Ask any retiree who visits Las Vegas regularly about their favorite casino game, and you’ll invariably hear about the fabled penny slots.

These slot machines take their name from their low coin denomination, ditching the nickels and quarters typically wagered on each spin for a single penny. Or so the story goes anyhow…

In reality, the advent of payline-based slot gameplay ensures you’ll almost always be playing for more than a penny per spin. That’s because you need to pay one penny for each payline in play, so a standard 30-payline machine would charge $0.30 each time you let the reels fly. Despite this deceptive misnomer, however, the penny slots reign supreme in Sin City.

According to the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB), casinos in the Silver State won $6.3 billion from slot players during 2017. Of that amount, $3.17 percent – or a hair more than half – was claimed by the penny slots, while multi-denominational machines took in $3.13 billion.

And that discrepancy occurred even though Nevada is home to far less penny slots (54,754 machines) than multi-denominational games (70,658 machines).

Indeed, just like your grandparents have reported, the penny slots are by far the most popular game on any casino floor. A major casino might spread a dozen blackjack tables in the pit, but the penny slot parlor will be chocked full with hundreds of machines from dozens of manufacturers. And when you run the numbers, it’s easy to see why.

Slot machine players can expect to put in between 300 and 800 spins per hour, depending on their dexterity and willingness to spin at a faster pace. At that rate, the penny slot player will deposit between $3 and $8 into their favorite machine, and using the average payback percentage of 90 percent, they’d being back between $2.64 and $7.04 per hour.

That equates to an average expected loss of between $0.36 and $0.96 per hour, amounts which won’t threaten to bust your bankroll anytime soon. But when you up the stakes to $1 per spin, those 300 to 800 spins per hour can cost between $24 and $64 every 60 minutes.

With these figures fresh in your mind, it’s easy to see why so many players are flocking to the penny slots – especially folks working with a limited bankroll. When you only have a small stake to gamble with, the ability to play – and hopefully win – for a few pennies at a time is invaluable.

Nobody likes to lose, but there’s something about blowing through a few hundred bucks in a matter of minutes that stings just a little bit more. By sticking to the penny slots, casual players can limit their losses, all while chasing that elusive jackpot dream.

The problem with penny slots is simple to see though. In exchange for that lower price point, the penny machines are programmed to pay out at a slightly lesser rate when compared to their bigger brothers. Those are long-term expected returns, of course, so you’ll always have a small chance to win big whenever you press “SPIN” – but judged over the long run, penny slots offer an inferior payback percentage.

The casinos bank on casual players ignoring this fact while focusing on the inexpensive cost of entry. And sure enough, as the NGCB data mentioned earlier makes clear, most players don’t bother thinking about the nuances of penny slot play.

If you’re a slot player nursing a smaller-sized bankroll who is searching for ways to improve their penny ante action, look no further. The guide below will cover four essential tips and tricks for successfully navigating the world of penny slots.

You’ll learn why the old maxim about always betting the max doesn’t apply, the value to be gained by leaving tourist hotspots behind, the modern systems casinos use to deploy their machines, the importance of payback and hold percentages, and how to avoid the most common myths and misconceptions about slot gameplay. When its all said and done, this page should leave you better prepared to maximize your limited bankroll while minimizing your liabilities and losses.

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Play for Less Than the Maximum

The first strategy tip most slot players learn offers the following advice – always bet the maximum number of paylines and coins.

On a typical quarter slot, the machine offers anywhere between 1 and 5 coins per spin. That equates to $0.25 for minimum bettors, and $1.25 for folks playing the maximum.

And on a quarter machine which includes bonus rounds, free spin rewards, and a progressive jackpot, that strategy makes perfect sense. After all, most games are designed to provide those perks only if the player has bet the max, so playing for anything less removes much of the game’s inherent value.

As the old saying goes, “why play for a progressive jackpot you can’t even win?” But for penny slot enthusiasts, that bit of wisdom can be tossed out the window.

For one thing, these games usually ditch the massive progressive jackpots for fixed awards – and these can be won at any wagering level.

Secondly, even the more modern penny slots usually eschew in-game bonuses and side games for standard spinning. That is to say, you’ll be competing for the game’s primary pay table prizes, rather than a chance to spin the wheel, play memory games, or earn free spins.

Jean Scott – a veteran casino player and author of the popular “Frugal Gambler” series of strategy books – captured this sentiment perfectly in a blog post for the Las Vegas Advisor:

“Now I well know the problem with slots. The negative EV (the house edge) will eventually put players in the loser category and sometimes very quickly. The fun factor can disappear very quickly if you are losing more money than you can afford.

Players with small bankrolls know that they need to play minimum bets so they can extend their fun time.

Hit those buttons with higher level bets and, yes, your bonuses may be more frequent and jackpots bigger, but you will very likely go broke before you can gain this advantage!”

