A 10-Step Guide to Advanced Slot Machine Gambling Strategy

by Michael Stevens
on September 8, 2017

When I started researching the topic “advanced slot machine strategy”, I did a quick search of Google and Bing to see what others had written. This is a standard tactic when writing a blog post for the Internet. Rarely am I surprised by the results, but this time I was:

Here’s why:

The Internet really does have multiple websites with pages specifically targeting the expression “advanced slot machine strategy”. At first, I was surprised because I understand that slot machines are entirely random.

You can’t get an edge over these machines. They are called one-armed bandits for a reason.

Some of these sites are just trolling for search engine traffic, though. Others have products for sale. (Don’t buy them. They’re junk.)

This post about advanced slot machine strategy focuses on strategy in its real sense—a high-level approach to something. Tactics cover individual decisions.

With slot machines, an advanced strategy involves understanding clearly how the games work so you can do a risk/reward analysis before deciding which games to play and for how much.

1 – Understand How Slot Machines Work

One of the oft-repeated pieces of advice when it comes to slot machine strategy is to find a game that’s due for a win. I read an answer on Quora today that made reasonably good sense for half the article, but the author started talking about how a game with a 95% payback percentage realizes when it’s above or below that 95%.  He suggested that the game was self-correcting and would pay out less when it was behind and more when it was ahead.

This is absolutely NOT how slot machines work.

The truth behind slot machine spins is that each spin is independent of each other spin. The odds of winning aren’t affected by what happened on the previous spins.

Early slot machines were powered with springs, gears, and metal reels. The probabilities were determined by the number of stops and the number of symbols on those stops.

Here’s a classic example of how the probability would work on such a machine:

You have 10 symbols on each reel. For the sake of this example, let’s assume that only one of those symbols is a cherry, and the only payout in the game is for a combination of 3 cherries.

You have a 1/10 probability of getting a cherry on each reel. To win, you need to get a cherry on all 3 reels at the same time. You need a cherry on reel 1 AND a cherry on reel 2 AND a cherry on reel 3.

To determine the probability of getting multiple results at the same time—a word problem which uses “and” in it—you multiply the probabilities by each other.

In this case, the probability of getting 3 cherries is 1/10 X 1/10 X 1/10, or 1/1000.

If the game pays off at 950 for 1 for 3 cherries, the game has a 95% payback percentage.

If you play the game long enough, it’s impossible to be a winner. The math just doesn’t work.

Take a mathematically perfect set of 1000 spins. You’d lose 999 times, but you’d win once. You’ve lost 1000 units, but you’ve won 950 units. Your net loss is 50 units.

Of course, you won’t see mathematically perfect results in 1000 spins, but the more spins you make, the more likely it becomes that the actual results will start to reflect the mathematical prediction.

2 – Slot Machines Are About More Than Payback Percentage

One would be forgiven for thinking that the payback percentage is the only thing that matters when comparing slot machines.

But that’s not the only factor involved.

Another mathematical concept that comes into play with a slot machine game is called “volatility”.

This is a way of measuring how big the winning and losing streaks are likely to be.

In the example slot machine I presented in #1, the game is highly volatile. You’re likely to play for 2 hours or more before ever hitting a win.

But suppose we had a game with multiple winning combinations, each of which paid off less than the others.

For example, let’s say you get paid 2 units if you get a cherry on any of the 3 reels. Let’s also say you get paid 4 units if you get 2 cherries. Finally, let’s say you get paid off 900 for 1 if you get a cherry on each of the 3 reels.

The payback percentage would be different, but the volatility would go way down. It will still take you nearly 2 hours to hit the big jackpot (3 cherries), but you’ll likely see multiple small wins along the way.

You can generally play longer on a game with lower volatility.

Most modern slot machines use computer monitors and random number generators to create their results. The underlying math hasn’t changed, though. The casinos still have an unassailable mathematical edge over the players.

But these games often have multiple paylines. If you’re playing a game where you’re wagering a penny on each of 25 lines, you’re putting 25 cents into action on every spin. You’ll often see small wins on multiple paylines so that you get paid off a nickel here or there, a dime here or there, and 20 cents here or there.

The game will still win in the long run, but you’ll feel like it’s a good game because you’re getting lots of small wins (which are actually net losses).

3 – It’s Impossible to Tell a Slot Machine’s Payback Percentage Just by Looking at It

When slot machines were made with mechanical reels, calculating the payback percentage was a simple matter of comparing the number of symbols with the payoffs for the various combinations.

