Forget the old rule of always betting max coins
By John Grochowski
There is no magic formula for winning on the slots. No betting pattern, no duration of play before moving to a new machine, no pauses between spins, no using or withholding your players club card can sway the random number generator from making its appointed rounds.
However, there is one rule that’s been drilled into slot players’ heads for generations: To get the highest payback percentage, you have to bet maximum coins.
That’s a message I received the first time I spoke with a slot attendant in the 1980s, and it was in every book I read when I first got serious about casino games at the beginning of the 1990s. The Trump casinos long have used a character named “Max Coins” to deliver that very message: If you want the most a game has to offer, you have to bet the max.
But the slot world has undergone a complete transformation since I started play. And one of the things that has changed is this: Betting the max doesn’t always increase your payback percentage. On many machines, betting one coin per line yields the same percentage as betting the max.
There are exceptions in the cases of mystery bonuses and some progressives. But before getting into all that, let’s recap some of the ways slots have changed.
Before the video age, slots all had three mechanical reels, most had a single payline and maximum bets were either two or three coins. Nearly all progressive jackpots were one tier, with only the top-paying combination having a progressive payoff. Bonus events? Nobody had even heard of such a thing. They were still a few years in the future.
You can still find such games today, but the large majority of slots are on video today, usually with five reels instead of three. Bonus events are a given, often with several possibilities in the same game, including free spins, wheel spins, pick’em bonuses and more. Progressives usually are multiple tiers, and sometimes require a side bet.
And we’re not dealing with single paylines. We’re dealing with 20, 30, 40 and more lines, along with Reel Power-style no-payline games with 243 ways to win – and more with reels that are four symbols deep instead of the usual three.
To top that off, we’re presented with options of betting not one, two or three coins, but sometimes five, 10 or even 20 coins per line. A three-reel quarter game might take wagers of 25, 50 or 75 cents. A penny slot with 30 paylines and a max bet of 10 coins per line tops out at a $3 wager – that penny machine has a max bet four times the max bet on an old-style quarter game.
Many newer video slots are “forced bet” machines in which playing fewer lines is not an option. On a 40-line penny game, you might find buttons for bets of 40 cents, 80 cents, $1.20, $1.60 and $2, with no way to play just one line, a penny at a time.
With the potential for wagers that large, players naturally wonder if the old “bet the max” adage still applies. Check out a couple of recent emails to land in my inbox:
MARIE: “I don’t make max bets anymore. I can’t afford it! So I cover all the paylines and bet one or two coins per line. Still, it nags at me because we always were told to bet the max on slots. How badly am I missing out by not betting max?”
KARLA: “My mom is a slot player from way back. She’s in her 80s, and I’ll bet she’s been playing slots for at least 40 years. She told me to always bet the max on the slots, but even she doesn’t do it now. When I look around, nobody is betting the max. Should you?”
In most cases, no, there’s no advantage to it. To see the reason, let’s look at why max bets were recommended in the first place.
Larger bets do not make winning combinations occur more often. The random number generator works with the same number set no matter how many coins you bet, and the proportion of reel combinations you see will remain the same regardless of your bet size.
However, most slots with three mechanical reels have incentives to bet the max in the form of disproportionate top jackpots. On a hypothetical three-reel game with a three-coin maximum wager, you might find a top jackpot of 1,000 coins for a one-coin wager and have that doubled to 2,000 coins if you bet two coins instead.
If you bet the three-coin max, the jackpot on our hypothetical game doesn’t jump just another 1,000-coin increment to 3,000. It leaps to 5,000.
Instead of a jackpot being worth 1,000 credits per coin wagered, the max-coins bettor gets 1,666.7 credits per coin wagered. That higher per-coin payoff means the payback percentage is higher when you bet max coins.
Most video slots aren’t like that. Touch the screen to call up the pay table, and you’ll see the payoffs are proportionate throughout. If the top jackpot is 1,000 credits for a one-coin wager, it’ll be 2,000 for two, 3,000 for three and so on.
With no disproportionate jump, your average return per coin is the same at any bet size. The payback percentage remains the same, and betting the max will not increase the payback percentage. But that does not mean video slots have no incentives to make larger bets.
Here are a few reasons to play more than the minimum:
PROGRESSIVE JACKPOTS WITH SEPARATE BET
If you play progressive machines, it’s important to make sure you’re eligible for the jackpots.
On three-reel games with a single jackpot, progressives give a ramped up version of the usual incentive to bet the max. The hypothetical game that has a top jackpot of 1,000 coins with a one-coin wager, 2,000 for two coins and a leap to 5,000 with three instead pays 1,000, 2000 and then jumps to the progressive pot if you bet the max. If you don’t bet the max, you can’t win the progressive.
That was tried in the early days of video slots. It didn’t work very well. The difference between the minimum bet and maximum is so large most players didn’t see a progressive jackpot as reason enough to bet out of their comfort zone. Nickel slots drew most of the play early in the rise of video slots, and players who had no qualms about betting 75 cents on a 25-cent progressive weren’t about to bet $3.75 on a 15-line video slot with a max bet of five coins per line.
Today, you’re much more likely to see a penny game with multitiered progressive jackpots that require separate bets to be eligible. Players who bet the minimum per line are eligible for the same jackpots as those who bet the max, as long as they make the side bet. The side bet could be 10 coins, 15 coins or more depending on game and manufacturer.
If you’re going to play these games, you’re going to want to be eligible for the progressives. Make the side bet. If you don’t want to bet that much, choose a different game.
PROGRESSIVE JACKPOTS WITH MYSTERY TRIGGERS
When all players at a bank of machines can play for the same jackpots, regardless of bet size, you’re looking at mystery jackpots. Jackpots and bonus events leading to jackpots aren’t won by lining up matching symbols; they just come as a surprise.
Usually, mystery jackpots are triggered when a player makes a bet that pushes the jackpot total to one that matches a target set by a random number generator. As on all progressives, a percentage of all wagers are added to the jackpot. If the RNG sets the target at $124.37, then the player whose wager pushes the pot to $124.37 wins it.
Players who bet more contribute more per play to the jackpot growth, and therefore have more chances per play for their bet to push the pot to the target. If you play mystery progressives, then betting more per spin does give you a better chance at winning a jackpot.
Even some non-progressive games incorporate mystery elements, where a bonus launches without landing trigger symbols on the reels. One way to set that up is to have an RNG set a target amount of play since the last mystery bonus. The more you bet, the less time it takes to push that wagering total to the target amount and launch a bonus.
On some games, that requires a separate bet. The base game carries the same payback percentage regardless of how many coins you wager, but you’re not eligible for the main attraction if you don’t make the extra bet.
But progressives and mystery payouts aside, the reason to bet more than the minimum on most games starts and stops with a desire for bigger payoffs, with a recognition that betting more also means risk of bigger losses. For the majority, payback percentages do not increase with bigger bets and there’s no reason for even a small twinge at betting less than the max.