The Payback Conundrum
High returns are good, but enjoying the game is important
By Frank Legato
For more than three decades, Casino Player has been advising players to go for the “loosest slots”—meaning, the best gamble on the slot floor is the game with the highest payback percentage.
This magazine, in fact, invented the term “loose slots,” when the early issues of the magazine—which debuted in 1988—began collecting publicly reported statistics from casinos on what’s known as the slot “hold.” Slot hold is the amount of all wagers “won” by the casino—in other words, lost by players.
Our early editors decided that players would be more interested in the converse of those statistics—the portion of wagers won by players. So they took those hold statistics and flip-flopped them, creating the payback charts you will still find at the back of this magazine. Now, players could see which casinos returned the most to gamblers in slot wins. Casinos wear the “loose slots” designation as a badge of honor, advertising in this magazine and even on billboards their recognition, via actual statistics, for offering high payback to players.
This magazine has tried to boil those statistics down to individual slot choices. Sometimes, we flip-flop the numbers back the other way to show the “hold” of a particular game. Too many players sometimes misunderstand the concept of payback percentage as it pertains to an individual machine: “If this game has a 95 percent payback percentage, why did I lose? Shouldn’t I be winning on 9.5 out of every 10 spins?”
Well, no. That 95 percent statistic is a theoretical number applied to all the spins on a given machine. It is created by an engineer manipulating the number of winning symbols and losing symbols in the program. Each symbol is given a number in the game program. Low-paying symbols and blanks get a lot of duplication—more numbers that correspond to that result. The highest-paying symbols get very few numbers.
That math determines the theoretical payback percentage, which is tested by simulating literally millions of spins. In reality, the number represents the percentage of all wagers, by all players, on a given game. That’s why it can be confusing to some players.
It’s easier for players to understand the converse, casino hold, in the same terms that table-game players use: house advantage, or house edge. A 95 percent payback—also known as return to player, or RTP—means that game has a 5 percent house edge.
For years, we’ve directed players to the traditional reel-spinning slot games if they wanted to play a game with a low house edge. We’ve told you to seek out high-denomination mechanical reel-spinners for the best payback percentages. A traditional reel-spinner in a denomination at or higher than dollars will typically have a house edge below 5 percent. If you want to go for the $2 or $5 denomination, you’re down to an edge of 2 percent or less in many cases—that’s on par with the top table games.
This advice remains valid today, but today’s slot floor is totally different than it was when the first issue of Casino Player came out in 1988.What has turned player choice on its ear has been the penny denomination. After slots stopped taking physical coins in the early 2000s, the multi-line video slot became the prominent game style. Because of the low denomination, a lot more volatility could be built into the programs—in other words, a lot more huge credit awards.
At the same time, different game mechanics like hold-and- spin, free games and frequent wheel spins became wildly popular with players. When it comes to payback percentage, though, this presents a double-edged sword. To pay for all those special features, the payback percentages in the penny denomination are the lowest on the slot floor.
And because of the low denomination, maximum bets rose to hundreds of credits. Players now are faced with wagering the same $3 they did on that classic dollar reel-spinner for a game with a house edge typically over 10 percent, and often much higher.
But even equipped with that knowledge, players flock to the penny games. Over the years, I’ve had trouble wrapping my brain around this fact. I still play the traditional games when I play slots.(I prefer video poker, actually.) Why, I have wondered, would anyone pick a game with a 12 percent house edge over one with a 5 percent house edge?
The answer to that conundrum is that I’m a gambler. I play to beat the house, to win money. Fans of the penny games are a different breed of slot player. They choose the higher house edge because they love the features those games offer. They play to be entertained. If they win money, great—but the main point is they’ve had a great time playing the slot machine.
And that’s a fine philosophy for playing.
Thus, when readers nowadays ask me where to find the best slot games to play, my answer depends on one aspect: Why do you play slot machines? If you’re in it for the gamble, go for those simple three-reel, high-denomination games. Those give you the best overall shot to overcome the inherent house edge.
But it’s OK to play for the sheer entertainment of the experience as well. Gamblers like me enjoy the contest against that house edge. And that’s the key—play what you enjoy. If you enjoy those hold-and-spin penny games with all the dazzling features, go for it. Even with the big house edge, you’ll enjoy the experience.
In the end, that’s what it’s all about.