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Unveiling the Strategy:

Why Video Poker and Slot Machines Incorporate Pushes and Small Wins in Gameplay Design

By John Grochowski


If you’re a video slot player, no doubt you’ve sometimes thought it’s not a real win if your payback is less than your wager. Video poker players have similar thoughts about high pairs that just get their bets back with no profit.

Why are such things designed into games?

They help keep games playable while adding to the overall returns.

Here’s a video poker memory to ponder before shifting gears to a recent conversation with a slot player.

A reader once asked about pairs of Jacks or Better returning 1-for-1. If you bet one coin, a high pair gives you back one coin. Bet five, and you get five.

“That’s not a win,” the reader complained. “That’s just getting your money back. Shouldn’t the pay table start at 2-for-1? Then at least wins would actually win something.”

There are multiple factors at work. First, getting your money back on high pairs is the equivalent of a blackjack push. Table players don’t seem to have a problem with pushes. They keep you in action to try again.

If you made all video poker paybacks at least 2-for-1, you’d need to dramatically alter the pay table to keep payback percentages in normal ranges. High-pair returns could be eliminated and other paybacks increased, or there could be returns on fewer high pairs accompanied by alterations on other hands.

Either way, there would be fewer paying hands. Players wouldn’t get as much of the positive feedback that comes from payouts. More players would lose interest.

In 9-6 Jacks or Better, the theoretical payback is 99.5 percent with expert play. If you paid 2-for-1 on pairs of Jacks or higher, that return would skyrocket to 121 percent.

Casinos aren’t there to give away money, so that would have to change.

One way would be to eliminate payoffs on pairs of Jacks, Queens and Kings but to pay 2-for-1 on pairs of Aces. That would drop the return to less than 92 percent, so other hands would have to increase. If you raised returns on straights from 4-for-1 to 5-for-1, flushes from 5-for-1 to 8-for-1 and full houses from 9-for-1 to 12-for-1, the 99.8 percent return would be close to the 9-6 Jacks or Better payback.

That might sound good, but the percentage of paying hands would plummet to 29.7 percent from the 45.5 percent on 9-6 Jacks or Better. The game would become much more volatile with increased chances of going broke fast despite the slightly higher average return. Many players would lose patience with so few paying hands.

Instead, we have the push on high pairs, and they serve a purpose.

On the slot front, I received an instant message from Helen, a friend of a friend I used to run into at gatherings.  Our paths haven’t crossed since pre-COVID, so she went the IM route.

“This has been bothering me for years,” she said. “What’s with the payoffs on video slots where you win less than you bet? That doesn’t seem like a win to me.”

I tried to explain. What follows is a near-transcript of our IMs, edited for length and clarity.

John: You started on single-payline, three-reel slots, right?

Helen: I did, yes.

John: And nearly every winner paid at least five coins for a three-coin bet, except on some machines, one cherry paid two coins for a three-coin bet. If you received a five-coin payoff, it was five coins per payline.

Helen: Right! I want that kind of small win back.

John: Today, nearly every win still pays at least as much as you bet on the winning payline. It’s just that wins on a small portion of paylines can be overwhelmed by the bets on losing lines.

Helen: I’m not sure I follow.

John: Imagine you’re playing a 40-line penny video slot and betting 40 cents. That means you’re betting 1 cent on each line.

If you have a five-coin winner on one winning payline, you have the same payoff ratio on that line as you used to get on a one-line three-reel game. But overall, you have a losing spin.

Helen: Then they should make the smallest winner 40 coins, so if you win on one payline, you get your money back.

John: But what if you win on all 40 lines? A 40-coin win on each of 40 lines brings 1,600 coins. If a game paid that much on the smallest possible winner, it would have to make wins less frequent and reduce the size and frequency of bigger wins to yield payout percentages in an acceptable range.

Helen: OK, I guess.

John: Imagine a machine pays players 90 percent. For 1,000 spins at 40 cents per spin, you invest 40,000 coins, or $400. Your average return is 36,000 coins, or $360.

Imagine that total return includes 10 minimal winners at five coins each. If those minimal winners pay 1,600 coins instead, that adds 15,950 coins to the payoff. Your net return is pushed to 51,950 coins and the casino loses 11,950 coins per 40,000 you wager.

That doesn’t even include spins where you win more than the minimum per line. Casinos couldn’t afford to keep the game on the floor.

Helen: Even so, a five- or 10-coin payoff on a 40-coin bet doesn’t have much value. I mean, why bother?

John: Collecting several of the small wins gives you credits for more spins. They help keep you going. Those small wins make the big wins and bonuses possible. If the small wins were too big, casinos couldn’t afford to offer you the slots’ most attractive options. The games would be less fun to play.

Helen: I’ll have to think about that. It’s not what I was hoping to hear, for sure.

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