For a game that’s so popular, the slot machine sure is a misunderstood device. You’ll find any number of “slot gurus” who will tell you the secrets of winning. They’re almost all wrong, by the way.You’ll also find plenty of well-meaning gamblers sitting in front of the machines willing to give you advice, too. They’re usually wrong, too. Even otherwise intelligent, competent people have weird ideas about slot machines.

I have a friend who’s one of the top salespeople in his company. He explained to me in detail how the slot machines are programmed to pay you out just enough to keep you interested and not quitting while you’re ahead. That’s sorta true, if you look at the situation with a squint and a certain slant.

I have another friend who told me that she plays the same slot machine every time she visits the casino. She’s absolutely convinced that this will improve her probability of winning, because it’s bound to hit for her eventually.

I have a third friend who’s absolutely convinced that the casinos are outright cheating at every game but craps. There’s no reasoning with him. When I tried to explain to him how the math behind the games makes it unnecessary for the casinos to cheat, he explained to me that greed was the motive. I never did figure out why craps was the one game where the casinos don’t cheat.

Below, I’ve listed the 7 things that almost everyone gets wrong about slot machines. Knowing these things probably won’t help you win more often, but it’s always better to understand a game than to misunderstand it.

1- Slot Machines Don’t Change Their Odds to Catch Up After a Win, and They Don’t Become Due After a Cold Streak, Either

If you’re going to play slot machines, it’s a good idea to understand how the odds work. This won’t help you win more often, though. But it might prevent you from making bad decisions based on an erroneous premise.

Let’s use a simple slot machine as an example. It has 3 reels that spin, and each reel has 8 symbols on it. The symbols aren’t weighted in any specific way—they each have a 1/8 probability of coming up on a given spin.

The jackpot for this game is 500 coins. The probability of hitting that jackpot is the probability of getting 3 cherries in a row. When you’re calculating the probability of multiple events happening at the same time, you multiply the probabilities by each other.

In this case, you’re looking at 1/8 X 1/8 X 1/8, or 1/512. And to keep things simple, the machine has no other payouts. (This isn’t how a real slot machine will work, but it makes the math easier to illustrate.) On average, you’ll spin the wheels and lose 1 coin on 511 spins. Then on one spin, you’ll win 500 coins. Your net loss over this theoretical set of spins is 11 coins.

The reason that you’ve lost money on this slot machine is because the payout odds are 500 to 1, while the odds of winning are 511 to win. That difference is the house edge. When you calculate predictions and estimates, you assume mathematically perfect results. As your real results approach infinity, they start to resemble the predicted results.  But in the short run—over the course of a few spins, anything can happen. Every spin of the reels is completely random.

You could win on the first spin. You could win again on the 2nd spin. The probability on each spin remains 1/512. It doesn’t change based on the previous spins results—all the same symbols are still on the reel.  Even otherwise smart people think that slot machines are set on some kind of cycle, where a machine becomes due for a win. That isn’t how it works. The probability of winning on any given spin is exactly the same as it would be on any other spin.

Also, on a real slot machine, you’d have multiple smaller jackpots, and the payout would be based on adding those possible jackpots up. Modern slot machines use a computer program called a random number generator to create their results. Since this is a computer program, the slot machine can weight some symbols to come up twice as often as others or 3 times as much as others.

The designers create something called a PARs sheet which lists the probabilities of the prizes and their payouts. The casino knows to within 1/100 of a percent the expected return for the game. And since they deal with such a large number of customers over such a large period of time playing their games, they’re confident that their results will come close to the predicted results fairly quickly.

An individual, though, won’t reach the long run for quite a while. This is why some folks come home from the casino a winner at the slots. Some people even come home winning fairly often. The casinos don’t care, because those people are the exceptions that prove the rule.

2- Casinos Don’t Change the Programming on Slot Machines Because of a Recent Win

Once you understand how a slot machine really works mathematically, it’s easy to see why it would be unnecessary for the casino to change the programming. Remember, the casino doesn’t mind if you win. Winning is baked into the math and advantage of the game.

No one would play slot machines if it were impossible to occasionally win.

So, no—the casinos don’t change the programming on individual slot machines after a recent win. It’s just not necessary. It would be more trouble than its worth.

