Betting the max on slots is not always the right move
By John Grochowski
For decades, players have been told that, when it comes to slots, they should always bet the max to get the best payback percentage. That’s still the case on most three-reel stepper slots, and on a small percentage of video slots.
But getting the highest payback percentage isn’t the only goal of slot play. It’s also important to protect your bankroll and avoid betting money you can’t afford to lose. Like other casino games, slot machines have house edges built in through math, and bigger bets bring bigger average losses.
That’s no different than in blackjack, where the vast majority of us who are not card counters will lose more money if we bet $25 than if we bet $15, and more if we bet $10 than $5. It’s the same deal on craps, baccarat, roulette, three card poker or anything else – average losses are lower when you bet less, and lowest if you don’t bet at all.
Of course, we’re not going to skip betting altogether. The winning times make it all worthwhile, and the fun built into modern machines at least gives us a day’s entertainment when the wins don’t come.
Instead of asking “Should you bet the max?” it’s usually better to come at it from a different angle. The question can be, “When your bankroll can’t stretch to the max, should you choose a different machine?”
The answer to that question depends on the type of game.
The reason you get a higher payback percentage for betting the max on such games is that a max-coins bet brings a disproportionate jump in the top jackpot.
For example, a one-coin bet might bring a top jackpot of 1,000 coins, which rises to 2,000 with a two-coin bet. Instead of a proportionate rise to 3,000, the payoff jumps to 5,000 with a three-coin bet.
Betting only one or two coins will lead to a lower overall payback percentage. How much lower depends on both size and frequency of jackpots.
There’s no way for a player to know the jackpot frequency designed into the odds of the game. However, we can make up an example to show you the effect.
Our hypothetical game has the paybacks listed above, and the jack- pot occurs an average of once per 20,000 spins. Assuming a three-coin bet, then per 20,000 spins you wager 60,000 credits. At 95 percent return – on the high end for dollar machines – your return is 57,000 credits, with 5,000 coming from the jackpot and 52,000 coming from other spins.
Now assume a one-coin bet, making the total risk 20,000 credits. Your average return is 1,000 credits for the jackpot and 17,333 credits on smaller pays – one third of the 52,000 you get on small pays with max bet.
That’s a total return of 18,333 credits. Divide that by your 20,000- credit risk and multiply by 100 to convert to percent, and you get a 91.3 percent return. A two-coin bettor also gets that payback percentage.
That 95-percent game becomes a 91.3-percenter when you bet less than the max. However, your average total loss of 3,000 credits when you bet max drops to 1,167 credits when you bet one credit at a time.
A player on a limited bankroll may find it worthwhile to accept the lower payback percentage and bet less than the max on three-reel step- pers. However, note that the 91.3-percent return takes the payback into normal range for quarter machines. Betting the max on a quarter machine usually will be as good a play on a percentage basis and a better play on a dollars-and-cents basis than betting one coin on a dollar game.
The bottom line is for players on a budget, betting less than the max isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s even better to drop to a lower coin denomination.
The situation is similar to three-reel non-progressives, except that a big- ger share of the overall return is concentrated in the progressive jackpot. Let’s take the dollar machine above and make it progressive. Now lining up three jackpot symbols brings you 1,000 credits if you bet one credit, 2,000 if you bet two and a progressive pot if you bet three.
The money to fund that progressive pot has to come from somewhere, and where it comes from is you. A portion of each bet is added to the pot. The tradeoff is that you get less in smaller pays.
Let’s say you get one percent less in smaller pays and that money goes to the progressive pot instead. Then instead of the one-coin bettor getting 17,333 credits in smaller returns, he gets 17,160.The overall payback for a one- or two-coin bettor drops to 90.8 percent. If smaller pays are reduced by two percent, the overall return drops to 89.9 percent, and so on.
On a dollar game, the return to a one-coin bettor quickly drops below the normal return for betting the max on a quarter machine.
In a nutshell, if you have a big enough bankroll and want to chase the big jackpots, go ahead and bet the max. But players on a budget should avoid short-coin play on three-reel progressives. If you can’t afford to bet the max, change machines and pick either a non-progressive machine or a game at a lower coin denomination.
It’s always worth checking the pay tables to make sure, but video slots in the usual five-reel configuration almost always have proportionate pay all the way up the pay table. There is no bonus for betting the max. The payback percentage is the same regardless of whether you bet one coin per line or bet the max.
The situation gets a little trickier if side bets are required to activate game features such as pick’em bonuses or free spins. If you don’t make the side bet, you’re left with a game with no bonuses. We have no way of knowing the payback percentage on such games if the bonuses are not in play, but aren’t the bonuses why most of us play video slots in the first place?
On most non-progressive video slots, there is no penalty for betting minimum coins. One-coin-per-line customers can enjoy to their hearts content, while those who want to take a shot at multiplying winnings can bet more if they wish. However, if a side bet is required to activate bonus features, players whose budgets won’t stretch to the extra bet should choose a different game.
There have been video slots with progressives that give a big jump in the top jackpot with a max bet, just like three-reel progressives. However, these are rare. Should you find one, the situation is the same as on three-reel games: If you don’t want to make the required bet to be jackpot-eligible, choose a different game.
The most common video slot progressive formats have multi-tiered jackpots, with levels named mini, minor, major or grand, or bronze, silver, gold, platinum, or some other combination with names corresponding to jackpot sizes.
The smallest are designed to occur frequently and might be only a few dollars. These are rapid-hit jackpots, there to hold your interest and keep you involved in the game. The top level can be hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.
Two common formats for multi-tiered progressives are mystery jack- pots and separate-bet jackpots.
In mystery jackpots, all players are eligible for the same jackpots, regardless of how much they bet. Those who bet more will win more frequent jackpots, because the bigger bets give them more chances to push the jackpot up to the mystery trigger. However, that’s offset by the bigger risk of bigger bets.
On video progressives with side bets, you must make the extra bet to be eligible for the progressives. With the frequent-hit small pays being an important part of keeping you in the game, you want to be eligible for the progressives.
If you’re playing video progressives with mystery triggers, there is nothing wrong with making minimum bets per line. However, if a side bet is required, you should either make the extra bet or choose a different game. Too much of the game’s fun and payback is tied up in the progressives to play without jackpot eligibility. If you need to conserve bankroll, choose a game where the extra bet is not required.