Slot Machines

by Steve Bourie  Learn more about the author 

Virtually anyone who visits a casino, even for the first time, is familiar with a slot machine and how it operates: just put in your money, pull the handle and wait a few seconds to see if you win. It isn’t intimidating like table games where you really need some knowledge of the rules before you play and it’s this basic simplicity that accounts for much of the success of slot machines in the modern American casino.

As a matter of fact, the biggest money-maker for casinos is the slot machine with approximately 60 to 65 percent of the average casino’s profits being generated by slot machine play. As an example, in Nevada’s fiscal year ending June 30, 1998 the total win by all of the state’s casinos was a little more than $7.8 billion. Of that amount, slightly more than $5 billion, or about 64 percent, was from slot machine winnings.

With this in mind, you must ask yourself, “can I really win money by playing slot machines?” The answer is a resounding yes…and no. First the “no” part: in simplest terms a slot machine makes money for the casino by paying out less money than it takes in. In some states, such as Nevada and New Jersey, the minimum amount to be returned is regulated. In Nevada the minimum is 75 percent and in New Jersey it’s 83 percent. However, if you look at the slot payback percentages for those particular states in this book you will see that the actual average payback percentages are much higher. In New Jersey it’s about 91 percent and in Nevada it’s about 95 percent. Even though the actual paybacks are higher than the law requires, you can still see that on average for every $1 you play in an Atlantic City slot machine you will lose 9¢ and in a Las Vegas slot machine you will lose 5¢. Therefore, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that if you stand in front of a slot machine and continue to pump in your money, eventually, you will lose it all. On average, it will take you longer to lose it in Las Vegas rather than Atlantic City, but the result is still the same: you will go broke.

Gee, sounds kind of depressing, doesn’t it? Well, cheer up because now we go on to the “yes” part. But, before we talk about that, let’s first try to understand how slot machines work. All modern slot machines contain a random number generator (RNG) which is used to control the payback percentage for each machine. When a casino orders a slot machine it tells the manufacturer what percentage it wants that machine to pay back and that amount is programmed into the RNG. A casino can always change the payback percentage, but in order to do that it must go back to the manufacturer to get a new RNG programmed with the new amount. For this reason, most casinos rarely change their payback percentages unless there is a major revision in their marketing philosophy. And what exactly is a random number generator? Well, it’s a little computer chip that is constantly working (as its name implies) to generate number combinations on a random basis. It does this extremely fast and is capable of producing hundreds of combinations each second. When you put in a coin, or push the bet button, the RNG stops and the combination it stops at is used to determine where the reels will stop in the pay window. Unlike video poker machines, you have no way of knowing what a slot machine is programmed to pay back just by looking at it. The only way to tell is by knowing what is programmed into the RNG.

Okay, now let’s get back to the “yes” part. Yes, you can win money on slot machines by using a little knowledge, practicing some money management and, mostly, having lots of luck. First, the knowledge part. You need to know what kind of player you are and how much risk you are willing to take. Do you want to go for the giant progressive jackpot that could make you a millionaire in an instant or would you be content walking away just a few dollars ahead?

An example of a slot machine with a wide-area progressive jackpot is Nevada’s Megabucks where the jackpot starts at $5 million. These $1 machines are located at more than 125 Nevada casinos at various locations around the state and are linked together by a computer. It’s fine if that’s the kind of machine you want to play, but keep in mind that the odds are fairly astronomical of you hitting that big jackpot. Also, the overall payback percentage is lower on these machines than the average $1 machine. During Nevada’s fiscal year ending June 30, 1998 Megabucks averaged around 87% payback while the typical $1 machine in Nevada averaged a little more than 95%. So, be aware that if you play the machines with the wide-area progressive jackpots you’ll win fewer small payouts and it will be very difficult to leave as a winner. Unless, of course, you hit that big one! If you really like to play the wide-area progressive machines your best bet is probably to set aside a small percentage of your bankroll (maybe 10 to 15 percent) for chasing that big jackpot and saving the rest for the regular machines.

One other thing you should know about playing these wide-area progressives is that on most of them, including Megabucks, you will receive your jackpot in equal payments over a period of years (usually 25). You can avoid this, however, by playing at one of the casinos that link slot machines at their own properties and will pay you in one lump sum. The Circus Bucks slots at Circus Circus casinos in Nevada offer this as well as the Million Dollar Babies at Caesars Palace. There is also a wide-area progressive slot system called Cool Millions which will pay the first one million dollars immediately.

Knowledge also comes into play when deciding how many coins to bet. You should always look at the payback schedule posted on the machine to see if a bonus is payed for playing the maximum number of coins that the machine will accept.

