10 Dumb Slot Machine Mistakes that Smart People Make

by Michael Stevens
on October 20, 2016

Most gamblers now play slot machine games, although that was not always the case. For a few decades “serious” gamblers played table games while their wives chatted away by the slot machines. But starting in the late 1990s casinos and game manufacturers started making the slot gaming experience more entertaining and rewarding. The old physical reel machines gave up floor space to newer video slot games with “virtual” reels. And progressive games were networked together to create larger jackpots.

As the years passed much of the stigma male gamblers osnce attached to slot games gave way to a festive party atmosphere around slot games. The cabinets became larger, wired for better sound, and more comfortable. Game designers introduced bonus rounds and then made some bonus rounds more appealing to male players by simulating adventure games or arcade style combat games. Some fantasy themed slot games also told stories.

These and other innovations have turned slot gaming into the core revenue stream for the casino industry. And we love to play slot games now because they are exciting, they play great music, and they just don’t feel like the old one armed bandits that grandma used to play. If you’re going to play the slots you should do so for the fun experience but of course everyone wants to win when they gamble. And that leads us to the question of what kinds of mistakes do even the smartest gamblers make.  Here is a list of 15 mistakes smart people make when playing slot games.

1. Assuming All Slot Machine Games Work the Same Way

In the United States slot machine games are designated as Class III games under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. And yet while many Native American casinos were for years only able to offer Class II gaming you could find many slot machine like games on their floors. What is the difference between these Class II games and the standard Class III slot game?

The IGRA defined Class I games as traditional games of chance that form part of Native American culture and which are not likely to attract much interest or investment from the general public. The IGRA lumped bingo, pull tab, and “non-banking games” into the Class II category. Everything else was designated “Class III gaming”.

To compete with commercial casinos that offer Class III slot gaming the Native American casinos had to invest in bingo games that don’t look like bingo games. To do this they contracted with game manufacturers who designed games that appeared to play like slot machine games but which in fact were bingo games. In other words, the outcomes of the gambling rounds were determined by the bingo games.

A normal US slot machine uses three or more reels to create random patterns of symbols. To ensure consistent and fair play the machines are controlled electronically by onboard computers. The computers use random number generators to spin the physical or virtual reels. The games are programmed to produce patterns that are statistically predictable so that a theoretical return to player can be computed on the basis of simple probabilities.

Ironically, US law requires that each reel be assigned its own random number. Outside the United States slot machine games are decided by a single random number and then, like the Class II bingo-based games developed by Native American casinos, the slots are spun to produce patterns that match the chosen outcomes.

Class II hybrid bingo and slot games therefore work much more like non-US slot games, except that the bingo games’ results are used to determine outcomes rather than individual random numbers.

2. Assuming that Theoretical Return to Player Shows How Much Money Is Paid Back to Players

Gambling books, articles, and experts like to talk about the theoretical return to player. This is a percentage value, typically greater than 90% and less than 100%, that is used to determine the “house edge”. The house edge is the theoretical amount of money that the casino keeps from all the wagers made by players of a specific game. The house edge is usually given as a percentage which, when added to the theoretical return to player, results in a total of 100%.

Here is the problem with thinking about return to player and house edge: these numbers represent what should happen over a period of many months or years through continuous play. Individual players, within their individual gaming sessions, see radically different results. Some players lose all their money. Some players win large jackpots.

Casinos may win more or less than their theoretical edge in any given reporting period, typically a month, which is the standard accounting period. The percentages of wins and losses may look very different if computed for a six month period than when computed for a one month period.

In “theoretical return to player” the player is not a person, not even a hypothetical person or statistical model; rather, the player is actually all the people who play the game. It would have been better had the phrase been given as “theoretical return to [all] players [over expected life of the game]”.

3. Using a Betting System to Gamble on Slot Machines

Betting systems differ from money management techniques in one crucial way: a betting system is designed to recapture lost money. A money management technique merely regulates how money is spent.

Betting systems are notoriously flawed but people keep trying to find new betting systems that will give them an advantage over the casino. Casino games are designed to favor the house over time. The longer you play the game the more likely the casino will take all your money. Betting systems assume that if you lose money you just need to keep playing in order to win it back.

How can it be, then, that the casino is counting on your continued play to produce its profit and you are counting on your continued play to recoup your losses?

There are two problems with betting systems. First, they require an unlimited supply of money and players never have that much to gamble with. Second, the casinos cap how much money you can wager on any game. Sooner or later your betting system runs into a limit and its theoretical ability to cover previous losses is undermined.

