by Joshua O’Connell

Whenever you step foot into a casino, it’s hard to miss the slot machines. They’re ubiquitous, and over time have become the most popular casino game around, with both players and casino operators. They take up a good percentage of the casino floor and because of that, they’re hard to miss.

If slots are new to you, this guide will help you prepare for your trip to the casino, as well as understand the basics of how a slot machine works, so you can put your best foot forward. Slots don’t require a lot of knowledge, but it’s still your money you’re putting at stake, so it’s best to get organized.

Before You Play

When you’re new to casinos, or playing slots, it may not be something you thought about, but it helps to prepare a bit before going to a casino. Doing so will help ensure you can have a good time at the casino while ensuring you aren’t just setting yourself up to always leave without any money left.

You see, every game in the casino is designed with what as known as a house advantage. This means that, over time, every game is designed to make the casino some money.

These advantages may not sound like a lot on the surface – slots have among the highest house advantages of any game in the casino floor, with a range generally somewhere between 5 and 15 percent, depending on the type of machine.

What does that mean for you as a player? For every $100 you wager on slots, over time, the casino is expected to earn $5 to $15. That doesn’t mean every time you play, that’s what they’ll make – you could win nothing, or a big jackpot! But over time, through lots of players and spins, that’s where it will land.

With that in mind, here’s a few things you should think about before you play.

Set Limits

It’s recommended to set limits that ensure you protect yourself. Limits ensure you don’t go overboard, while setting the stage for a fun casino visit.

Set a Budget

One limit that’s important is to set a budget. Some players want to go to the casino with a goal such as “I want to make money” or “I want to get a handpay,” and the challenge is you can go to a casino, have those goals be out of reach, and run out of money.

The best goal is to set a budget, and play within your means (that means play with your entertainment budget). If you lose that budget, you can leave the casino knowing you had fun, and didn’t spend money you couldn’t afford.

Set a Time Limit

Another aspect that is important is to set a general time limit. An open-ended visit just leaves the door open for the casino to take more money, and if you had set a time limit, perhaps you’d still have some of your budget left over.

If you feel 2-3 hours is enough time in a casino to have a good time, set that as your goal, and leave when you’re done, whether you’re up or down, and especially if you have money left – it will make casino trips feel more fun than nearly always leaving with none of your money left if you just keep playing until your budget is gone.

Set a Win Limit

This may sound weird, but if you go to the casino with a certain amount of money and have a really lucky run, it can easily encourage you to keep playing and try to win more… and if the tides turn, try to chase your way back to that previous high. Sometimes it helps to set a “goal” of how much you win and if you hit it, either walk, or reset your goals.

For instance, if you enter the casino with $100, and you suddenly win $500, is it time to walk when you have more than five times your money? For some, the answer will be yes. For others, they may say “I’ll give myself $100 once more, but have to leave if I lose it.”

To maintain discipline some players carry devices that let you lock away winnings, for example a Winners Bank.

Get a Player’s Card

Before you sit down at your first slot machine, you should register for the casino’s players club. The players club rewards players for the amount of gambling they do, through various perks and rewards that the club offers. This includes offers sent to your home to encourage you to visit. Also, complimentary spending money earned while playing, and discounts in various shops on the casino property based on your tier level.

In essence, a player’s card is a trade-off. The casino wants to know as much as they can about your play, and in return they offer you rewards for sharing that information. And the more you play, the more they tend to reward you. This is why you should get a card and always use it in a slot machine. You will be rewarded, even if you’re not a massive spender, with perks like free play, hotel discounts or free rooms, and food and beverage discounts or freebies.

Even if you lose money on your casino trip, the perks they provide will effectively give you some of that right back in terms of casino perks, known as comps.

Getting Started with Slot Machines

When you look around a casino floor, there are a lot of slots – hundreds of themes and plenty of slot machine types. It can be intimidating at the beginning, but you can work your way up to more complex games by getting to know the basics.

How Much Are You Betting?

The first thing is to understand the notion of how much a spin will be. A spin’s cost usually is comprised of a couple of pieces:

  • Credits: Most machines will have a panel next to the spin button that display different options for how many credits a wager will be. You as a player can choose from a number of different options.
  • Denomination: The value of each credit. You’ll see these displayed on the machine prominently, such as 1 cent, 25 cent and $1.

For example, if you choose a 50 credit wager and the denomination is 1 cent, that 50 credits is equal to 50 cents for each spin. However, if the denomination is 5 cent, that 50 credits is now worth $2.50. The number of credits is multiplied by the denomination to determine the total wager.

Some older machines don’t have that many credits that can be wagered – usually a couple – and tend to be 3-reel slot machines with physical reels. In those cases it’s easy to just bet the number of credits you want and spin.

