The laws of randomness ultimately decide whether you win or lose on a slot machine. Are there ways to help luck along?
by Frank Legato
You have heard it time and again: When it comes to whether you win or lose on a slot machine, luck ultimately rules the day.
Every modern slot machine operates on the “virtual reel” system, which means all possible results on the reels—physical or video—are assigned numbers that are loaded into a computer program. Low-paying results are duplicated with many numbers corresponding to the same result; high-paying results get only a few or one number. This manipulates the odds in the house’s favor, but the random number generator still may choose any result on any spin, including the top jackpot.
If the RNG chooses a high-paying result, it’s because you are “lucky.” Since all results are possible on any spin, you hope Lady Luck will visit for a winning slot session.
But is that all? Is every one of our sessions on a slot machine at the mercy of luck alone? Can we do anything to help luck along—other than simply crossing our fingers?
The answer is yes. We can help luck along by doing everything we can to stay in the game, so we are still sitting at the machine when luck decides to visit.
Staying in the game means knowing how your game is most likely to behave, in the way of hit frequencies, frequency of bonus rounds, and how much you should be betting on each spin to yield the maximum overall return. These elements change from game to game, and they can change while you are sitting and playing one game.
The key to staying ahead of the curve—to knowing when to bet the max and when to simply cover the paylines, to knowing what kind of bankroll will be required for success in the first place—is to have a good idea of the way the math program in the slot’s computer is programmed. Most of us are not mathematicians. However, every slot machine reveals visual clues to how the math is programmed. Those clues lie in the pay schedule, and in the case of video, in the help screens you can activate with the press of a button.
What follows are some of the clues evident in games from each of the major styles of slot machines out there. Each of these games has brethren on the slot floor with the same visual clues, since each manufacturer has followed similar math models in similar styles of game. There are exceptions, “wild cards” if you will, which we will note—the biggest one is denomination. However, each style of pay schedule, and each style of bonus event you find in the help screens, will tell you something about the bankroll and average wager that will keep you in the game so you are home when Lady Luck comes to call.
Let’s start with the basics: The classic reel-spinner. Three reels, one payline, few or no bonus features—your basic slot machine. Despite the proliferation of penny video slots with 20 or more paylines and multiple bonus features, the classics have survived, because of thousands of players who know how to get the most out of them.
Three games exemplify the things to look for in a classic reel-spinner: Double Diamond and Red, White & Blue by IGT; and Blazing 7s by Bally. There are variations of each of these games in all game styles, but the classic versions provide the visual blueprints to note in the classic reel-spinning genre.
Start with denomination: You will find the games in quarters and dollars, for the most part. Play dollars if you can afford it—these are the games returning 96 percent or more in local Las Vegas casinos. In fact, these are the games that will be in the occasional bank marked “guaranteed 99 percent payback.” If you see one of those, sit down. (Just make sure it doesn’t say “up to” 99 percent payback. That means that probably only one game in the bank is set at the high payback rate.)
The pay schedule for the two-coin dollar version of Double Diamond tells you how these games behave. You will see only seven possible winning combinations, and—importantly—wild symbols that multiply the jackpot when they land in winning combinations. This tells you that this is a volatile game. “Volatile” as applied to a slot machine means that you will alternate between big wins and stretches of nothing. You will experience dry spells—maybe only one in seven spins, on average, will land a winning combination. But, because of the multiplying wild symbols, the occasional juicy hit will replenish your credit meter.
The key to being in the game when that juicy hit comes is to manage your bankroll; start with enough to weather those dry spells. No less than $100 for quarters or $500 for dollars. Then, be patient if you hit a dry spell.
Should you bet the max? Again, look at the pay schedule. Double Diamond is a “multiplier” game, which means all jackpots for two or three coins are exact multiples of the single-coin version. However, some of the pay schedules out there will offer a substantial bonus for landing the top jackpot. The basic two-coin dollar version pays 800-for-1 for three wild symbols. Look a the top of the schedule—if max-coin on the two-coin version is 1,600, then betting a single coin returns exactly the same percentage as betting the max. It’s up to you; do what your bankroll dictates. However, there are many Double Diamond games out there that will pay perhaps 2,000 coins or 3,000 coins for the top jackpot at max-coin. If there is a good bonus for the top jackpot at max-coin, go ahead and bet the max. If Lady Luck visits, you’ll be glad you did.
These same basic principles apply to Red, White & Blue and Blazing 7s, but the clues in these games betray a slightly different behavior—mainly, they are less volatile. You can figure your money may last a little longer. How can you tell by looking? There are 15 possible winning combinations on the pay schedule — more than twice the combinations on Double Diamond. There are more bar combinations (certain combinations of single, double and triple bars give additional wins); there are more “7” combinations (mixed, red, white, blue, and the top red, white and blue in sequence). More ways to win means the programmers tweaked the math to result in more frequent, if often lower, winning combinations. But again, look at the top of the schedule to determine your average wager—it’s either a straight multiplier or a multiplier with a top-jackpot bonus. Let that dictate your bet.
