Getting a Handle on Slots Odds

Before you decide to feed a dollar or twenty into a slot machine, you first need to understand the odds. Sad but true, coming up with a strategy to beat the odds — when they favor the house so strongly — is impossible.

The payout of slot machines generally falls somewhere between 90 and 95 percent. That means for every $100 you put into a machine, your average return is $90 to $95 (a loss of $5 to $10). This hefty house edge makes slots one of the worst games in the casino. When you factor in the speed of the games, you start to understand why slots are so profitable for modern casinos.

If you have the time and interest, you can search online for the payout rates for a given machine. Analysts have determined that that nickel slots tend to be the tightest (worst odds) machines, returning about 91 percent, while $1 and $5 slots are the loosest (best odds), returning about 94 to 95 percent.

Generally, you find the best machines and odds where the competition is most fierce. Try the Las Vegas Strip, where casinos are clustered closely together, each of them vying equally hard for your gambling dollar. On the other hand, playing slots on the water often leaves you all wet. Because cruise ship casinos aren’t under the jurisdiction of U.S. gaming laws, some have payouts as low as 80 percent. Consequently, you’re better off tucking your money back into your purse or wallet and waiting until you’re on dry land.

Stretching Your Money at the Slots

With literally hundreds of machine choices, perhaps the most difficult decision is which one to play. You want to choose the game that offers the highest theoretical return. Unfortunately, finding the best machine in a sea of slots can be a difficult task — and a bit like comparing apples to oranges. For example, one machine may pay 5,000 credits for its jackpot while another pays only 1,000. But the jackpots are only part of the equation: Your total return also depends on the other winning combinations and how frequently they hit.

Although you can’t do much to change the odds of hitting the jackpot, you can take steps to extend your gambling bankroll. Think of it this way: When you make your money last longer, you’re maximizing the value of your entertainment dollar at the slots. This section helps make your slot experience more memorable by explaining what you can do to make your money last longer.

Reading the paytable

The paytable (located on the top glass of each machine) provides the most valuable information about a slot machine. Be sure to read (what combinations will win, how many credits are required, and so on) and understand the paytables before you start playing. (Check out Figure 9-3 for an example of the glass-panel payout information.)

Machines that display a higher paytable usually have a greater number of symbols on each reel. For example, the older, three-reel slot machines have 20 symbols with 8,000 possible combinations (20 × 20 × 20), which means your odds of hitting the jackpot are 1 in 8,000. Likewise, a four-reel machine has odds of 1 in 160,000. The odds increase even more dramatically on a five-reel video machine: With 20 symbols, your chances of hitting the highest jackpot are about 1 in 3 million!

Having more reels and symbols doesn’t necessarily make a machine any better or any worse. It just creates more potential combinations. You hit the jackpot more frequently on the three-reel machines, but the amount of money you win is typically much less than a jackpot on a five-reel machine. So which type of machine should you play? In the long run, it hardly matters. The casino has a sizeable edge over you on every slot machine in the house.

Choosing the type of machine

If you feel a need for speed, then you may want to try the traditional three- reel machines. These machines usually spin faster than video machines, which means you get more plays in an hour — and more opportunities to lose money. On the other hand, video slot machines have those cool bonus rounds that come up a couple of times in an hour; they can slow down the pace, stretching both your bankroll and your enjoyment.

The final decision is yours. You can try them both and then select the one you like the best.

Choosing the denomination you bet

Slots are the only game in the casino where the odds depend on your bet. The higher the machine’s denomination, the higher the potential payback — normally.

However, returns vary from casino to casino, so the exact amount of payback (such as 91 percent for nickel machines and 95 percent for $5 machines) can be quite different depending on where you play. When a casino advertises that its dollar machines pay back 97 percent, for example, it usually means it pays up to 97 percent on some machines. These qualifications make a big difference because most casinos only have a couple of machines with the loosest payouts. The average for all the dollar machines is typically much less (usually around 93 percent), and there is no way to know which special machines are set to pay out at the higher rate (97 percent).

Even though a dollar machine may pay back 95 percent and a nickel machine only 90 percent, you still lose less money with the nickels in the long run because you risk less money each spin.

Here’s the math with five coins per spin: Dollar machines cost you 25¢ per pull ($5 times the house edge of 5 percent), and nickel machines cost you less than 3¢ per pull (25¢ times the house edge of 10 percent). So even though the house edge is twice as high on the nickel slots (10 percent versus 5 percent), the nickel slots are easier on your wallet (you only lose a few cents a spin on the nickel slots versus 25¢ each spin on the dollar machines).