You could calculate the odds of getting a specific set of results, then compare that with how much that combination paid. Total the expected return for each payout, and you get the overall payback percentage for the machine.

But modern slot machines use computer programs called random number generators to create their results. These computer programs cycle through thousands of numbers per second.

When you press the spin button or pull the lever, the game instantly stops on one of those numbers, which is keyed to a specific combination on the reels.

The programmers can adjust the odds of getting a specific symbol in the game. Cherries might have a 1/8 probability, while plums might have a 1/4 probability, and lemons might have a 1/16 probability. With variables like this, it’s impossible to calculate the game’s payback percentage.

You could theoretically calculate the payback percentage by clocking the results, but you’d need hours in front of a given machine before having anything resembling certainty that your results reflect any real probability.

All else being equal, a game with a higher payback percentage is better than a game with a lower payback percentage.

But determining that payback percentage with any degree of certainty is practically impossible.

4 – Some Generalities About Slot Machine Paybacks Apply

One of the best pages on the Internet about slot machines is Michael Bluejay’s page. He offers some generalities about increasing your chances to win.

Among other things, he explains that slot machine games with smaller jackpots generally have better payback percentages. This makes sense. If a jackpot isn’t so big, it usually isn’t so hard to hit. Your chances of walking away from the machine a winner increase as a result.

By the same token, a slot machine game with a large progressive jackpot is less likely to win. In fact, the probability of winning one of those huge life-changing jackpots on a Megabucks machine compares to winning the lottery.

Remember how I calculated it would take you an average of about 2 hours to win a jackpot with a 1/1000 probability of hitting?

I calculated that by assuming you’d make about 500 spins per hour.

But if the probability of hitting the jackpot is instead 1 in 1,000,000, you’re looking at 2000 hours of play before hitting that jackpot. And you’re still not guaranteed to hit it after that much play.

How long is 2000 hours?

That’s 40 hours a week for 50 weeks. That’s comparable to the amount of time you spend at work each year.

Imagine how much money you’d lose while you’re waiting to hit that big jackpot.

The payback percentage on a progressive slot machine isn’t just lower—the volatility is higher, too.

And 1 in a million is generous. The probability of hitting a big progressive is more like 1 in 15 million, which means you’re looking at playing full-time for 15 years before hitting that jackpot.

You might hit it before then, but probably not.

Progressive slots are okay to play occasionally on a lark, but a steady diet of progressive slots is going to kill your bankroll, and fast.

5 – You Can Also Make Generalities About Slot Machine Payback Percentages Based on Location, But NOT the Way Many Writers Explain It

A lot of gambling writers suggest that the slot machines on the edges of the rows pay out more. The theory is that they arrange the games this way to attract more attention.

This might, at one time, have been true, but it’s not true anymore. The slot machines on the edge of the banks are no more or less likely to have higher or lower payback percentages than the slots located anywhere else on the floor.

But location does come into play when you’re looking at where the casinos are.

The classic example is the slot machine action at the Las Vegas airport. These machines are notoriously stingy. You’re looking at payback percentages in the 80% range.

Almost any other slot machine game in town is superior to that. The airport slot machines want to take advantage of the fact that you’re stuck in the airport and it’s the only game around.

Supply and demand have a lot to do with payback percentages. Popular casinos on the Strip are often competitive with each other, and they compete for customers by offering generous machines with paybacks in the 94% or so range. Be ready to play for higher denominations than elsewhere, though—slot machines on the Vegas Strip tend to not be available in lower denominations. (Someone has to pay those big light bills.)

6 – Some Slot Machine Games Post Guaranteed Payback Percentages

These are reasonably common with some online slot machine providers. Net Entertainment casinos offer slot machine games with listed payback percentages, for example.

But they’re also uncommon in land-based casinos.

Any chance you get to play a slot machine game with a guaranteed payback percentage, it’s probably worth taking. Many times, these games will be available to play for a dollar or more per spin, and they’ll be the only machines in the casino with their payback percentages advertised.

When you do find a game with an advertised payback percentage, it will often be a machine with a 97% or higher payback percentage.

If you’re in a casino with such a game, that’s the game you should play. The other games almost certainly have a lower payback percentage.

7 – The Slots Club Is a Mixed Bag

One of the most common slot machine myths I see repeated ad nauseam is that you’ll be less likely to win if you play with the slots club card inserted into the machine.

This isn’t true.

The slots club card simply tracks how much action you bring to the casino so that the property will know how much to give you back in rebates and rewards. Their goal is to incentivize your play.

Think about it. Slot machines are a guaranteed moneymaker for the casino if they have plenty of people playing. The more people play, the more money the casinos make.