Bally’s Blazing 7s and its variations—Flaming 7s, Red Hot 7s—are what are known as “buy-a-pay” machines in the trade. The basic bankroll requirements are the same as the IGT games, as indicated by the same visual clues—quarter and dollar denominations, and only eight winning combinations in the pay schedule. The multiple “7” combinations in the schedule mean a little more hit frequency and less volatility than a Double Diamond–style game, but not by much, because of the small number of winning combinations.
The main difference in a buy-a-pay game—you must bet the max to activate all the winning combinations. You can spot a buy-a-pay game by simply looking at the schedule. It will say “First Coin,” “Second Coin” and “Third Coin” across the top, with all the winning combinations activated by each increment of your bet listed below. You will see that the top Blazing 7s win is either only listed in the “Third Coin” row, or in some cases, the second and third rows with a bonus for the max-coin bet. Either way, bet the max.
Reel-Spinning Bonus Games
The basic guidelines to classic reel-spinners listed above apply in general to all quarter and dollar reel-spinners, but your bankroll and average bet requirements change a bit when you add a mechanical bonus game in the top box.
The base games in top-box bonus slots are invariably similar to, or the same as, the basics outlined above. IGT uses Double Diamond or its “descendants”—Five Times Pay, Ten Times Pay, etc.—as the base game for Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy! and most of its Barcrest top-box bonus games, such as Top Dollar. Bally mines the Blazing 7s mold for wheel games like Monte Carlo, Playboy and Blues Brothers. WMS Gaming generally follows the same model in bonus reel-spinners in the Monopoly series. AC Coin and Slot uses Double Diamond in practically all of its bonus slots, including the most popular, like Slotto and Empire.
The big difference between the classics and the bonus reel-spinners? In the bonus reel-spinners, you’ve got to love the bonus round, because that is, in all likelihood, where you are going to hit the nice wins. The overall payback percentage will be the same for the quarter and dollar versions of these bonus games as for their cousins in the stand-alone classics. However, the money for the bonus-round winnings has to come from somewhere. So, the manufacturers split the payback percentage between the primary game and the bonus round. The base game is going to be dropped down to, say, 85 percent return to dedicate 14 or 15 percent of the payback to the bonus.
In practice, that means your juicy wins on the primary Double Diamond or Blazing 7s game are not going to be nearly as frequent as on the stand-alone versions of those games. The overall hit frequency will be less. The frequency of those hits will be replaced, hopefully, by the frequency of the bonus round.
Keep an eye on those bonus amounts while playing this style of game. First, look at the amounts—is the top bonus 1,000 coins? If it is a small number like 50—or if, when you go to the bonus round, that’s what you consistently get, then that bonus had better come up with amazing frequency—every 25 or 30 spins—for you to want to stay on that machine.
The successful bonus games are the ones where the programmers have successfully walked the tightrope between frequency of hits in the primary game, the frequency of the bonus round and the amount of the bonus wins. IGT’s Wheel of Fortune does that—this is why the game has been around for nearly a decade. Bally’s Monte Carlo does it, as does WMS Gaming’s Monopoly series. These games should be your model—they have had staying power because they offer the player bang for the buck, with frequent bonus rounds, the occasional big hit in the bonus and enough hit frequency in the primary game to keep things interesting between bonus rounds.
Should you bet the max? Again, the answer is on the slot glass. Look at the pay schedules. A maximum bet is normally required to qualify for the bonus round. If it is, bet the max. Remember, hitting in the bonus round is what makes these games worthwhile. If you bet less than the max where required for the bonus, you are playing a primary game only, with a payback percentage of perhaps 85 percent. If you don’t want to play for the bonus, go to the stand-alone version. In dollars, you’ll be giving up maybe 4 percent house edge instead of 15 percent.
If you find a bonus slot where max-coin is not required to qualify for the bonus (there are a few out there), then apply the same requirements for your buy-in as we outlined for classic reel-spinners.
The preceding rules apply to the classic three-reel model of slot machine—the games that have been around for decades; the games which first established the slot machine as the king of the casino games. The multiline video genre has depleted the ranks of slot traditionalist somewhat, with higher hit frequencies, lower buy-ins and generally more playing time for the gaming dollar.
