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It’s All Random

Answering an age-old question: Do the odds get better when you bet bigger?

By John Grochowski


The random number generator that determines what you see on the video screen, or on the reels, doesn’t know how much you’re wagering. It just generates random numbers corresponding to reel symbols.

It seems not a week goes by without my email box receiving a question that is a variation on this theme: Do slot machines results change when you bet more?

Let’s allow Howard, a Chicago area player, and Joe, who signed himself “A.C. Player,” ask it their own ways, in emails that arrived about a week apart this April.

Howard first: “We just got back from taking my in-laws to Las Vegas and had a great time. My father-in law and I get along great, but when it comes to gambling he has some weird ideas about how slots work. His latest belief is that on a machine that offers, say, five betting amounts (i.e., 20, 40, 60, 80, 120), it will pay off more often when you bet more (i.e., 60 vs. 20). I tell him that the machine does not alter the payoff frequencies due to the amount you bet, only that you will win more money if you bet more and get a winning combination. He is in total defiance of this theory and says that the machine knows if you play more and that you will hit more often. Could you please let us know who is right? Maybe he would bet and lose less in the future.”

That’s one way to look at the problem. Howard’s father-in-law believes that betting more brings a higher payback percentage. A.C. player Joe looks at it the opposite way. He thinks the big wins come more often if you bet less.

“If a slot player plays one unit instead of the three maximum units, and wins (say $100), would the winning combination still have necessarily occurred if the three maximum units had been played (say $300 win)? It seems that the relatively higher dollar winning combinations usually occur more frequently when only one or two units are played rather than when the maximum three units are played. In other words, the $100 win for the one unit play may not have happened at all if the maximum three units had been played at that particular time. Is this just an inaccurate perception? I realize that conventional wisdom dictates ‘always play the maximum units,’ but aren’t there many specific instances where maximum play can work against you?”

So which way is it? Neither. The random number generator that determines what you see on the video screen, or on the reels, doesn’t know how much you’re wagering. It just generates random numbers corresponding to reel symbols. If you happen to be betting more when those random numbers lead to a big winning combination, so much the better.

Now let’s take a closer look at each question. Howard’s father-in-law was playing video slots, with the option of betting multiple coins per payline. I suspect he was confusing the issue of making bigger bets on the game with casinos’ long-established practice of offering higher payback percentages on games with higher denominations.

That’s not a myth. You can check out the slot payout percentage charts in Strictly Slots every month and see that penny games pay less than nickel games, which pay less than quarter, which pay less than dollars, and so on.

But the most common method of giving the higher denomination games higher payback percentages is to change the set of numbers available to the random number generator. A penny video slot and a nickel version of the same game might look identical and have the same pay tables, but the nickel games contains more numbers leading to certain winning combination within the set given to the RNG.

When you simply bet more on the same game, it doesn’t change the RNG’s number set. It will continue to generate numbers in the same proportions, regardless of whether you cover 20 lines at one coin per line or at five coins per line. The percentage of winning combinations does not change as long as you stay on the same machine, at the same coin denomination.

As for A.C. Player, he acknowledges the old truism about betting the max to get the highest payback percentages. This remains true at most reel-stepper slots, although not on most multiline video slots. The reason reel steppers pay more with max coin in is a disproportionate jump in the top jackpot. On most winning combinations, the amount of the win is simply multiplied by the number of coins wagered. The top jackpot increases by more than the multiplier amount when max coins are bet, meaning that when you win the big one, you win more coins per coin wagered when you bet the max than when you bet less.

Those larger jackpots for betting the max have led generations of slot players to think maybe, just maybe, the number of big wins is being depressed to make up the difference. Questions about just that dominated my mail when it came on paper a couple of decades ago, and continues to fill my email box today.

But there’s no need to depress the number of winners. The math of the games assure the casino of being a winner as long as enough people are playing. Any big win or winning streak eventually fades into statistical influence as more and more people bet their money.

Regulations in U.S. jurisdictions with licensed casinos do not permit games to be programmed the way either Howard’s dad-in-law or A.C. Player suggest. The RNG doesn’t change the proportion of winning combinations either when you increase or decrease your bet per line. Big winners enjoy their hauls, the rest of us wait for our fortunes to turn, and the house collects its money. And the RNG just keeps churning out random numbers.

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