For example, if it’s a two-coin machine and the jackpot payout is 500 coins when you bet one coin, but it pays you 1,200 coins when you bet two coins, then that machine is paying you a 200 coin bonus for playing the maximum number of coins and you should always bet the maximum two coins to take advantage of that bonus. However, if it’s a two-coin machine that will pay you 500 coins for a one-coin bet and 1,000 coins for a two-coin bet, then there is no advantage to making the maximum bet on that machine and you should only bet the minimum amount.

Knowledge of which casinos offer the best payback percentages is also helpful. When available, we print that information in this book to help you decide where to go for the best return on your slot machine dollar. You may want to go to the Las Vegas Strip to see the free pirate show at Treasure Island, but take a look at the slot machine payback percentages for the Strip area casinos in the Las Vegas section and you’ll see that you can get better returns for your slot machine dollar by playing at the off-Strip area casinos.

The final bit of knowledge you need concerns slot clubs. Every major casino has a slot club and you should make it a point to join the slot club before you insert your first coin. It doesn’t cost anything to join and as a member you will be able to earn complimentaries from the casinos in the form of cash, food, shows, drinks, rooms or other “freebies.” When you join the club you’ll be issued a card (similar to a credit card) that you insert in the machine before you start to play and it will track how much you bet, as well as how long you play. Naturally, the more money you gamble, the more “freebies” you’ll earn. Just make sure you don’t get carried away and bet more than you’re comfortable with just to earn some extra “comps.” Ideally, you want to get “comps” for gambling that you were going to do anyway and not be pressured into betting more than you had planned.

Now let’s talk about money management. The first thing you have to remember when playing slot machines is that there is no skill involved. Unlike blackjack or video poker, there are no decisions you can make that will affect whether you win or lose. It is strictly luck, or the lack of it, that will determine whether or not you win. However, when you are lucky enough to get ahead (even if it’s just a little) that’s where the money management factor comes in. As stated earlier, the longer you stand in front of a machine and put in your money, the more likely you are to go broke. Therefore, there is only one way you can walk away a winner and that’s to make sure that when you do win, you don’t put it all back in. You really need to set a “win goal” for yourself and to stop when you reach it. A realistic example would be a “win goal” of roughly 25 percent of your bankroll. If you started with $400, then you should stop if you win about $100. The “win goal” you decide on is up to you, but keep in mind that the higher your goal, the harder it will be to reach it, so be practical. And what if you should happen to reach your goal? Take a break! Go have a meal, see a show, visit the lounge for a drink or even just take a walk around the casino. You may have the urge to keep playing, but if you can just take a break from the machines, even it’s just for a short time, you’ll have the satisfaction of leaving as a winner. If, later on, you get really bored and find that you just have to go back to the machines you can avoid a total loss by not risking more than half of your winnings and by playing on smaller denomination machines. If you made your winnings on $1 machines, move down to quarters. If you won on quarters, move down to nickels. The idea now is basically to kill some time and have a little fun knowing that no matter what happens you’ll still leave as a winner.

And now, let’s move on to luck. As stated previously, the ultimate decider in whether or not you win is how lucky you are when you play. But, is there anything you can do to help you choose a “lucky” or “winning” machine? Not really, because there is no such thing as a “winning” machine. Remember, in the long run, no machine will pay out more than it takes in. There are, however, some things you could try to help you find the more generous machines and avoid the stingy ones. Keep in mind that all of the slot machine payback percentages shown in this book are averages. Some machines are programmed to pay back more than average and some machines are programmed to pay less. Also, like everything else in life, machines have good cycles where they pay out more than average and bad cycles where they pay out less than average. Ultimately, what you want to find is a high-paying machine in a good cycle. Of course if I knew how to find that machine I wouldn’t be writing this story, instead I’d be standing in front of it with a $100 bill in my hand and looking for the change attendant. So, I guess you’ll have to settle for my two recommendations as to how you might be able to find the better paying machines.

First, is the “accounting” method. With this method you always start with a pre-determined number of coins and after playing them in the machine you take an accounting of your results. If you have more than you started with you stay at that machine and start another cycle. Just keep doing this until the machine returns less than you started with. As an example, let’s say you start with 20 coins. After playing those 20 coins you count how many you got back. If it’s more than 20 you start over again with another 20 coins and then do another accounting. If, after any accounting, you get back less than the 20 you started with, stop playing and move on to a different machine. This is an especially good method because you have to slow down your play to take periodic accountings and you will always have an accurate idea of how well you are doing.

The other method is even simpler and requires no math. It’s called the “baseball” method and is based on the principle of three strikes and you’re out. Just play a machine until it loses three times in a row, then move on to a different machine. Both of these methods will prevent you from losing a lot of money in a machine that is either set for a low payback or is going through a bad cycle; yet both will still allow you to take advantage of a high payback machine or one that is going through a good cycle. Give one of them a try on your next trip.

Good luck!

American Casino Guide