Other older machines may do things a bit differently. Instead of displaying a total credit amount, they’ll let you choose:

  • Lines: The number of lines you wish to play
  • Line Bet: The number of credits you wish to play per line

So in that case your spin cost is calculated as:

Number of lines x the line bet x the denomination.

If you choose 9 lines and a line bet of 5 credits per line, that would be 45 credits for that spin. Similar to the first example, if that was a 1 cent denomination machine that’d be 45 cents, whereas a 5 cent denomination machine would be $2.25.

How Much Should You Bet?

50 cents a spin may not sound like a lot, but you can do 400-600 spins an hour on a slot machine! So that can be $200 to $300 of wagers. (This doesn’t mean you’ve spent that much; you’ll win something along the way.)

If you want to get a couple of hours of play out of a casino, make sure you bet appropriately to your bankroll – betting $10 a spin with $100 of money is more likely than not going to see that money disappear before you can hit anything substantial. Betting 50 cents a spin on that same budget will give you a lot more opportunities to get wins and bonuses so you can keep playing.

What Slot Machines Should You Play?

There are a few things you can look for to find games that can help you get to know the casino floor more easily.

Three-Reel Slot Machines

Among the easiest games to learn right away are three-reel machines that have actual reels. These are generally called mechanical reel slots, since they actually have the physical reels. Many slots in a casino nowadays are a video screen, but there’s always a percentage that are physical.

These tend to be easier to learn because the design of the game is very clear, and what constitutes a win is generally displayed right on the machine, either above or below the reels. In that way they tend to be simple, the goals for winning clear, and they can be a good first toe dip into the water of casino games.

Games with Popular Themes

Casinos, like anything else, have themes that are popular and see expansions, sequels, etc. Examples of this are Buffalo, Wheel of Fortune and Quick Hit – you’ll find these games all over casino floors.

The nice thing about them is once you get to know the basics of how those series of games work, you’ll find similar rules across many versions of the game. So learning how one works helps you know how others work.

How Do I Get to Know the Slot Machine Games?

If you want to get to know how some of the slot machine games work, there are a few ways to do this, whether at the casino or at home.

Read the Pay Table

Every slot machine is required to have a pay table – this is information built into the game that tells you how the game pays, how to trigger a bonus, and how various features work. On older machines, this could be printed right on the machine itself, in the case of those mechanical reel slot machines. For newer games, particularly video slot machines, you’ll likely find the rules under a Help or Information screen, or perhaps under a button simply called “Pays.”

Some games are more complicated than others; looking at the pay table may help you decide whether the particular game is right for you at the moment. I’ve seen games with over 50 screens in a pay table, so some slots can get quite complicated nowadays.

Watch a Neighbor Play… or a Video

Sometimes just seeing how a game work can be as easy as watching the game in action. So if you’re in a casino, you can sometimes get a sense of how a game works just by watching someone else play it.

However, you may find yourself uncomfortable watching a stranger play. In that case, you can also look up videos on YouTube and watch players play them. The American Casino Guide channel on YouTube is one such source, but there are many out there. Just keep in mind some players choose to upload their best sessions, so you may be watching an above-average outcome.

Other Things to Know About Slot Machines

Now that you know the basics about playing slot machines, I have a couple of final notes that can help you be a savvier player at the casino.

Higher Denominations Generally Pay Better Over Time

Casinos in some locations are required to report how much they pay back. What becomes clear when looking at this data, which can be found on websites such as the American Casino Guide, is that as you go up in denomination, the overall payback will generally improve.

As discussed earlier in the article, slot payback is reached over lots of players and spins, so this doesn’t mean that you’ll always do better, but over time, you will. So if your budget allows $1 a spin, it’s equally smart to look at quarter denomination games that cost 2-3 credits as it would to look at the penny or nickel machines with a $1 bet option.

It Doesn’t Matter When You Play, or Where Within a Casino

Slot machines are randomized in a way that the time of day, day of week, or location on the casino floor isn’t going to have any major impact on your overall results. Many players are superstitious in various ways, and will swear that a certain machine at a certain time of day pays better, but the reality is that’s just in their head.

Each time you hit the button to begin spinning the reels, the machine makes a call to the random number generator, which matches it to an outcome, and that determines what you’ll win, if anything. (This also means if you stop the reels, it already knows where they’re going to stop, so that does nothing but speed up the process.)

Have Fun!

I hope this guide gets you started to understanding how slot machines work. Thanks for reading, and best of luck on your trips to the casino!

A Word About Online Slots

Some slot players prefer to try their luck at online casinos and for them we suggest that they explore the options offered by no deposit casino bonuses.  These are a great way to try your luck in an online casino without risking any of your own money. For more information, be sure to read this article: Your Guide to No Deposit Casino Bonuses


Joshua O’Connell is the author of Know Your Slots, a casino website that talks about slot machines and how they work,
comps, travel,
cruises and other casino-related topics. New and updated content is posted daily.