It would even be counter-productive. The casino is looking at the big picture. Even a small casino has hundreds of gambling machines in it. A large casino with 5000 slot machines couldn’t be bothered re-programming individual machines after wins.

3- Using Your Players Club Card Doesn’t Impact Your Probability of Winning or Losing

The mechanism that tracks your play for the players club card doesn’t interact with the random number generator at all. The 2 program serve entirely different purposes. You need to understand the motivation behinds the players club card. The idea is that the casino is going to reward you with rebates and free food to motivate you to play the slot machines more often. They do this by crediting you with 0.2% or 0.3% of your action in your rewards account.

Since the house edge on most slot machines is 5% or higher, that 0.2% is a small cost of doing business. If the average player spends an extra hour playing slots every year because of the rewards program, it’s more than paid for itself. This is a good example of the kind of paranoid, illogical thinking that’s pervasive among slot machine gamblers.

There are legitimate reasons for not joining the slots club. For example, you might not want to share your personal information with the corporation that owns the casino. You might not want to receive advertising. You might not want “your buttons pushed” to encourage you to gamble.

Those are all excellent reasons for not joining the slots club. One of my best friends–one of the smartest gamblers I know–NEVER joins the slots club for those reasons. But thinking that you’ll be less likely to win because of the players club card is just nonsense.

4- Slot Machines with Progressive Jackpots Are Some of the Worst Games You Can Play

Some people love playing the progressive jackpot games. They love the idea of winning a single jackpot that could change their lives. It’s a lot like playing the lottery. The problem is that progressive slots, like the lottery, are incredibly hard to hit. Most people measure how “loose” a slot machine is by looking at its payback percentage—the amount of money you’ll get back compared to the amount of money you’ve gambled, expressed as a percentage.

A slot machine with a 95% payback percentage is looser than a slot machine with an 80% payback percentage. And that payback percentage is a function of the payouts versus the probability of winning. We discussed that in the earlier example. But the probability of winning a progressive jackpot is much like the probability of winning the lottery. You could play your entire life and still not win a progressive jackpot.

How does this affect the payback percentage in a practical sense? You have to subtract the size of that jackpot from the payouts, which leaves you with a much lower payback percentage in real life than in theory. Also, think about how the casino funds the progressive jackpot. A tiny percentage of each wager is added to the jackpot. This reduces the payback percentage even further.

5-You Can’t Really Decide Where the Good Games Are Based on Their Location in the Casino

Apparently some so-called slot machine expert who used to work at a casino claimed years ago that you could find the “loose” slot machines on the edges of the banks, near the walkways. The theory was that they put the loose machines there to attract more customers.

That has since become a standard piece of slot machine “wisdom.” The problem is that if it was true in the past, it’s almost certain that it was only true at the casino where that guy worked. And even then, it was probably only true then. I can’t imagine it’s true now.

The other thing? There’s a difference between “hit frequency” and “payback percentage.” If your goal were to attract more players, you would put the machines with a higher hit frequency near the walkways. But just because a game has a high hit frequency does NOT mean that a machine has a high payback percentage.

Hit frequency is a measure of how often a spin results in a win. The SIZE of the win is irrelevant to hit frequency. Some slot machines might have a hit frequency of 25%, others, 33%, and still others, 50%. But if a game has frequent small wins and the large wins are much less frequent, it could easily be a more expensive game in the long run than a game with a higher payback percentage and a lower hit frequency.

This is often especially true of penny slots. You can’t really play a penny slot machine for a single penny. They usually force you to bet on multiple paylines. The hit frequency is high enough on such games that you’ll almost always hit something on one or more of those paylines. But you usually win less than what you wagered.

The human brain—the part that releases endorphins after a gambling win anyway—can’t distinguish between one of those wins (which is really a net loss) and a win that’s profitable. In other words, your brain gets the same rush from a win that’s really a net loss as it would from a win that’s profitable. So my best advice about choosing a slot machine based on its location within the casino? Don’t bother worrying about it. Chances are, it doesn’t make any difference at all.

6- You Can’t Make a Living Playing Slot Machines

I have a friend with a math degree who’s done computer programming for years. He’s also even done some search engine optimization work as a consultant for some major companies in some competitive industries. He’s a smart guy, and capable.