Betting systems all have one common feature: they require that you change the amount of your bet depending on some criteria specific to your gaming experience. Usually if you lose money on a wager you should increase your next or soon to be future wager to make up for the loss.

However, unless you can improve your chances of winning on the next bet increasing the amount of the wager just puts more of your money at risk.

4. Only Playing High Wager Slot Games

There is a common perception that high stakes slot games pay better than low stakes slot games. However these games are often sold at multiple denominations and they use the same programming. The idea that a $10 game pays better than its 25 cent cousin is based on the assumption that the casino will change the chip on the high value machine to offer a better theoretical return to player. Numerous casino employees, when asked about this, claim that casinos rarely change the chips because of regulations.

According to Peter Hand, a retired slot machine designer, the games he knows were sold with several chips that had RTP settings ranging from 80% to 98%. Hand also notes that in the 1960s a slot technician in Reno accidentally raised the payout percentage to 95% for a small group of machines. The casino decided not to lower the percentage to match other machines because the 95% machines were getting more play and making more money than other machines with lower payout percentages. Competitive forces over the next five decades drove most major casinos to raise the payout percentages on their slot games.

The bottom line here is that a casino has no incentive to mix up the payout percentages on slot games if the players can notice the difference in payback. Therefore only playing high wager slot games incurs more risk without a corresponding increase in reward.

5. Always Playing the Maximum Bet

Another common belief among slot players is that you should always play the maximum bet. However, unless the game pay table states your percentage payback increases (and some few do) for max wagers there is no reason to do this.

Progressive games may require that you play maximum wagers to be eligible to win the progressive jackpots. However as the progressive jackpots are rarely awarded compared to other winning combinations the theoretical return on max bets for progressive games declines.

The only advantage of betting more is that the prizes are multiplied by the level of the bet; therefore a three of a kind prize that pays 200 credits is worth more on a $5 bet than on a $1 bet. But the larger your bets the faster you spend your money and the fewer rounds you can play on the game.  With slot games your chances of winning the highest paying combination are better with a greater number of plays, not with maximum wagers.

6. Playing Fewer than Maximum Pay Lines When the Money Runs Low

Slot games that allow you to change the number of active pay lines form the most winning combinations when all pay lines are active. In other words, these kinds of slot games really do increase the payback percentage as you activate more pay lines. However, this is a product of the mathematical model used to design the games, not some programming trick.

A game with 25 pay lines has to match its theoretical return to player to the maximum active pay lines. This means the optimum number of winning combinations occurs when all pay lines are active. However, deactivating the pay lines merely renders areas of the playing reels ineligible to pay a prize. The reels continue to use the same combinations of slots and symbols for 1 active pay line as for 25 active pay lines. Hence, the theoretical return to player declines radically as more pay lines are deactivated.

If your balance runs low when you are playing maximum pay lines it is better to move to a game where the minimum wagers eligible for all winning combinations cost less.

7. Only Playing Progressive Slot Games

Although it can be fun to play different types of games the payback percentages on progressive slot games, especially the wide are progressives, tend to be lower than for non-progressive games. That is because a percentage of the wagers played is added to the pool for the progressive jackpots and that percentage is deducted from the 100% total that is usually divided between the theoretical return to player and the house edge.

Modern wide area progressive games are leased to casinos, and so a percentage of the wagers is paid to the game manufacturer in addition to the percentage set aside for the progressive jackpots and the percentage set aside for the house edge.

Although these percentages do not directly affect how much you win or lose they are used to adjust the percentages that are applied to the random numbers the games use to decide the results of reel spins. In other words, to make sure the manufacturer, the casino, and the jackpots get their cuts the players have to win either fewer big prizes or fewer prizes.

The progressive jackpots, of course, can be really large and it’s fun to be the rare lucky person who wins them. But playing progressive slot games is more expensive than playing non-progressive games.

8. Assuming the Games in High Visibility Areas Pay Better

Industry insiders offer different opinions on this rumor, which has been traced back to a book published in the 1990s. The concept is simple: a slot manager for a casino has a few loose games that pay more often than most and he places those games where the most players will see them paying off.

But is this always true?  Some gambling writers who have interviewed slot managers say their sources claimed to use the reverse logic because they were aware of the books that advise players to favor games in high traffic, high visibility areas. Hence, they placed their loosest slots deeper inside their casinos.