And using a simple table devised by John Grochowski – a longtime professional gambler and strategy writer – you can see exactly how upping the ante increases your bankroll requirements:

Slot Type Bankroll Needed for 3 Hours of Play
50 lines, 1 penny per line $125
50 lines, 5 pennies per line $625
30 lines, 1 penny per line $75
30 lines, 5 pennies per line $375
20 lines, 1 penny per line $50
20 lines, 5 pennies per line $250
10 lines, 1 penny per line $25
10 lines, 5 pennies per line $125

This table is especially informative, because it shows just how differently maximum stake players must approach penny slots. When you’re working with a smaller bankroll than most, $125 is probably a sensible amount at which to limit your losses. Thankfully, that’s the exact amount you’d need to play a 50 payline game for one penny per line. But if you found the same machine and decide to bet the max with five pennies per line, you’d need to bring a whopping $625 with you to survive three hours of action.

Unless you’re stuck on the idea of playing for progressive jackpots, the penny slots simply don’t require a maximum bet to have fun – and hopefully, collect a steady stream of smaller payouts while you do.

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Ditch the Strip and Head Off the Beaten Path

This piece of advice is counterintuitive to most recreational players, especially those who haven’t yet experienced the sights and sounds of famous Las Vegas Strip.

But while The Strip can be quite the entertaining experience for tourists, gamblers are preyed upon like sheep by the wolf-like casinos.

Take a look at the data below, which was compiled by the NGCB as part of the regulator’s annual statewide slot machine survey:

Las Vegas Slot Machine Payback Percentages by Location

1¢ Slot Machines

  • The Strip – 88.45 percent
  • Downtown – 88.66 percent
  • Boulder Strip – 90.42 percent
  • N. Las Vegas – 90.71 percent

5¢ Slot Machines

  • The Strip – 91.84 percent
  • Downtown – 92.08 percent
  • Boulder Strip – 95.73 percent
  • N. Las Vegas – 95.38 percent

25¢ Slot Machines

  • The Strip – 90.59 percent
  • Downtown – 94.48 percent
  • Boulder Strip – 96.39 percent
  • N. Las Vegas – 96.58 percent

No matter which slot games you prefer, playing on The Strip inherently increases the odds against you. The percentage figure listed next to each location reflects the average payback rate – also known as the return to player (RTP) rate – offered on average by all slot machines in that area.

And as you can see, playing on The Strip always provides players with the worst possible payback rates. As a penny slot specialist, you’ll be up against an 88.45 percent payback rate while playing on The Strip. That equates to a house edge of 11.55 percent, making penny machines in the heart of Sin City a moneymaking monster for the casinos.

But take your action to the Boulder Strip or North Las Vegas, and that payback rate bumps up all the way over 90 percent. That may not seem like all that much of an improvement, but when you factor in the rapid pace of play found on slot games, padding your expected return by a full 2 percentage points is a massive improvement.

And it doesn’t matter if you’re playing true penny slots, or the nickel and quarter variety, as the pattern holds true across the board.

Another benefit of playing off the beaten path is the discounts and perks off-Strip casinos tend to lavish on their players. For the big boys like MGM Resorts and Caesars Entertainment – two casino conglomerates that control almost all properties on The Strip – enormous profits are practically ensured. They have a steady stream of tourists walking in the doors, so these venues can offer lower paying games and skimp out on the comps and perks.

But as Lucas Peterson – author of the “Frugal Traveler” column in the New York Times – recently discovered, venturing outside of the tourist traps offers a vastly different experience. Peterson visited the tiny Ellis Island Casino, located just east of Las Vegas Boulevard on Flamingo Road.

While the Ellis Island may lack the amenities and ambiance of a Strip establishment, this joint sure does know how to treat its customers.

Here’s how Peterson described his experience playing penny slots at Ellis Island:

All casinos have rewards programs. You sign up, get a little card with a magnetic strip, and as you spend money you collect coupons for freebies and discounts.

At Ellis Island, they’ll give you that cheap steak dinner (normally $12.99) if you play just $5 worth of slots. But isn’t that just breaking even?

Well, in addition to it just being a little mindless Vegas fun, you can push it further: If you play $10 worth of slots instead of $5, not only do you get that discount on the steak dinner, Ellis Island also rewards you with bonus play money – a random amount between $10 and $500.”

In his case, Peterson’s initial $10 play on the penny machines produced a $66 free-play reward. He used that to play for a little while longer, cashed out for $30 profit, all while enjoying a free steak dinner on the side.

In his words, the casino paid him to play (and win), while throwing in a comped meal to boot.

You just won’t find customer appreciation like that on The Strip, which is why penny slot players on a lower bankroll should always get out of dodge to explore Las Vegas’ outlying areas.

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Don’t Worry About “Loose” Machine Placement

Spend enough time around the slot parlor and you’ll inevitably hear players whispering about “loose” machines.

While the concept has faded into the realm of myth in the modern age, the notion that some slots are programmed to be loose – paying out more winners more often than the baseline – used to be based somewhat in reality.

