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The reality of going after big money

By John Grochowski


When jackpot hunters scout out progressive machines and selectively play those with jackpots at higher levels, there is an underlying reality: No matter how high the jackpot gets, the odds are the same on every spin. You are no more likely to win with the jackpot at a high level than at the base reward.

However, there is something fundamentally different about mystery jackpots, such as games with prizes labeled “Must Win By” or “Must Award By.” On those games, the higher the jackpot gets, the more likely it is to hit on a given spin.

We’ll look at why that is in a minute, but first let’s look at the situation on a basic progressive slot where the top jackpot is awarded for matching premium symbols all across a payline.

For ease of example, let’s make up a three-reel, $1 machine that returns 92 percent when the jackpot starts building at a base value of $5,000. Of that 92 percent return, let’s say 87 percent comes from smaller wins, and 5 percent from the jackpot.

So per $100,000 wagered, you would get back $87,000 in smaller pays and $5,000 from the jackpot, for a $92,000 total.

But if you’re a jackpot hunter who doesn’t play until the big payoff is $8,000, you’re playing a game with a different payback structure. In that case, per $100,000 wagered, you’d get back $87,000 in smaller pays and $8,000 from the jackpot, for a total of $95,000.

That makes the payback percentage 95 percent. By delaying play until other players have built the jackpot, you’re playing a machine with a higher payback percentage.

However, that higher payback percentage doesn’t mean you’re hitting the jackpot more often. If the odds of our hypothetical game are set up so the jackpot will occur once per 10,000 spins, then your chances of hitting the jackpot on the next spin are 1 in 10,000. It doesn’t matter if the jackpot is $5,000, $8,000, $10,000 or $100,000—your chances are still 1 in 10,000.

It doesn’t matter if someone hit the jackpot on the last play, or if it’s been 100,000 plays since the last jackpot. If the odds were 1 in 10,000 on the first play, they’re still 1 in 10,000 on the next one.

The number set the game’s random number generator (RNG) has to work with does not change. The RNG just keeps churning out random numbers, and winners and losers come out in the same proportions no matter what prize is on the progressive meter.

Result: By delaying play until the jackpot reaches higher levels, you increase your long-term expected payback percentage, but you do not increase your chances of hitting the jackpot.

Now let’s look at the “must award by” games. They present us with a much different situation.

You can recognize such games by looking at the top box display. They feature progressive jackpots, and under or next to the jackpot amount you’ll find the message “Must Win by” or “Must Award by,” with a number.

For example, on WMS Gaming’s Mystical Fortunes slot, you’ll find a “Minor” jackpot with the message “Must Award by $50.00” and a “Major” jackpot with the message “Must Award by $500.00.”

These are mystery jackpots, separate from the main game. You still spin the video reels, collect on winning combinations and launch bonus events.

You collect a jackpot when your wager pushes the total to an amount selected by the RNG. The payoff isn’t driven by symbols, and the outcome of your main-game spin doesn’t matter. The machine will just tell you you’ve won the jackpot.

Let’s say the base jackpot on a hypothetical game is $200 and must be awarded by $500. In our hypothetical, we’ll say the lowest possible jackpot is $200.01, giving us a total of 30,000 possible jackpot amounts—we’ll see why in a minute.

The RNG selects an amount that could be $200.01, could be $500, and could be anything in between. If the percentage of your bet that’s added to the jackpot pushes it to that total, you win.

All amounts have an equal chance of being selected by the RNG. However, the closer the jackpot is to the “Must Win by” amount, the better your chance of winning on the next play.

The reason is that the possibilities narrow as possible jackpot amounts are left behind.

The possibilities are in 1-cent increments, so between $200 and $201 there are 100 possibilities—$200.01, $200.02 and so on.

With a $300 difference between the base and the maximum, that means the RNG has 30,000 possible jackpot totals to choose among—300 times 100 possibilities for each whole number.

If your bet increases the jackpot to $200.01, there is a 1 in 30,000 chance that is the jackpot amount. However, if your bet increases the pot to $201.01, then 100 amounts already have been eliminated, and the chance of your bet triggering the jackpot improves to 1 in 29,000.

If your bet pushes the pot to $250.01, you have a 1 in 25,000 chance that’s the winner. At $300.01, it’s 1 in 20,000.

At $499.01, there are only 100 possible winning numbers remaining—$499.01, $499.02 and so on up to $500—so your chances are 1 in 100.

The closer the total is to the “Must Win by” amount, the better your chances of winning the jackpot. About half the jackpots will hit for less than $350, and about half will hit for more than $350.

There is an additional factor to consider: How much of each wager is added to the jackpot meter? The meter could be at a point where there are only 100 possible numbers left before maximum jackpot, but if your wager moves the meter only a half cent or a quarter cent at a time, then it could take you 200 or 400 bets to move the meter that far.

If you’re betting small, not every wager will move the jackpot meter by a full penny. If you’re betting big, you might move it more than one cent at a time.

Regardless, the closer the meter is to the “Must Award by” total, the narrower the odds against you. None of that means there is any better chance for the jackpot to hit at $499.99 than at $200.01.

After a jackpot is won and the meter resets to the base value, each possible outcome has a 1 in 30,000 chance of being selected by the RNG as the next jackpot value to reach.

However, if you wait until the jackpot meter reads $350, then 15,000 possible outcomes already have passed. What remains at that point is a 1 in 15,000 chance for any of the higher amounts to be the jackpot trigger.

Other games with mystery jackpots work in much the same way. However, most do not advertise their “Must Win by” amount. The longer we play, the closer we get to the targeted jackpot, but we don’t know the parameters given to the RNG and we have no way of knowing just how close we are to jackpot time.

Just as with traditional symbol-driven progressives, if you always play a mystery game with the jackpots at higher levels, then you’re playing for a higher overall payback percentage. With “Must Win by” mystery progressives, there’s the added feature that the odds against you winning the jackpot narrow as the prize meter grows.

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