When you can’t just bet the minimum
By John Grochowski
My wife Marcy and I play a mix of penny slots when we go to the casino together—progressives, non-progressives, games with pick-a-prize bonuses, games with free spins, and games with and without pop culture tie-ins. It was at a progressive recently that another player muttered as he spun the video reels.
“One coin,” was the repeated mantra. “Why won’t they let me play one coin?”
I kept my eyes on my own game, and on Marcy’s. We stop and watch each other’s bonus events. For us, it’s part of the day’s fun.
Eventually, the mutterer decided he needed some feedback.
“You know, you used to be able to win at these games when they let you bet one coin.” I replied, “Oh?” The questioning inﬂection gave him his chance to continue.
“Yeah, these progressive games where the jackpot is the same size no matter how much you bet. Why play all the lines or bet more than one coin per line when you get the same jackpot for betting less?”
I didn’t think an actual explanation would be particularly well received, so I just nodded and went back to the game.
Later on, though, Marcy asked, “How do they let diﬀerent bets play for the same jackpot? They can’t really be oﬀering an incentive to bet less, so what do they do?”
If casinos and slot manufacturers really set up games so that all bet sizes were eligible for the same jackpots without reducing the chances of the lowest rollers winning, then the payback percentage would be higher with smaller bets—the less you bet, the better. That would undermine proﬁtability, so that’s not going to happen.
There are ways to address the issue. One is to require a separate bet to be eligible for the progressive jackpots. That separate bet then funds the progressives.
Let’s say you and I are playing a 30-line penny slot. We’re both activating all the paylines, but I’m betting one coin per line and you’re betting ﬁve per line—my 30 cents vs. your $1.50.
But that covers only the main game, where a winner pays you ﬁve times what the same combination pays me.
On this hypothetical machine, activating the progressive requires a separate 15-cent bet. Now I’m betting 45 cents and you’re betting $1.65, but we’re playing for the same jackpots because we’re betting equal amounts on the progressive.
There is no advantage to betting small. If I don’t make the progressive bet, I can’t collect jackpots. Another way, the most common today, is to have a random number generator select a jackpot amount. A portion of each bet is added to the jackpot, and if you’re the player whose bet causes the pot to reach the randomly selected amount, you win it.
Let’s say you and I again are playing a 30- line penny game, and I’m betting one coin per line for 30 cents and you’re playing ﬁve coins per line at $1.50. This time, there is no separate progressive bet, but an RNG is selecting a jackpot total.
On each spin, I’m betting 30 pennies and, to simplify a bit, I have 30 chances for my bet to push the progressive meter to the jackpot level. With your bigger bet, you have 150 chances to push the pot to winner status.
Now we can play for the same size jackpot because my smaller bet is balanced by your greater chance of winning. If we kept it up for days on end and tallied at the end, you’d bet ﬁve times as much as me, but you’d also have ﬁve times as many jackpots.
If the game permitted my next-door mutterer to play only one line and bet one coin, yet be eligible for the same jackpots, my 30- coin bet would give me 30 times the chance of winning as he had, and your 150-coin bet would give you a chance 150 times as great.
There are still penny games on slot ﬂoors that allow you to play one line, one coin at a time. They are diminishing in number as machines are produced that require you to at least cover all the paylines. Now 40-line games that require bets of at least 40 cents, or 50-line games with 50-cent minimums, have become common.
On some machines, bets to activate progressives or other bonus features are now required. I recently played a game with a 40-cent minimum bet, and it was broken down on the button panel as 35 lines plus feature activation.
In the slot industry, the games are called “forced bet” machines, and they were inevitable once penny slots became the most popular denomination.
When video slots began their rise in the 1990s, the early favorites were nickel games with ﬁve, then nine, then 15 paylines. Most players covered all the paylines at one or two coins per line. Few bet the max, and a small portion bet the one-line, one-coin minimum.
Within a few years, penny games started to take over. Players who bet one nickel at a time were a problem for casinos, but one-cent players were barely paying for the electricity to run the machines —if that.
Hence forced-bet games. I don’t have a real problem with a casino refusing to accept a slot bet of less than 40 cents any more than I have a problem with a casino refusing to accept table bets of less than $5, though terminology seems wrong to call a 40-cent minimum game a penny slot.
Before long, all video slots will be forced-bet games, with one coin at a time play a relic of the past.
But with all due respect to my muttering slot neighbor, that relic never included an advantage for low-betting progressive players.