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Profitable Slots?

Players share their thoughts on beating the Slot machines

By John Grochowski


When penny slots emerged, the game manufacturers needed a way to make bonus wins big enough that players thought they were worth playing for. Games with higher volatility, and bigger payoffs, were necessary in order to make them seem worthwhile to penny players

Slot machines are not “strategic” games like blackjack or video poker. There are slots that require you to make decisions, but none that are going to shift the long-term odds of the game.

That doesn’t stop players from trying to think of ways to beat the slots, and many have emailed to ask if there is any validity to their strategies. Let’s check a few out:

Tim, Pennsylvania: “I know that on video slots we don’t have to bet the max anymore. I usually just cover the all paylines with one coin bets. But one day I doing well—I was up to five coins a line on a penny slot, and I got to thinking. Would I have been better off to switch to one coin a line on a nickel slot? The nickels have higher paybacks, right?”

That’s a theory that gets a qualified “yes,” but with a whole lot of reservations. For one thing, Tim’s theory assumes that you can find the same game on both pennies and nickels in the same casino. That’s by no means a given.

slot machines

Even if you do find the game at both levels, the penny and nickel version won’t always have the same number of paylines. If you’re on a penny game with 20 or more lines, will you be satisfied to find an older nickel version with nine or 15 lines? If fewer paylines won’t keep you entertained, there’s no point in putting your money in the machine.

Then there are a whole slew of “ifs” about the type of game, such as:

Is the payoff on every winning combination simply multiplied by the coins-per-line wager, or is there a disproportionate jump with bigger bets? The disproportionate jump is why three-reel slots have higher payback percentages when you bet the max. Most video slots don’t have that kind of disproportionate jackpot jump, but double-checking is prudent.

Does the game have a progressive for which you’d be ineligible if you bet only one coin per line? Progressives have enough of their overall return tied up in the jackpots that you shouldn’t play if you can’t get the full pay.

Are there symbols or bonuses that are unlocked with higher wagers? Bally has a video version  of Blazing 7s that works this way, where a one-coin per line bet won’t activate the 7s. I recently played a version of the Cars game from Incredible Technology that needed at least a two-penny bet per line to unlock a bonus event. If you can’t get all that a game has to offer for a one-coin per line bet, and betting more than one per line is outside your bankroll’s comfort zone, then you need to find a different game.

If the game is a pure multiplier, and you can get all the features with one coin per line bets, then yes, the game’s payback percentage probably is higher on nickel versions than on penny machines. It’s standard operating procedure for casinos to offer games with lower payback percentages on pennies than on nickels, which pay less than quarters, and so on up the line.

Scott, Indiana: “I go to a casino that has signs on slot machines saying that some give double points every day, some give 3x points, and others give 4x points. They’re not the flashiest games. They’re not offering that deal on The Hangover or The Wizard of Oz. They’re mostly penny video free-spin kinds of games. Can those extra slot points make the games profitable?”

If multiple points were enough to turn no-skill games like slot machines into profit centers for players, the casino wouldn’t be making the offer.

Let’s make a couple of assumptions and do a little arithmetic. First, let’s assume the games pay 87 percent, which is pretty normal for a penny slot. And let’s assume the player rewards club pays 0.25 percent in free play. An example of that would be a club in which each $4 in play earns one point, and each 100 points is redeemable for $1.

At those levels, single points effectively turns an 87 percent game into an 87.25 percent payer, with the combined return going up to 87.5 percent at double points, 87.75 percent at triple points, and 88 percent at quadruple points.

Multiple slot club points can’t even begin to make up the entire house edge on penny slots. Even on dollar slots, where some generous casinos return 95 percent, 4x points raise that only to 96 percent—nowhere near profit level.

If there’s an opportunity for slot club points to turn a game profitable, it’s on video poker in casinos that offer top-notch pay tables. Full-pay Deuces Wild (100.8 percent) and 10-7-5 Double Bonus Poker (100.2 percent) are among a handful of games that return more than 100 percent to the few who play at expert level.

Those games are few and far between. Even in Las Vegas, those pay tables are becoming rare, and there are some jurisdictions in the United States where they are illegal. Illinois, for example, won’t allow any games with a theoretical payback percentage of greater than 100 percent.

In some circumstances, multiple slot club points can turn the next tier of games into profitable possibilities, provided you take the time to learn to play them well. Full-pay 9-6 Jacks or Better returns 99.5 percent with expert play. A 0.5 percent player rewards bonus turns it into a potentially profitable game.

But Scott didn’t mention video poker in the list of games drawing multiple points where he plays. So that rewards bonanza is just a nice little perk—something extra to take away if you enjoy the games that bring the added points.

Ella, Louisiana: “My strategy on the video slots is to look for games that have those bonuses where you make picks. I seem to be able to play a lot longer and have more fun on those games. My sister doesn’t agree. She likes the games with the free spins and says my games are boring, and that you can’t win anything playing them. Do you think that’s the right strategy, going for the pick games?”

There is a difference between pick-‘em and free-spin games that Ella is picking up. When video slots made their breakthrough in the United States in the late 1990s, they mostly had pick’em-type bonus events. They were low volatility games designed to keep players in their seats. Big jackpots weren’t the order of the day. It was all about small, frequent bonus wins to extend play and entertain customers.

Many fans of three-reel slot games found that style boring. To them, the thrill was in chasing the jackpots, even at the risk of fast losses.

When penny slots emerged, the game manufacturers needed a way to make bonus wins big enough that players thought they were worth playing for. Two hundred nickels thrilled some on the first video slots, but 200 credits on a penny machine is only two bucks. Games with higher volatility, and bigger payoffs, were necessary in order to make them seem worthwhile to penny players.

That’s where free spins came in. The math of the games can work so that it’s possible to win thousands or tens of thousands of credits in five or 10 or 20 free spins, but it’s also possible to win next to nothing. Artistocrat Technologies of Australia was already making free-spin games. Other manufacturers followed suit, and it became an extremely popular format.

Nowadays, with many of the most popular video slots featuring multiple bonus events, it’s a bit of an oversimplification to say free-spin games are for jackpot chasers, and pick’em games are for those who want to sit back and be entertained. But that’s where the roots are, and it remains true to some extent. In seeking out pick’em games, Ella has the right strategy for getting what she wants from a game—extended play, and lots of fun.

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