By John Grochowski
The most-asked question about casino gambling has to be this one, about the most popular games in American casinos: “How do I win on slots?”
The best answer is one players don’t particularly want to hear: “Be in the right place at the right time.”
Nearly all slots are games of pure chance. In recent years, we’ve seen a slow rise in skill-based slots, but all have odds and payouts set so the house will have an edge no matter how good the player.
Even at that, skill-based slots make up a tiny minority of available games. For the most part, the house edge is the same on every spin and there’s nothing you can do to make a difference.
For the most part, the question shifts to, “What can I do to get most out of the slots?”
There are rare exceptions where you can at least make a dent in the house edge, though nothing guarantees the wins will come.
Banked Slot Machine Bonuses
The heyday of banked bonuses was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but a few machines today retain the features that made advantage play on the slots possible.
In banked bonuses, players collect icons as they play. When enough icons were collected, a bonus was triggered.
For example, in the Buccaneer Gold slot on Silicon Gaming’s Odyssey slots, reel spins would earn you daggers that then were stuck into a pirate ship rail. When you collected five daggers you went to a bonus round.
Advantage players looked for Buccaneer Gold games where previous players had left three or four daggers already in the rail. Then they played until the collected the bonus and moved on.
For a few years, there were many such games, but casinos didn’t like advantage players skimming the bonuses while those not in the know were left to build bonuses from scratch. The games disappeared from casino floors.
However, a few current games give you a taste of the banked bonus experience.
International Game Technology has a family of games including Throne of Zinon and Wu Wang Zhe in which the left side of the screen depicts character symbols accompanied by spaces to collect markers. When you collect three markers on the same symbol that symbol turns wild for the next three spins.
Should you find a game with two markers already in place for the same character, you’re in position to trigger wilds and a few spins with a higher payback percentage.
That doesn’t necessarily mean a profitable time. Slot machines come with a range of payback percentages, and casinos may choose which versions to put on their floor. One extra wild symbol might not be enough to make up the difference between target payback percentage and 100 percent.
Not all casinos have those specific games. Many have no banked / collection-type games. But you get the idea. If you find a game where collected symbols unlock a feature, you’re better off if you start your slot journey part way toward the more lucrative times.
On progressive slots where jackpots are awarded by lining up symbols, the odds of winning the jackpot are the same on every spin. Jackpots keep climbing until someone wins, but there is no fixed level at which the wins must come.
But there’s a game segment that does put a cap on jackpots. The game signage tells you up front what that maximum is.
These are the “must win by” or “must hit by” slots. Many game makers produce them, including Ainsworth and Scientific Games. Konami Gaming is a player in that market with its Quick Strike progressives.
Quick Strike has two progressive levels. On common configuration for penny video slots has a major jackpot and a minor jackpot. Under the major jackpot, the game tells you, “Range $250.00 – $500.00,” and under the minor it says, “Range $25.00 – $50.00.”
If the top meter is at $322.57, then it’s possible it could win if your next spin pushes it to $322.58, but there’s still a lot of room to the max. You could have a long wait for the jackpot. But if the meter stands at $499.98, then you know for certain the jackpot is coming soon.
These work by having a random number generator select a jackpot total within the parameters. That number remains a mystery, revealed only when there is a winner. A portion of every bet is added to the jackpot. If your bet pushes the jackpot to the mystery total, you win.
If you played only when the meter was very close to the top of the range, you could get an edge on these machines. However, most jackpots will hit well short of the limit. The opportunity to play with the jackpot close to the top might never come.
Imagine a four-level progressive in which the mini jackpot starts building from $5, the minor from $25, the major from $100 and the maxi from $1,000.
If you wait to play until the jackpots are at some higher level – for example, $10, $50, $200 and $2,000 – then your expected payback percentage is higher than if you play at the rollover level.
Even if you wait for only one to be at a higher level, the overall return is higher than at base level.
Does that mean you can get an advantage? Probably not. Payback percentages on base games of progressive slots usually are lower than on non-progressives, and it takes some powerful jackpot building to eat away at the house edge.
On top of that, there’s never any guarantee that you’re the one who will hit the jackpot.
The Slot Majority
On most slots, the odds never change. The random number generator works with the same number set on every spin. Your chance of hitting any combination are the same on every spin, regardless of whether recent spins have been wins or losses.
What’s a player to do? Be grateful for the wins when they come and accept that losses are going to come more often than wins. One big win can make up for a lot of losing sessions, but losing sessions will be the majority.
There are a few things you can do to make sure you get the most out of your sessions on the slots.
**Choose games that give you what you want out of the games: Do you want a lot of volatility with chances at big jackpots at the risk of a lot of losing spins? Then three-reel slots might be for you.
On video slots, games with free-spin bonuses usually have higher volatility than games with pick-a-prize bonuses. Free spins give you extra chances to win big, but some rounds will end with minimal wins or no wins at all. Pick-a-prize bonuses usually carry more moderate bonuses and are games of choice for players who want entertainment and extended play.
**Understand that higher denomination slots have higher payback percentages than lower denomination slots.
There are exceptions at individual casinos, but basically, dollar slots pay more than quarter slots, which pay more than nickels, which pay more than pennies. Even though you may bet as much or more money on a penny video slot than a dollar three-reel slot, the dollar game almost always has a higher return.
That doesn’t mean you should rush out and increase your bet. If you’re betting 40 cents on a 40-line penny slot and getting a 90-percent return, your average result is a 4-cent loss per spin. If you’re making a $3 max bet on a three-line dollar slot and getting back 95 percent, that average loss per spin is 15 cents. The risk is higher and the loss in money is higher even though the house keeps a lower percentage.
**If you’re going to play a progressive, make sure you’re eligible for the jackpots. On three-reel games, that usually means betting max coins. On video slots with multi-level jackpots, some games make all player bets eligible for the jackpots, but some require a progressive bet.
Read the machine glass or help menu and find out what it takes. Payback percentages on base games are usually lower than on non-progressives, and the jackpots make up the difference. If you’re going to play progressives, make the necessary bets to be jackpot eligible. If you don’t want to bet that much, play a non-progressive.
Casinos have become increasingly wary of adopting games that can be beaten consistently, such as blackjack by card counters or video poker experts on games with high pay tables. So blackjack rules have been toughened, video poker pay tables have been lowered, and skill-based slots protect at least a minimal house edge against good players.
Other slots are not games of skill. All players win sometimes. Winning sessions, and even big wins, are part of normal probability built into the games. Casinos need winners to spread the word, after all.
But you don’t know when the wins are coming. You can’t make larger bets when you’re most likely to win, as blackjack players do, because the odds are unchanging. The odds of winning are the same on every spin.
**Above all, bet money you can afford. Set a budget for a day at the casino, and stick to it. Don’t head for the ATM or, worse, the credit kiosk if you start running short on funds. Call it a day and try another time.
Choose games and coin denominations that fit your bankroll. If you’ve budgeted $100 for the day, stick to penny slots at one coin per line. Don’t even think about dollar slots, where a short losing strike can eat your hundred in five minutes flat.
Be smart with your money. Give yourself a chance to win and have fun playing, but never bet money you can’t afford to lose.
John Grochowski has been covering casinos and casino games for nearly 40 years. He is the author of six books and his work appears in newspapers, magazines and websites around the world.
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