The payback percentage and the random number generator aren’t affected by the insertion of the players’ club card.

Other slot machine writers imply that the slots club is a total win-win, and you should always play with your card inserted. From a simple mathematical perspective, this is true. You’ll lose less in the long run if you’re getting 0.2% back in rebates over time.

The problem is that casinos use the slots club cards to track your play and advertise to you.

The more advertisements you get from the casino, the more likely you are to lose more money playing than you would other otherwise.

Slots clubs are a good deal, but they’re not without drawbacks.

8 – Almost Every Other Game in the Casino Offers More Entertainment for Your Money

I understand that some players just love slots. They love the visuals, the sounds, and the experiences associated with these games.

But these games are harder on your bankroll than any other game in the casino. Even games with a higher house edge cost less to play than slots.

Here’s why:

  • The average slots player makes 600 bets per hour.
  • The more wagers you make, the more money you lose in the long run.
  • Casinos use an hourly predicted loss rate to measure the profit potential of their games. Players can use the same calculation to compare games.

Here’s an example:

You’re playing a slot machine with a 92% payback percentage. You’re a slow player, and you take lots of breaks and chat with your buddies, so you only make 500 spins per hour. And you’re betting $3 per spin.

You’re putting $1500 per hour into action. With a 92% payback percentage, you expect to win back $1380 per hour. Your expected loss per hour is $120.

Now let’s assume you’re playing keno in the keno lounge. The house edge for this theoretical keno game is 25%, which means the payback percentage is 75%.

You buy $1 tickets, and you buy 5 tickets per game. There are probably only 5 games going per hour, though, so you’re putting $5 into action 5 times per hour.

Your total hourly action is $25.

You expect to lose 25%, or $6.25.

That’s 1/20 of what your expected losses are for the slot machine game in the example. And the house edge is 3X higher than you saw with the slot machine game.

Other games might be harder and require more strategy, but their odds are even better. Blackjack is another good example.

An average blackjack player might play for $10 per hand and play 50 hands per hour. That’s $500 in action.

If you’ve mastered basic strategy and find a game with good rules, the house edge for blackjack is only 0.5% or 1%. Even if you make a lot of mistakes, you can probably keep the house edge to 4% or so.

4% of $500 is only $20/hour—1/6 of what you’d lose playing slots for $3 per spin.

And that’s assuming you suck at blackjack, which doesn’t have to be the case. You can learn to play blackjack well.

9 – Video Poker Offers a Similar Gameplay Experience with Much Better Odds

Video poker games are almost indistinguishable from slots to neophytes, but the differences are major. VP games use the same probabilities as you’d see with a deck of cards. As a result, you can calculate the payback percentage for a video poker game.

Most video poker games offer payback percentages starting at around 93%. This is where most slot machine games start.

But video poker game payback percentages start at that amount and get better. As you improve your skills and learn to find more generous pay tables, you can eventually find video poker games with a payback percentage of 99% or better.

Slot machine payback percentages go down. You might find games with a 97% or 98% payback percentage, but those are the exceptions, not the rule. Most slot machine games have a payback percentage of 93% or less.

10 – Understanding Your Goals Is the Most Advanced Slot Machine Strategy of All

Your long-term goal when playing slot machines should be to trade a certain amount of your money to the casino for a certain amount of entertainment.

In the short run, of course, you want to enjoy the free drinks that come with playing. You also want to enjoy the comps that come with playing with the slots club inserted. These can include free meals, lodging, and even entertainment tickets.

You’ll sometimes walk away from the casino slots a winner, but you’re smart. You know that the odds are always stacked against you no matter which slot machine games you’re playing. You enjoy the occasional ups and downs.

One bonus advanced slot machine strategy is this—don’t become an addict.

One of my favorite books on gambling is titled Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.

The book explains the psychological tricks that make playing slots and video poker machines so addictive. Not everyone who drinks a beer becomes an alcoholic. Not everyone who pulls a slot machine lever becomes an addict.

But gambling addiction is serious enough that you should avoid gambling on machines any time you suspect that you’re losing control of your behavior.

Conclusion

I can think of 2 lazy ways to write about advanced slot machine strategy:

  1. Explain that slots are entirely random, so there is no strategy.
  2. Make up some bogus betting strategies that don’t work.

I decided to take a different approach in this post and focus on helping you become a more educated gambler. That’s the essence of a truly advanced slot machine strategy—understanding.

If you enjoy yourself and avoid an addiction, occasionally winning at slots is just a bonus.
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