How Do You Win on Slot Machines?

by Michael Stevens
on September 12, 2018
10

Minute Read

Slot machines are the most popular games in the casino, although they’re not as popular as they used to be. In some casinos, 80% of the profits are generated by the one-armed bandits. The question on everyone’s mind seems to be the same: how do you win on slot machines?

I wish I had a magical formula I could see you that would ensure you’d walk away from the slots a winner. Unfortunately, I don’t have one. Luckily, neither does anyone else.

Slot machines are entirely random, and they’re programmed to pay out less than the odds of winning, so in the long run, slots are good for nothing more than eating up your gambling bankroll. If you still want to play slots after understanding that, well, good for you. That’s not a problem.

There are some things you can do to improve the odds, though. That’s what I’ll focus on in the rest of this post—actual, practical things you can do to improve your odds of winning on slot machines.

1. Understand the Theoretical Cost of Playing Slot Machines

The savviest gamblers understand the math behind gambling games better than most people. If you grok the way slots work better than other people, you’ll be able to make better informed decisions about what to play and how.

The first concept to understand about slot machines is that each outcome has a probability attached to it. When you multiply those outcomes by the probability of achieving them and add them all up, you get the mathematically expected return for the game.

Here’s an absurd example that illustrates the point well:

You’re playing a slot machine that costs $1 per spin. 50% of the time, you’ll get a combination of symbols that will result in $1 in winnings. The other 50% of the time, you’ll get a combination that results in no winnings at all.

It’s easy to see, given these numbers, how the casino makes a guaranteed profit in the long run from a machine like this.

But to keep things interesting, slot machine designers have multiple combinations with multiple prize amounts. When you do all the math, such a game has a theoretical payback percentage—the percentage of each bet that the game returns in winnings.

These payback percentages vary wildly from game to game, from casino to casino, and from location to location. In competitive areas like the Strip in Las Vegas, slot machines might have a payback percentage of 96% on average. In non-competitive places like the airport, these games might have a payback percentage closer to 75%.

For the purposes of this post, I’m just going to assume that the average slot machine has a payback percentage of 88%. That’s the equivalent of a 12% house edge.

To calculate how much money you can expect to lose playing such a slot machine, you simply multiply the amount of money you’re betting per spin by the number of spins you’re making per hour. Then you multiply that by the house edge, and that’s your hourly expected loss.

So if you’re playing a dollar slot machine and betting $3 per spin, and you’re making 600 spins per hour, you’re putting $1800 per hour into action.

The casino expects to win, on average—in the long run–$216 per hour.

That doesn’t compare favorably with other casino games, by the way. Contrast that with blackjack. Let’s say you’re playing blackjack with perfect basic strategy, and you’re getting in 100 hands per hour. And let’s also say you’re betting $5 per hand. That’s $500 per hour you’re putting into action.

If you’re using perfect basic strategy, the house edge in blackjack is probably 1%. Your expected hourly loss is $5 per hour.

That’s a big difference.

One might almost assume from this that the best way to win at slot machines is to refuse to play them at all.

2. Understand What’s So Attractive about Slot Machines

Most gamblers understand on some level, even if it’s almost unconsciously, that slot machines are a lousy bet.

But they’re still the most popular game in the casino.

How does that happen?

I can guess at some of the reasons slots are so popular. Some of these reasons are easy to understand, too. Remember how I pointed out that you’d only lose $5/hour playing blackjack if you use perfect basic strategy?

Memorizing and implementing basic strategy in blackjack requires work and effort. Some gamblers don’t want to put in any effort toward that sort of thing. They’d prefer to play a game that’s easy to understand and easy to play. And nothing could be easier than mindlessly pressing the spin button on a slot machine.

Also, when you play slot machines, you usually have the opportunity to win a prize of 1000 units or so on a single spin. (A “unit” is the amount you’re betting. If you’re betting a dollar, then a lot of slot machines will have a jackpot of $1000.) Many gamblers like the idea of winning a big prize.

Compare that again to blackjack. You go to all that effort to learn basic strategy, and the biggest prize you can win is 150% of your initial bet. It might be a little higher than that if you get to split your hand or double down.  But realistically, most of the time, you’re only going to win a single unit or 2 on a hand of blackjack.

Finally, slot machines are designed for the express purpose of keeping gamblers interested. The companies which design these machines spend countless dollars researching which images, color schemes, and sound effects are going to be most attractive to gamblers. Wheel of Fortune slot machines are no accident. They’re the most popular game for a reason.

If your goal is to play an easy game where you have a shot at a big jackpot, slots might be the right game for you. You just want to decide beforehand if the trade-off is worth it.

3. Improving Your Chances of Winning and Reducing Your Potential Losses Are Both Realistic, Worthy Goals

Let’s talk about how you can make playing slot machines less expensive in the long run.

The first and easiest way to reduce the amount of money you lose playing slots is to slow way down. The biggest factor determining your hourly expected loss is the number of spins you make per hour.

Really fast slots players can make 1200 spins per hour. Average slots players probably get in 600 spins per hour.

But if you go slow, you can probably get down to 300 spins per hour.

In the example I gave earlier, we predicted you’d lose $216 on average per hour. If you were to slow down and only place 300 spins per hour, that number would drop to $108 per hour.

