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Video Slots: A Newbie’s Dilemma

One man, three plans. Which one to choose?

By John Grochowski


Video slots aren’t games of strategy, strictly speaking, but it never hurts to have a plan of attack.


The notes that cross my email box keep me constantly aware of some very important things. One is that new casino players are coming on board all of the time, folks who have yet to be indoctrinated into the ways of the gaming world. Another is that players are always thinking, plotting, and looking for ways to get the best deal possible.

One new reader who contacted me recently was a two-for-one deal. Not only was he new to playing in casinos, he was looking for the best strategy to play.

Where was he looking for this strategy? On video slot machines.

Now, video slots aren’t games of strategy, strictly speaking, but it never hurts to have a plan of attack. And it was no surprise at all that he was looking in that direction. I get more email about video slots than I do about anything else.

For a majority of players, a trip to the casino means some time on five-reel video slots. It’s not just that they are an entry level game, easy to play with no strategy required. Most players stick with them. Electronic gaming devices account for about 80 percent of casino revenue nowadays—and even more in some jurisdictions. A walk through any casino will tell you video slots take up the lion’s share of the EGD category that also includes slots with mechanical reels, video poker, video keno and video blackjack.

That the games are strategy-free doesn’t mean there’s never any confusion about how to play. One reader new to the games emailed me to ask about conflicting advice he’s received on how much to bet. Check out the different things he’d read:


  • Play one line, one coin at a time. Playing more lines or more coins doesn’t change the payback percentage.
  • Play all the paylines, but bet multiple coins per line only up to the amount you’re comfortable with losing on a single spin.
  • Bet just enough to qualify for the bonus rounds. The bonuses bring up the payback percentage of the machine.


There are elements of truth to each recommendation. Playing one coin, one line might sound pretty boring to most players, but if the game does not have a progressive jackpot and if bonus symbols don’t have to land on an active payline to trigger the bonus round, or if there are no mystery bonuses, then chances are the game’s long-term payback percentage is the same regardless of whether you play one line or 40.There’s nothing in game programming that would make winning symbols come up more often on one line than on any other.

However, some games do require bonus triggers to be on an active payline. Precise amounts vary from game to game and manufacturer to manufacturer, but bonus events account for roughly a third of the payback on video slots. You don’t want to play a video slot without being able to take full advantage of the bonus events, so my usual recommendation is to cover all of the paylines, even if you’re betting only one coin per line.

Some manufacturers seem to be taking care of the question themselves. Many new video slots have what is known in the industry as “forced bets.” A 40-line game might offer wagers of 40, 80, 120, 160 and 200 credits. The minimum bet is one coin per line, covering all the lines. On such machines, there’s no option to bet one coin, one line.

The second recommendation, to cover all of the lines but play multiple coins per line only within your financial comfort zone, is reasonable. Multiple coins per line don’t change the payback percentage. This is essentially the method I use. I start at one coin per line, move up to two per line if I double my credits, and leave the machine if I’m losing, or if the bonus events are too infrequent. The bonuses are where the fun is on video slots, and if I’m not getting there, I don’t want to play.

As for the third recommendation, that really ties into the answer to No. 1. By all means, bet enough to qualify for bonus events. That might just mean covering all of the paylines. Some games require a separate bet to activate bonus features—a 25-line game with a 15-credit feature bet is one common configuration. If you’re going to play such games, make the feature bet. If you don’t want to bet that much, choose a different game.

The same rule applies to progressive jackpots. If you’re going to play a progressive game, make the necessary bets to be eligible for the jackpots. Otherwise, play non-progressive games.

The same reader who asked about wager sizes on video slots asked about choosing a game. “If machine A awards a top prize of 1,000 coins for five gold rings, machine B awards 1,200 coins for five treasure chests and machine C awards 1,800 coins for five diamonds, is it as simple as choosing machine C because you would be awarded more top prize money according to the pay scales?”

Veteran slot players know it’s not that simple. You can’t tell a high-payer from a coin gobbler by looking at the pay table, or any other visual clues. Programming slot machines involves some of the most complex math in the casino world, including balancing out frequencies of all possible wins, payback amounts, frequency of bonus events and possible wins on bonus events.

Manufacturers offer casino operators several versions of identical looking games, each with a different payback percentage. As a player, all you can do is choose the games you think are the most fun, and move on when you hit your loss limit.


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