Back in the day, when the average casino only carried a few hundred slot machines rather than a few thousand, casino managers could carefully tailor the arrangement of their games. No, they couldn’t control the actual outcomes (more on this to come in the Myths and Misconceptions section), but they could purchase a certain selection of higher paying machines before placing them in choice locations on the floor.

At the time, the idea was to get people standing in the lobby or by the buffet interested in playing slots because they kept hearing jackpot payouts and celebrations.

Today, however, the big casinos have thousands of slot machines under a single roof, making this level of management impractical. Rather than place certain games known to pay more often in select locations, casino managers simply stock their entire venue with games offering varied payback rates.

Here’s how John Robison, author of“The Slot Expert’s Guide to Playing Slots,” summed the placement situation up in a post for the American Casino Guide:

The last change in the slot floor that I want to mention is perhaps the biggest change of all.

Casinos used to have hundreds of slot machines. Now they have thousands. One slot director in Las Vegas said in an interview a few years ago that with so many machines on his floor, he didn’t have time to micro-manage them.

He and his management decided the hold percentage they wanted for each denomination and he ordered payback programs close to that percentage for his machines.  Furthermore, he said this was the common practice in Las Vegas.”

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Pay Close Attention to Payback and Hold Percentages

I’ve made mention of payback percentages many times now, and for good reason.

What the house edge metric is for table game players, payback percentage – and its inverse, the casino’s hold percentage – means for slot enthusiasts. Manufacturers and designers like International Game Technology (IGT), Scientific Games, Konami Gaming, Bally, and Aristocrat are all bound by strict gaming regulations which require games to have predetermined payback rates.

A popular themed game like The Walking Dead by IGT, for example, offers a generous 96 percent payback rate – good for a 4 percent house edge. But when you bring your bankroll to an older game like Mr. Cashman by Aristocrat, the payback percentage falls to 91 percent.

As it turns out, casinos rely on players not knowing their way around payback rates, as Steve Walther – senior director of marketing & product management for Konami Gaming – wrote in a 2017 column for the Las Vegas Sun:

There are multiple schools of thought with regard to hold percentage and players’ ability to determine the hold in an individual session.

As games become more complex, the types of winning combinations have grown exponentially. When old games only had a certain number of slots on a wheel, maybe it was easier. Now, being able to feel the hold in a single session could be very difficult.

However, other schools of thought are different for repeat gamblers and those schools say maybe they can notice.”

Fortunately, these companies are bound by law to publish their payback percentages, so you can run a quick Google search for your favorite games to check up. If the game is offering anything less than 90 percent, you should avoid it like the plague. Low to mid 90s are the norm for penny slots, while anything higher is a gift from the heavens.

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Don’t Fall for the Myths and Misconceptions

On a final note, of all the gambling games under the sun, slots seem to give rise to mistaken beliefs more than most.

Maybe it’s because players can’t make decisions to influence the outcome, but superstition runs rampant in the slot world.

Olaf Vancura- who serves as vice president of game development for slot maker Mikohn Gaming, a subsidiary of IGT – offered his take on the most pervasive slot myths during an interview with the Las Vegas Sun:

I guess the No. 1 myth is that slot machines keep track of wins and losses and will compensate to get to a win.

But in the U.S., this is is illegal. Slots aren’t allowed to make adjustments.

They cannot and do not. Each win is a separate event.”

And Konami Gaming’s higher-up Walther echoed those sentiments, warning players to steer clear of fallacies and misinformation about the casino’s ability to control payouts from on high:

There is all sorts of lore out there.

If you push buttons in a certain combination, if animals look at you funny, there are all sorts of myths.

And one is that there is a magical control center that can update games at a touch of a button.”

As the major myth associated with slots, many people will swear up and down that the casino’s “control room” has direct access to the reels spinning on their screen. Fortunately for players who enjoy fair play, Vancura clarified that this is simply an impossibility:

“Some people believe a slot director off in a back room somewhere is sitting at a computer and can change the machine right out from under you.

So if you are playing a good machine that you were doing well at, someone can tighten it down and you will run into a cold streak.

It’s not possible for the casino to pull the rug out from under you.”

And according to Vancura, another commonly heard myth – that players can “vulture” jackpots by waiting for a machine to be primed by previous play – just doesn’t hold up to technological scrutiny:

Today’s slot machines don’t work that way. They are based on RNGs or random number generators.

Different manufacturers have different rates. But a good rule of thumb is that the RNGs are running hundreds of times per second.

So unless you had initiated that same spin at precisely the same instant, you would not have won the jackpot. If you’re even a tenth of a second off, you will get a completely different outcome.”

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Penny slots can be a great way to enjoy the casino experience on the cheap, but only when you know how the game is really played. Using these five tips, you should be able to get your coins behind the best bets only, while avoiding the pitfalls that ensnare uninformed players.

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