All of these anecdotes are unverifiable and truth be told even if all the stories are true everyone has by now heard them. And what exactly is a loose game anyway?  If the games are regulated they have to honor a minimum payback percentage. In the United States the lowest regulated percentage is supposed to be about 85%, but commercial gaming regulations do not apply to Native American gaming venues, and their Class II machines would not have to comply with the same laws as Class III games.

Older slot games do tend to have a lower theoretical return to player than newer slot games. Some of the mythologizing about loose slots could be simple confusion over which games have better percentages. If the games declare their percentages they cannot deviate from the algorithms expected to match those percentages. Changing the chip should lead to a change in the declared theoretical return to player. But not all slot games share this information.

In the final analysis it is better to look at the game’s pay table for a statement about expected payback percentages. If that information is provided then the game’s location on the casino floor is irrelevant. If the game does not publish its theoretical return then players should decide whether they enjoy playing the game and not worry about whether it is “loose”.

9. Assuming that Slot Game Results Are Solely Determined by Random Numbers

Modern mathematics has yet to create an algorithm that can generate truly random numbers. Although a discussion of random number theory would be quite lengthy, what slot players need to know is that those random numbers are mapped to small ranges of numbers that represent virtual slots and physical slots on the playing reels.

A modern slot game with five reels may use up to 256 slots per reel. The slots are mapped to symbols that are shown to the players, either via graphics or physical reels that are directed to land on specific symbols. The random number generators may produce numbers that are found in ranges of billions of numbers. A special technique (several are available) is used to convert the randomly computed value into a number ranging from 1 to [maximum number of slots per reel].

In other words, the algorithm produces a number with a lot of digits and that number is then fed into a simple algorithm that maps the value to something between 1 and 256 (the maximum number of slots in a virtual reel), which value in turn is mapped to some number between 1 and 22 (the maximum number of slots on a physical reel).

However, because some symbols are repeated across all the reels more often than others, the actual number of possible unique combinations of symbols is much, much smaller than the total number of possible permutations of reel numbers. For example, 5 reels with 22 slot positions create 5,153,632 combinations of unique slot positions, but because of duplication among the symbols the actual number of unique combinations of symbols could be only a few thousand. The probability of any given winning combination occurring is determined by how many combinations of slots match that combination of symbols.

This dizzying amount of math ensures that we cannot predict the outcomes of games while limiting their results to a relatively narrow range of possible outcomes. Hence, random numbers play only a small though important part in determining slot game outcomes.

10. Playing Secondary Games with Prizes Won in the Basic Game

If you have ever played a slot game that offered a “Gamble” option after you won a prize you were being prompted to play a secondary game, a game within the game. These “Gamble” options are designed to entice you with sucker bets. The features are clever ways for slot game manufacturers and casinos to get around the legally mandated minimum payback percentages of games.

Say, for example, you are playing in a jurisdiction that requires slot games to provide a theoretical return to player of 85%. That is pretty low compared to games like blackjack, baccarat, and even roulette. But it’s a lot better than the average lottery game. And yet this hypothetical slot game activates a “Gamble” button every time you win a prize.

So let’s say you make a $1 bet, win $10, and then decide to try the “Gamble” feature. These games use simple rules. They prompt you to guess which way a coin will land when tossed, what the color or suit of a playing card is, or whether the next card turned up will be higher or lower than the most recently revealed card. You may be able to double your money or quadruple it. These may sound like great odds but the chances of winning are 50% on the two choice options and 25% on the four choice options.

In other words, you just risked your stake for an 85% chance to win, won the game, and now the machine is prompting you to risk your prize in a game with 25% to 50% chance of winning. You should stick to the basic game and ignore the special features. These are not bonus games. They are just games that favor the casino even more than the basic slot game.

Conclusion

There is no harm in playing a slot machine game as long as you are playing with money you can afford to lose and know the risk you are taking with that money. If anything, slot games are now more fun to play than they were 20 to 30 years ago. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that as competition and gambling laws have forced the casinos to be more fair to gamblers with their games, the casinos have found a friend in the myths and psychological games that lead players to make dumb mistakes.

The dumbest mistake is over thinking everything about gaming in a casino. You really should assume you’re going to lose at least some if not all the money you take in with you. If you want to enjoy dinner and possibly some free entertainment then manage your money so that you don’t lose more than you would if you had paid for a nice dinner and a show.

And while that is not to say that you won’t win, because some players do win, you need to spin those reels as much as possible because you cannot buy the jackpot. At least if you get more than a few minutes’ play out of your money you will have a better chance of winning one of those nice payoffs.

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