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Payback percentage, and its effect on overall play remains misunderstood

By Frank Legato


For decades, readers of this magazine and our sister publication, Strictly Slots, have been given information on what many feel is the most important statistic in the world of slot machines: the payback percentage.

These days, as online casinos spread, the payback percentage of a given slot game is more often referred to as the game’s “RTP,” for “return to player.” Most online casinos include the statistic up front on the games they offer.

However, while it may be the most important statistic attached to slot machines, it also remains misunderstood by many. “Payback percentage,” and even more so “return to player,” can be misleading. For slot games, a 90 percent payback does not mean you will be paid back 90 percent of your wagers. And “return to player” is technically incorrect, as the more accurate term would be “return to players,” as in all players.

The story begins at the slot development facilities of the manufacturers. Part of designing slot machines is a mathematician’s job. Programmers map out the reels, paylines and “stops”—meaning the symbol positions on which each reel can stop. Determinations are made as numbers are assigned to each stop—symbol or blank—and duplicate numbers are assigned to some or all.

The high-paying symbols receive the fewest numbers; blanks receive the most. The numbers ultimately will determine the game’s theoretical payback percentage, or RTP. Once the math is complete, a game will be run through literally millions of simulated spins, each with a constant wager amount. In the end, the programmer will come up with a percentage of the total amount wagered on those millions of spins that were returned as payouts. That’s the theoretical RTP.

The percentage number is meant to accurately predict the percentage of wagers returned to players over the life of a machine. Generally, that means years of play by hundreds of players. Thus, a 95 percent RTP means that the house will keep 5 percent of the wagers made over the life of a slot, and 95 percent of those wagers will be returned to the total number of people who play that game.

Ever since the recession of 2008-2009 and reinforced by the COVID-19 crisis and subsequent shutdowns, the overall slot-machine RTP offered by casinos has definitely gone down from where it was in the early 2000s. There are academic studies that claim players can’t tell the difference, but where you definitely can tell the difference is in the long term.

In the long term, as our readers have told us again and again, slot players are not winning as much as they once did. When you look at your own long-term play, you can definitely notice when there are more losing nights than winning nights.

In the short term, anything can happen. You can come out ahead, personally achieving an RTP of more than 100 percent. Conversely, you can lose all your money on a game with a 100 percent RTP. Just ask video poker players.

In the old days, gamblers dominated the slot floor. Dollar mechanical reel spinners typically returned 95 percent or more of all wagers, but repeat players knew going in that they could be sweating to outlast that 5 percent house edge, hopefully lasting long enough to land big jackpots and come out ahead.

These days, it’s all about entertainment. You can still find a good gambler’s slot machine, but the most popular games are the penny slots with multiple paylines, hold-and-spin bonus events, spinning wheels and progressive jackpots.

As it happens, those penny games are the stingiest on the slot floor, from an RTP perspective. Many carry an RTP under 90 percent, or put another way, an 11 percent or 12 percent house edge. But people love them, because they’re entertaining. They may realize that they’ll be more likely to lose than win in the end, but it’s the ride that matters more than the destination.

Personally, I’m more of a gambler. I play mechanical reel-spinners whenever I can find them, and I play a lot of video poker. Off the slot floor, I play craps.

But that’s me. Casinos are and should be considered entertainment. So play what you like. Even if there are games with a better RTP.

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