aren’t having fun, go home!