Maybe that doesn’t increase your probability of being a big winner, but if you really want to maximize your probability of winning, you have to switch to a different game entirely—one where you can get an edge. That’s impossible with slots. To get an edge, you need to be able to count cards in blackjack or play expert level poker. There are other ways, too, but they’re an order of magnitude of difference from slot machine play.

You can also reduce your expected losses by playing for less money. There’s a big difference between making 300 spins per hour at $3 per spin and making 300 spins per hour at 75 cents per spin. Your total hourly action drops from $900 per hour to $225 per hour.

With a 12% house edge, that’s a difference of $108/hour versus $27/hour in expected losses.

4. Use Some Practical Tips for Improving Your Chances

That 12% house edge that I keep mentioning is just for illustrative purposes. The truth is, most slot machines have different payout percentages. Your goal should be to find a slot machine with a higher payback percentage rather than a lower payback percentage.

One easy way to compare slot machines is to look at the size of the jackpot. The bigger the top prize is, the lower the payback percentage is. This is especially true when you start looking at progressive slot machine jackpots.

The probability of winning one of those huge $10 million+ jackpots is comparable to winning the lottery, which is to say that the odds are astronomical. Since a portion of the overall payback percentage for that game is attributable to that jackpot, which you’ll probably never win, your practical payback percentage is much lower.

So if you’re choosing between 2 slot machines, choose the one with the smaller jackpot.

Here’s another trick:

Play the highest denomination machine you can afford. The higher the denomination, the better the payback percentage is. That’s a general rule of thumb, but it’s not bad strategy.

And since a lot of lower denomination slot machines push the multiple lines/multiple coins play so hard, you might be betting the same amount per spin anyway. If you’re playing a penny slot machine and betting on 5 lines with 5 coins per line, you’re betting 25 cents per spin.

You’d probably have better odds playing a quarter machine for one payline and one coin per spin.

And it should go without saying that the location where you’re playing has more to do with the payback percentage than almost any other factor.

But I’m not talking about whether the machine is near the restaurant or on the end of a bank of machines or something like that. I’m talking about the location of the casino itself.

The biggest payback percentages on slots in the United States are at the Las Vegas Strip casinos. That’s because that’s the most competitive marketplace there is.

On the other hand, if you’re at the airport in Las Vegas, well… those are the only games in town, right?

They don’t have any real competition, and they know you’re just killing time and playing on a lark, so they don’t need to provide a competitive payback percentage to get your business.

This is also true of bars and gas stations, etc. They’re not competing with other gambling businesses. They’re just looking to make a quick buck while you’re stranded there doing whatever kind of business you need done.

5. Don’t Pay ANY Attention to Silly Slot Machine Systems Being Sold by So-Called Experts

One of the most cringe-worthy gambling books I’ve ever read was John Patrick’s Slots. It’s a collection of 2 or 3 dozen slot machine systems that are supposed to increase your probability of being a winner at slots.

Most of his advice has to do with switching machines when you’re “running cold.” He has a limit for the number of “naked pulls” you’ll accept. (I think it was 7.)

A naked pull is a spin of the reels where you don’t win anything. If you get 7 naked spins in a row, that’s supposed to be a sign that the machine is cold and you should switch to another game.

He also has some general guidelines for session bankrolls. He suggests that you have a win goal and a loss limit for each session, something like 20% of your bankroll for that session. So if you sit down at a game with $100, and you get down to $80, it’s time to quit and switch machines. Same thing if you get up to $120. Quit and switch machines.

Of course, voodoo like this has no effect on your probability of winning or even of walking away a winner. It’s just silly.

You’ll also find people selling books about slots that are supposedly written by “slot machine technicians” who can help you predict when a machine is getting ready to pay out. One of these clues is supposedly the “zig zag” method. The idea is that you find a slot machine where 2 out of 3 winnings symbols are visible at the same time. Such a machine is supposedly close to paying out.

This is just nonsense, too. Every spin of the reels is an independent event, and what happened on previous spins has no bearing on what’s going to happen on subsequent spins.

6. Join the Players’ Club

I have mixed feelings about the players’ club. On one hand, I’m not crazy about sharing my personal information with the casino. They’re going to use that information to advertise to me. I understand why that makes sense for them, but it makes less sense for me.

But from a purely mathematical perspective, it makes sense to join the slots club and always play with the card inserted into the machine. The casino measures how much time you spend on the machines and rewards you with rebates and comps accordingly.

Don’t buy into the myth that playing slots with the card inserted interferes with your ability to win. That’s just silly. The casinos don’t need to cheat in this way. The games already have a mathematical edge, and the rebates and comps are programmed in such a way that the casino is still hugely profitable.

But even though the comps are much smaller than the amount of money you’re expected to lose, it’s still money that you shouldn’t walk away from. After all, there’s no difference between playing with the card inserted and not inserting the card.

You should milk those comps for everything they’re worth.

Conclusion

How do you win on slot machines?

The short answer is simple enough:

Get lucky.

Slot machine games are entirely random, so there’s no way to get an edge over these games. Anyone who tries to tell you different is hoping you’ll buy something from them. And what they’re selling is worthless.

The best you can do is hope to lower the casino’s edge over you. You can also adjust the way you play so that you minimize the amount of money you lose.

But forget about finding some foolproof way to beat the slot machines. People selling that information are the modern equivalent of snake oil salesmen.

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