I read on one of the slot machine websites he manages that he supported his family by playing the slot machines for a period of time. I’ve talked with him about this claim. Apparently he has relatives who also played the slot machines for a profit on a consistent basis, too. His contention is that the random number generators work on a cycle, so you can predict when a game is getting ready to pay out. It’s an approximate prediction, but he feels like he’s been accurate, too.

 
Here’s the problem with that theory:

Yes, a random number generator cycles through numbers one at a time. But that program cycles through thousands of numbers PER SECOND. When you hit the spin button on a slot machine, it stops instantly on that number. The spinning of the reels is just for show.

You can’t predict the cycle for the machine, because it’s running through the numbers too fast. If a slot machine stopped “thinking” of numbers every time you hit the spin button, you could certainly make a prediction. But that cycling goes on constantly, whether someone’s playing the game or not.

If you want to make a living gambling professionally, you can, but not by playing slot machines. You have to find a game where you can gain a mathematical edge. That’s the only way to make a living gambling. You might get lucky on a slot machine on an individual trip to the casino. You might even get lucky several times in a row. Some people even win huge progressive jackpots and retire from their jobs.

None of those strategies are a means of making a living on a reliable basis, though. If you want to make a living gambling, learn to count cards in blackjack. Or play poker professionally. Or handicap horses or bet on sports. Slot machines aren’t the ticket, though.

7- Playing Max Coins Isn’t Always the Best Strategy

When you’re playing video poker, you must always bet 5 coins—the max bet per hand. That’s because the top jackpot on a video poker machine pays out more. If you bet 1, 2, 3, or 4 coins, you get a 250 for 1 or a 200 for 1 payout on a royal flush. But if you bet max coin (5 coins), you get an 800 for 1 payout.

Some slot machines are like this, too. They offer a larger jackpot or only make the top jackpot available to the player who bets max coins on the machine. But not all slot machines are programmed this way. Why is this important? Because the more you bet per spin, the more money you’ll lose in the long run. If you can get the same amount of enjoyment from a game by playing fewer coins, you should do so.

 

Here’s how you estimate and predict the amount of money you’ll lose per hour playing a slot machine game:

You multiply the number of spins per hour you’re going to make by the amount you’re betting per spin. You multiply that amount by the game’s house edge. An average slot machine player might make 600 spins per hour. (Even when I purposefully play slowly, I get in 400 spins per hour—I’ve clocked it.) If you’re playing on a quarter machine and making a max coin bet of 5 coins, you’re putting $1.25 per spin into action. That’s $750/hour.

If the game has a reasonably low house edge of 5%, your expected loss is $37.50/hour. If you could play that same game for only a single coin per spin, though, the amount of money you’d put into action per hour would be $150. Your expected loss would only be $7.50/hour. You might get bored putting so little money into action on a slot machine spin. Some gamblers need to have a big enough amount of money on the line to keep it interesting, but not all of them. Everyone has a different budget.

Someone like Don Johnson, the blackjack player, not the actor, might bet $200,000/hand at the blackjack table. He’d almost always be bored spinning the reels for a quarter per spin OR for $1.25/spin. But my dear old saintly mother, who lives on social security, might think $1.25 per spin is a lot of money. She might have just as much fun betting a quarter per spin.

If she can bet that quarter per spin and get the same payback percentage, she should do so. She’ll lose less money on the slot machines in the long run. Learn how to read the pay tables, so you can distinguish between the games where you should bet max coin and the games where it doesn’t matter.

Conclusion

There’s hardly enough space in a single blog post to cover all the misinformation that gets spread about slot machine games. I’ve covered some of the biggest and most blatant falsehoods that get spread in this post. If you leave this post understanding only a couple of things, it should be these:

Every spin of the reels is an independent, random event. You can’t predict what a slot machine is going to do based on what it’s done previously.

No one can get an edge playing slots. It’s just not possible, no matter what some people might claim. They might have had a lucky streak and drawn some erroneous conclusions, though.

You can’t figure out which slot machines are “loose” versus which slot machines are “tight.” In the short run, the results can be so varied that it’s just impossible to tell.

Slot machines can be fun, but if you’re going to gamble, you should probably choose casino games which have a lower house edge. Those can often be just as much fun as slots, but they cost a lot less to play in the long run. Video poker offers a similar experience, but even the worst video poker games with the worst pay tables offer better odds than slot machines.

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