Beating The Slots
A Reader Reveals His “Method” For Winning Jackpots
By John Grochowski
The search for surefire ways to beat casino games is eternal, and there’s certainly no exception with slot machines. Whether by mail or email, Facebook or the phone, there’s no shortage of sharpies peddling their strategies to “beat” the slots.
But nearly all slot-beating systems are worthless. There is nothing players can do to change the results being spit out by random number generators. If someone tries to sell you a system to beat the slots, the best response is to keep your hand firmly on your wallet as you stride quickly away. You’d be far better off taking the money it costs to buy a system and put it a slot machine instead. There’s no less chance of hitting the jackpot without the system, and the least you’d get in the exchange is a few player rewards points.
Nevertheless, every now and then a player comes up with an idea that doesn’t sound too bad, on paper. Whether the idea is valid after further thought, or whether it’s at all practical, is another matter.
So it went with a reader named Ned, who made contact by phone, saying I’d want to talk to him for sure.
“I know how to beat the slot machines,” he said.
I’d heard that claim a few hundred times before, and they’ve never really delivered. They can’t. Except for an ever-decreasing number of games with banked bonuses, slot machines can’t be beaten in the long run. All casino games make money by paying winners less than the true odds, and there’s nothing you can do to shift the odds on most slots. Even on games with skill-based bonuses, the math of the games are set up so that even the most skilled players can’t make enough on the bonus to completely offset the house edge on the base game.
Still, Ned claimed he had a method that involved charting games with big progressive jackpots. Best of all, his advice was free. He wasn’t selling any system. Ned just offered his strategy advice for those willing — and bankrolled – enough to take it.
“I have four casinos that are within a 20-minute or half-hour drive of my apartment,” he said. “I drop in at all of them at least a couple of times a week and check out the jackpots at a few games I like. They’re all dollar, three-reel games with one progressive jackpot. I don’t like to complicate things with four-level progressives or anything like that, and to me the video games are for a little fun, not for gambling.
“Over a few weeks or a couple of months, I get a sense of how big the jackpots are when they hit. If I don’t see them hit, I ask an attendant how big they were. I chart that all out. If I see that a machine that starts with a $10,000 jackpot and I see jackpots clustered around, $14,000, $15,000, then I start playing at $15,000. I never play for a smaller jackpot on that machine.”
I suggested to Ned that his method would require a very large bankroll. Dollar slots can eat up the cash in a hurry, and there’s no guarantee that he’d be the one to hit the jackpot, even if he’s selective about when he plays.
“Oh, that’s true enough,” he said. “I’ve had some monumental losses. But when I hit the jackpot, that makes up for a lot.”
It all sounds good in theory. Ned’s trying to do the same thing video poker players have done for a couple of decades. In video poker, where we know the probabilities of a randomly shuffled electronic deck, we can calculate break-even points. We can calculate that a 9-6 Jacks or Better game pays 99.5 percent with expert play with a royal flush worth 4,000 coins for a five-coin wager, and that it reaches 100 percent with a 4,880-coin wager. An expert who played only when a progressive royal jackpot was more than 4,880 coins would have an edge on the game.
But players aren’t privy to the odds on slot machines, and can’t calculate jackpot levels. Furthermore, past results don’t affect future outcomes on slot machines. When the jackpot on one of Ned’s favorites is at $15,000, the odds of hitting the top jackpot are exactly the same as when it’s at $10,000.
Finally, the house edges on slot machines are much higher than those on the best video poker games. A 9-6 Jacks or Better machine returns 99.5 percent with expert play, and even a lower-paying 8-5 Jacks or Better game with reduced returns on full houses and flushes returns 97.3 percent to experts. On the three-reel slots Ned favors, we’re looking at returns of about 90 to 93 percent on quarter games, and 93 to 95 percent on dollars, depending on the individual casino and the state of competition in its area.
Let’s say Ned is playing a machine that has a starting jackpot level of $10,000 for a three-coin on a dollar machine where the top jackpot turns up an average of once per 100,000 plays. Let’s also say that at that jackpot level, the game pays 93 percent, broken down into 2 percent of total wagers paid on the top jackpot, and 91 percent on smaller hits.
If the progressive reaches $15,000, is Ned paying a positive game? No, it’s just turned that 93 percent game into a 94 percent game. It’s still a losing proposition.
If we knew the break-even point on progressive slot machines, it would be possible for players to have a mathematical edge, though it would take an extremely large bankroll and a willingness to take big losses. But that requires inside information—you’d need to take a look at the par sheets manufacturers give casinos detailing all the probabilities of each game.
Players don’t have access to par sheets. We don’t know which version of a game is offered in any given casino. Machines can look identical, but have different payback percentages, and different jackpot frequencies.
There are other considerations. If you play three coins a pull in a dollar slot at 500 pulls an hour, that’s a $1,500-an-hour risk. That’s an awful lot of money to put in play when you’re chasing something as elusive and rare as the top jackpot on a slot machine.
Also, on any jackpot of $1,200 or more, you must sign an IRS form W2G before the casino can pay you. Those who itemize taxes and who keep careful records can deduct gambling losses up to the amount of winnings. However, many states do not permit any deductions for gambling losses. If you’re playing in a state that does not allow you to deduct losses, and you’re chasing big progressive jackpots, then state income tax on winnings is part of the cost of playing.
Nonetheless, if you discipline yourself to play only when the jackpot reaches a certain high level, then you’ll be playing a game with a higher payback percentage than the same machine at its base level. Whether it reaches break-even level, or whether you hit the jackpots needed to profit is another matter, and it’s problematic at best. As always, the best approach is to make sure you stay within your bankroll, don’t bet money you can’t afford to lose, and play for fun.