Other potential budget-busters are the multibet, multipayline video slots that are so hot today — they can cost you a lot more money than normal machines. A nickel machine may cost a mere 5¢ for a single coin spin, but if you go with a max bet of 45 credits, your game actually costs $2.25 per spin. Some machines allow up to 90 credits, meaning you’d be betting $4.50 per spin! Surprisingly, even the max credit on the lowly penny slots can be 300 coins, or $3.

Even at the lowest denomination, max betting can rapidly drain your gambling stake, and you may soon find yourself feeding another $20 bill into the penny slot machine — not what you intended. When coin options are sky-high, you’re better off playing a dollar machine for one or two coins than a low-denomination max bet with worse odds.


To avoid that “kid-in-a-candy-store” confusion around slot machines, you need to know what kind of “candy” you want, right? Well, keep this point in mind: The big light on the top of a slot machine is called a candle, and the rim color of the light tells you the denomination of the machine. In most casinos, you can check for the following colored candles to decipher the denominations of each machine:

$1 machines are blue.
50-cent machines are gold.
Quarters are yellow.
Nickels are red.
Pennies don’t have a standard color.

By knowing these colored candles, you can instantly spot the denomination you want to play when you look across a casino.

Hitting an empty casino

If you’re a sun-worshipper, you probably pursue your slot jackpot in the evening because you prefer to spend your afternoons at the hotel pool, sipping your favorite drink. But what’s the best time to play the slots? Actually, the drowsy hour just before dawn is the deadest time in a casino. Light sleepers can grab an early morning cup of coffee and hit a nearly empty casino to enjoy a relatively peaceful playing time with the widest array of machines available. However, the odds never change on these machines, so don’t expect to find looser slots just because they’re lonely and looking for players.

Playing full credits on progressive games

When playing a progressive machine, you need to keep one hard-and- fast rule in mind: Always play the maximum number of credits each spin. If you don’t, you greatly dilute your odds because a big part of the payback in progressive machines is predicated on hitting the jackpot with max coins. If you don’t have the bankroll to play the maximum number of coins, then play a non-progressive machine where the payback is unaffected by the number of coins played. See the section “Increasing wagers with multipliers” for more information.

Playing max credits does have its downside, though. Proficient players can easily get in 600 spins an hour on most machines. If you play the max number of credits each time, your money can vanish darn fast. An average loss can be $100 an hour — or more — at many dollar machines, which makes for a pretty expensive hobby.

If you’re new to slots, your safest bet may be to stick to two-credit, single payline machines. Although they don’t offer a large jackpot, they at least stretch your bankroll, enabling you to play longer and enjoy more of that one- armed bandit euphoria you sat down to experience in the first place.

Maximizing your fun

We’re fairly negative about slots. These machines carry a high price tag for their fun. But we can’t ignore the fact that there’s something addicting to those whirring, humming sirens. And the fact that they’re so simple to play makes them irresistible to most casino guests. So if you can’t say no to slots, we suggest you keep the following tips in mind to enhance your relationship with these aptly named one-armed bandits:

Leave your myths and superstitions at home. Rid yourself of any myths or hunches about hot and cold machines.

Do some investigative work. Find out which casinos have the best paybacks on their slot machines before you take your trip. A good way to do your homework is by subscribing to Casino Player Magazine or Midwest Gaming and Travel.

Stay within your means. Never play a game that you don’t understand or one that requires larger bets than you planned on making.

Remember the odds. Slot machines are negative expectation games. The longer you play, the more you lose. So take frequent breaks and pace yourself and your bankroll.

Be realistic. The odds of hitting the Megabucks jackpot are much worse than your chance of getting hit in the head by an asteroid.

Slow down. Savor your jackpots and enjoy the journey. Because of the high house odds, the faster you play, the more you lose.

Double-check your payouts. On your big wins, always make sure you get paid correctly before rushing to the next spin. Also, be careful to cash out your credits before you leave the machine.

You also want to make sure you bring your ID. You must have a valid driver’s license or government ID to get paid on any large jackpot ($1,200 or more). And while you’re at it, comb your hair. You want to look good for the paparazzi when they snap a photo of you holding your oversized cardboard check.

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