However, for the past year or two, a lot of video players have been coming back to the reels. The reason is a new breed of reel-spinner, one that behaves like a video slot. IGT, Bally, Aristocrat, Konami and other manufacturers now offer reel-spinning slots with five reels and 9, 15, even 20 or more paylines. Your bankroll and bet requirements on these games will be totally different than on the classic reel-spinners. You will see them in nickel and penny denominations, or even in multidenominational setups allowing you to choose between pennies, 2-cent and nickel denominations. All of them will be set up to pay out in tickets, with coin-free play the norm.
There are two basic styles of these games out there, and generally, you will find that the volatility is different according to the denomination. The nickel, five-line reel-spinners—the five-reel version of IGT’s Double Diamond, or of Bally’s Blazing 7s, for instance—are going to have low volatility and frequent hits, like a video slot. Look at the pay schedule: The number of ways to win will be relatively low. Now, look at the number of paylines. Generally, the more paylines you have in nickels, the more hit frequency you will have.
The nickel five-reel slot is generally built to be played for a long time on a little money, just like the traditional multiline video game. You may only need a $20 bill to play for an hour or more, because the small hits will be very frequent.
Pennies are a different story altogether. Because of the low denomination, the manufacturers are able to inject more classic-slot-style volatility into the games. You may need more than one bill for these penny video slots if you want to play for a while. There will be dry spells as in a classic reel-spinner (though not nearly as many, because of the multitude of paylines). The more occasional hits, though, can be huge—thousands and thousands of credits back on your meter in an instant.
Not all penny reel-spinners are like this; some follow the nickel model of high hit frequency and low volatility. How do you tell which style it is? Look at the bonus feature. If there is a mechanical top-box with an elaborate bonus sequence, it is more likely to be of the more frequent-hitting style. If it is a free-spin bonus—most of the new Aristocrat reel-spinners offer this feature—that game is going to be more volatile.
Which brings us to average bet. In general, you do not need to bet the maximum on this style of machine. You have a lot of options, particularly in the penny denomination. Start by simply covering the paylines—that may require as little as a penny a line, or as much as a nickel or dime per line, depending on the number of paylines—the key is to activate all the paylines. Then, work your bets as if you were playing a table game. Jack up the stakes after a big hit, to get more of a per-spin return on the winning combinations. When you hit another dry spell (and you will), lower it back down to the minimum required to activate all the lines. In short, play it like a classic, Australian-style video slot (which I will cover in Part 2).
The reel-spinning genre is what created the big-money progressive. IGT’s Megabucks has been going strong for nearly 20 years, and the variety of progressives that game has ushered in continues to grow.
At the outset, one constant on the reel-spinning progressives: You are going to have to bet the max to qualify for the progressive. Even most of the penny progressives require this. There are a few exceptions, but not many.
Look at it this way: The only reason to play a progressive is to shoot for the stars, for that big payoff. If you’re not going to do that by betting the max, you may as well go to the stand-alone games.
How do you know which progressive reel-spinner to choose? It depends on how much bankroll you are willing to risk in the quest for that big progressive payoff.
Look at the top jackpot. Is it in the millions? Tens of millions? Games like dollar Megabucks, in which the top prize is life-changing, are likely to drain your bankroll big-time in that quest. Sure, you read about those people who sit down, put in three or six coins, and hit the big one. But don’t count on it. What you can count on in a game like Megabucks is lots of dry spells, and a mad rush of reel-spinning in quest of the big prize.
When that Nevada Megabucks prize gets up into the tens of millions, people don’t mind shelling out that loot—for the dollar version, start out with at least $500—in the quest for the life-changing payoff. Once jackpot fever takes over, no one seems to mind that the big kahuna is a 50 million-to-one shot.
However, the classic Megabucks slot is only one of a host of progressive choices. The majority of big-money progressive reel-spinners have eased up on the volatility a bit with bonus rounds. The most obvious is Wheel of Fortune. On the Wheel, you’re not just playing for the big money, you’re playing to spin that wheel for a bonus. And, as the game’s consistent popularity shows, it delivers.
Another cure to progressive-dry-spell blues is to lower your sights a bit. Look for smaller progressive prizes. The quarter progressive reel-spinners—Bally’s Betty Boop and others in addition to quarter versions Wheel, Elvis, Jeopardy! and others from IGT—still have top jackpots that are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, but they are not nearly as rough on the bankroll.
Among the best in bankroll-friendly progressives are Bally’s “Quick Hit” progressives. These feature all of the classic Bally reel-spinners, like Blazing 7s and Black & White, on links with a top jackpot starting at $10,000—not enough to quit your job, maybe, but still a nice chunk of change. The top jackpot will hit with much more frequency than the million-dollar games, but more importantly, the base games have hit frequencies often over 30 percent. You won’t get bored in your quest for the big hit.
Two basics apply for all reel-spinners—know your game, adjust your bankroll. Follow these principles and you’ll have the best chance of helping luck along.