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A Different Animal

Online slot games turn the payback-percentage model on its ear

By Frank Legato


For 35 years, this magazine and its sister publication, Strictly Slots, have advised players on where to find the highest payback percentages on slot machines.

By way of definition, a payback percentage is the percentage of all wagers, from all players of a particular slot game, that are returned to all of those players as winnings. Contrary to a myth still believed by many, a 90 percent payback doesn’t mean you’ll win 90 cents for every dollar you wager. It means that a game, for its entire life on the slot floor, will return 90 percent of the money wagered as winnings. Even a game with a 100 percent payback delivers losing results half the time over its life.

Slot manufacturers give casinos a choice from several payback programs on each game. Casinos, in general, have stuck to the same payback policies for each slot denomination. Our advice has always been to pick the highest denomination you can afford, because as a rule, casinos award the highest wagers with the highest returns.

Consequently, we have always recommended that players looking for the highest payback percentages choose traditional mechanical reel-spinners in dollar or higher denominations. In general, those games on casino floors will return anywhere from 94 percent to 98 percent of all wagers to players over time. (Closer to 94 percent; $2, $5 and higher denominations will return those big paybacks.)

Quarter slots are more middle-of-the-road, returning somewhere in the neighborhood of 92 percent.

The lowest returns on the slot floor, ironically, are found in the most popular games, those penny multi-line offerings. The return on those games generally ranges from 88 percent to 90 percent in most places.

For the past decade, a handful of states have legalized online casinos. As this sector of the casino industry has grown, the variety in terms of the game selection has grown right along with it. All of the major slot suppliers now port their games over to the online world.

Aside from the fact that players don’t experience the feel of hardware elements like bonus wheels, big bash buttons, even joysticks on a few games, the online versions of popular slot games play, sound and look just like their counterparts on the casino floor.

There is one more very big difference in online casinos compared to the brick-and-mortar world: The online games offer a much larger payback percentage.

In the world of internet gaming, payback percentage is known as “return to player,” or RTP. Where on the physical casino floor, those popular penny games usually return less than 90 percent, online, the payback normally hovers around 96 percent.

That 96 percent model applies to all game styles, from the multi-line five-reel game to traditional three-reel games that replicate those mechanical reel-spinners on the floor.

In addition to the sheer return numbers, a big difference from physical casinos is that the RTP on a given game is no secret. Internet casinos routinely list the RTP for all slot games. On a casino floor, good luck finding payback numbers anywhere.

This doesn’t mean you should cut up your player’s club card and only play slots online. While those online games may offer a higher return over time, many players—myself included—don’t view slot play as something to be done at home sitting on your couch or in your easy chair, or on your phone while on the bus. Slots are part of the casino experience. You’re out of the house, in an exciting environment with hosts and cocktail servers. You’re steps from a restaurant, bar or theater to entertain you during breaks from slot play.

Even the slot games themselves lose much in the translation to online play: The “Look Up!” message when it’s time for the bonus wheel to spin. The players gathered around watching the spin and anticipating the reward as the wheel slows down. The big, often cushy chairs on the giant-sized slot machines that seem to proliferate endlessly on the casino floors.

The big-screen animation. The high-definition graphics. Booming surround-sound audio. The community-style bonuses, where awards will flash across all the games in the bank until landing at one lucky player’s machine.

Finally, while many view slot play as a solitary pastime, there is something to be said about the camaraderie that develops among players in a crowded casino—the atmosphere can be electric—and human contact in general, be it from a slot host or attendant or server.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting that the online slot experience is to be avoided. As we’ve seen, the returns are much higher, and playing a slot game is a good way to pass the time while chasing a smaller house edge. It’s also a good way to familiarize yourself with the ins and outs of a slot game before you even step foot in a casino—many of the most popular games are on free-to-play social casino sites as well as the for-money internet casinos.

But for my money, I’ll take the casino-resort atmosphere every time. Just show me to my dollar Ten Times Pay game, and I’ll be happy. (For a while, anyway.) •


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