Mastering the Machines: Slots

From its Wild West roots in San Francisco, the slot machine has evolved into one of the most diverse and high-tech games in the casino. In fact, slots are now the most popular feature in a casino, enticing players with an endless variety of colors, shapes, types, and styles. Yet, for all their gadgets and gizmos, slot machines are blessedly easy to play. You press the button. That’s it — and that just may be the reason behind their popularity.

Even though slot machines are cash cows for casinos (generating nearly two- thirds of the revenue in most casinos), they’re far and away the most popular game for gamblers. And, although there are several reasons for this appeal, the main one is spelled J-A-C-K-P-O-T! The chance to win life-changing money is the rainbow that draws many eternal optimists back to these machines, trip after trip, push after push, ever searching for their own pot of gold.

In this chapter, we focus on the most important facts about slots: how to play them and recognize different types and how to understand the odds and stretch your bankroll and how to take advantage of comps. After you read this chapter, you’ll be ready for the one-armed bandits.

Understanding How to Play the Slots

The design of slot machines remained the same in the early years after they were developed, except for one detail: The reels expanded from 10 to 20 symbols, increasing the possible combinations from 1,000 to 8,000. By creating so many more ways to win, this new version stirred up greater excitement and promised a much bigger jackpot.

Although modern machines present several new twists and updates to the original game, the goal for gamblers remains the same: to line up identical symbols in a row. Machines vary: They may have five reels instead of three. They may have multiple paylines. They may have more options than one- coin-a-pop. They may have buttons to push rather than a handle to pull. But the concept hasn’t changed — line up a row of identical symbols, up–down, left–right, or diagonal, and call yourself a winner.

Slot machines used to accept and dispense only coins. Today you’d be hard- pressed to find a machine that accepts coins. All machines accept bills of every denomination. You insert your paper currency (or a payout ticket) into a bill receptor, and then the machine shows a credit for the amount of cash you inserted.

This section shows you how to play slots and what you need to know about the inner workings of a slot machine. We also cover the all-important payouts and how technology has changed the way you play slots.


Slot machines make the perfect employees. They require no wages, tips, workmen’s comp, or insurance benefits. They never call in sick, show up late, or have to leave early. Slot machines are also easy to play, they’re available 24/7, and their computerized operating system allows gamblers to feed in paper currency at a frantic pace — producing a high profit margin for the house.

Playing the game: Easy as pushing a button

Although hitting a jackpot is the biggest attraction for slot fans, the machines are popular for other reasons. One of the biggest pluses is their simplicity. With most machines, you don’t have to master a complicated strategy or decipher some finicky rules. You simply put in your money and watch the reels spin. You could even play blind-folded because the machine automatically pays you on every winner — whether you realize it or not.

Several buttons on the machine allow you to streamline your playing (translation: drain your wallet faster). Look for the following:

Bet One: Press this button when you want to wager just one credit.

Bet Max: This button permits you to play the maximum number of credits that the machine allows per spin (each machine has an established max).

Line buttons: Instead of playing just the line that runs horizontally across the middle of the reels, you can play lines that run every which way across the screen on some machines. The line buttons allow you to choose how many lines to play: 1, 5, 9, 15 — even up to 30. Of course, the more lines you play, the more money you bet.

Play X per line buttons: These buttons allow you to increase the number of credits you play per line. If one credit is 25 cents, two credits would be 50 cents and so on. Again, the more credits you play, the more money you bet.

Service: Push this button when you want to summon a slot attendant. Cash Out: Ready to cash out and move on? Just press here to receive any unused credit.

Dissecting the innards: How slots work

Novice slots players may wonder if there is any strategy to pressing the button that increases the likelihood of a win. Unfortunately no strategy exists. You can press lightly or forcefully. You can blink three times, click your heels together, or say a little prayer. It makes no difference. After you make your move, the outcome is preordained.

The computerized Random Number Generator (RNG) chip determines the outcome of each spin. The RNG is always at work, cycling through millions of random numbers, even when the machine isn’t being played. The moment you press the spin button, the generator freezes the current numbers and their corresponding stops on the reels.

Because of RNG technology, nothing can be done to predict or change the outcome. Even if you play on an interactive machine that allows you to make some decisions, slot machines are cold creatures that can’t be influenced by anything you do.

On newer machines, your eyes just see a representation of the old-fashioned spinning reels. The RNG chip has predetermined the outcome — the images flashing before you on the machine are just for show.

Each spin is completely independent of any previous results. As its name suggests, the RNG is random. There is no pattern or cycle that repeats after it has run its course.

Getting wise to virtual reel-ality

Although the RNG is random, it does allow for some tweaking of individual machines. For example, although the machines appear to have only 20 different symbols on each reel, the RNG creates virtual reels that actually have many more possibilities. This option creates bigger jackpots, but it also allows casinos to adjust the odds (or payback) for each machine. So, two identical machines can sit side by side, yet their odds for winning can be different.

But don’t misunderstand. The casino doesn’t change the payouts at will. There is no magic switch that allows an evil slot supervisor behind the green curtain to crank back the odds when the casino is losing. Reprogramming the RNG chips requires a great deal of paperwork and effort, so this adjustment is rare after the machines are on the floor. The manufacturer usually sets the exact payback before shipping the machine to the casino.

Entering the coinless age: Cashout tickets

Paper ticket technology, called TITO (ticket-in, ticket-out), has swept through casinos across the country. This change has revived penny and nickel slots because gamblers don’t have to carry rolls of coins and a $20 win doesn’t require hauling 400 coins to the cashier’s cage. (Refer to Figure 9-1 for an example of a payout ticket.)

TITO also cuts down overhead and employee costs for casinos because they no longer have the hassle of refilling machines with thousands of pounds of coins. Here’s another important feature for the casino: Players can spin more reels per hour on a coinless machine because they don’t have to stop and feed coins into the slot. The result? Higher profit. Talk about a win-win for the casino!

TITO slot machines accept both cash and machine tickets to start play, so there’s no need for a coin hopper (metal bin to catch coins). For psychological effects, however, the machines still provide that irresistible sound of clinking coins when a player hits a jackpot or cashes out his credits (that lovely Dink! Dink! Dink! as if real coins were pouring through the trough).

The ticket also gives you, the player, more flexibility. For example, if you’ve played six or eight spins on a machine without hitting anything, you can move to another machine by cashing out (pressing the cash out button). The machine prints a new ticket with your remaining credit balance so you can take it to another machine, even one that uses a different denomination. After you’re done playing, redeem your ticket at the cashier’s window or a ticket redemption machine. (Ticket redemption machines work similar to ATMs. You insert your ticket, the machine reads the bar code on the ticket, and voila! The value of the ticket is dispensed to you, right down to the last penny.)

Don’t throw away or lose your ticket — make sure you cash it in before you leave. Some tickets are valid for up to six months. Just be sure to turn it in before it expires. Casinos earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on the revenue from unclaimed tickets (even though most of them are under $1).

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