A Step by Step Guide to Playing Slot Machines for the First Time

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Slot machines are the most popular game in a casino today. About 85% of a casino’s revenue is generated by gambling machines.

Unfortunately, slots are games which can’t be beaten no matter how smart you are or how much strategy you use. The best you can do is hope to get lucky once in a while. But you can also use some smarts and strategies during game selection to lose money more slowly and increase your chances of winning.

This post is written with the first-time slot machine player in mind. There’s nothing advanced in this explanation of slots games and how they work. It’s just a basic step by step guide to playing slot machines for the first time.

1. Get Ready to Play by Having a Plan

It sounds silly, but getting ready is one of the first steps you should take. Going into a casino without a plan is a good way to lose a lot of money fast. Having a plan is step 1.

Your bankroll is the first thing you should consider. A bankroll is an amount of money that you’ve set aside to gamble with. It’s separate from all your other funds. It’s important that you don’t gamble with money you need for other purposes (like rent).

I like to have an overall bankroll for my trip, but I divide that into smaller bankrolls per day and per gambling session. For example, if I’m going to Las Vegas for a 3-day weekend, I might take $1500 to gamble with. I’ll plan on gambling with $500 per day, and I’ll plan on 2 sessions a day with a $250 bankroll for each session.

Once I lose my bankroll for a session, I have to stop playing. No going to the ATM, no dipping into the bankroll for my next session, and no dipping into my budget for dining out or show tickets.

I also make up my mind beforehand that I’m not going to drink while I play. You might or might not make the same decision. But my experience leads me to think that I’ll make poor decisions and forget all about any plans I have if I’m drinking alcohol.

I also try to choose my companions wisely. I don’t want to be stuck with someone who refuses to leave when my bankroll runs out. But I also am willing to leave when THEIR bankroll runs out.

2. Learn a Little Bit About How Slot Machines Work

You can do this step right now. Here’s how slot machines work:

Slots are just gambling games which have spinning reels with symbols on them. You input money to pay for each spin that you get. When you get certain combinations of symbols, you’re paid off with winnings.

Early slot machines were mechanical affairs with gears, springs, and levers. Modern slots are powered by a tiny computer program called a random number generator. This RNG is what determines the results on the spinning reels.

The games are programmed to pay off at less than the true odds of winning. (This is true of all casino games, in fact.) For example, if you have a 1 in 1000 chance of getting 3 cherries in a row, the payoff for that bet might only be 500 to 1.

This gives the game a house edge, just like any other casino game, but when talking about slot machines, everyone talks about payback percentage. (It’s also called payout percentage or return to player.)

This is just a word that describes how much of each bet the casino returns to the player over a long period of time. The best slot machines in the world usually have a payback percentage of maybe 96% or 97%, but most of the time, you’re facing a payback percentage of 95% or less.

This isn’t a literal result that you’ll see in a given gambling session or even over several gambling sessions. It’s a long term expectation based on tens of thousands of spins. In the short term, anything can happen. That’s why people sometimes walk away winners.

In fact, this is by design. If a slot machine literally gave you a 95 cent win every single time you bet a dollar, you’d never play. It would become obvious quickly that the game favored the house. But since you’re going to win or lose on a random basis, you get to feel like you can beat the odds.

And you can beat the odds—sometimes.

Modern slot machine games also have lots of bonus features, like bonus games, progressive jackpots, and wild symbols. Almost all of these aspects of gameplay happen automatically without any decision-making or strategy necessary on the part of the player.

3. Have Some Manners

Playing slots isn’t really a social activity, but you are playing these games in a public place. Other people are around and will be affected by your behavior. And there are certain rules of etiquette to keep in mind.

If you’re playing a game and need to take a break and go to the restroom, you can leave some kind of personal item (like your jacket) on the seat in front of the game to reserve it for when you return. I wouldn’t recommend leaving anything too valuable, though, because it is possible that someone will steal it. At the same time, if someone has left something to reserve their spot, don’t be rude and move it so that you can take over their machine.

Keep up with your players card. This is the card that you insert into the machine so that the casino can track your play and give you your rebates and comps. If you wander off with the card still inserted, you have to bother the customer service people to get a new card. Or you might have to bother someone who’s taken over the machine to get your card back. If you find someone else’s card still in the machine, remove it and put it on top of the machine.

If you win a huge jackpot, it used to be customary to tip the person who took care of your payouts. In modern casinos, though, everything is handled electronically via a ticket in/ticket out system, so this doesn’t come up. But you should still tip your cocktail waitress, even if she’s only bringing you a Coke.

If you’re a non-smoker, don’t complain about someone smoking at their machine. Just find a non-smoking casino instead. There are plenty of places where you can gamble without being subjected to tobacco smoke, but if you choose to play in a smoking casino, then let the smokers do what they do without harassing them.

Some slots players like to play more than one machine at a time. That’s fine, but if a casino is crowded, you should stick with one machine in order to let others play.

None of these etiquette tips will help you win more money, by the way. But it’s good practice to try to fit into normal society.

4. Choose Your Slot Machine Wisely

You cannot control the whims of lady luck, but you can try to choose slot machines which offer better odds. Pay no attention to the advice you see about how the loose machines are placed on the edge of the rows. That advice is outdated and useless.

Here are some modern, accurate tips about which slot machines have higher payouts:

Slot machines in major casinos pay out better than slot machines in other areas. You’ll find machines which pay out better at a casino on the Las Vegas Strip than you will at the airport, for example. Bars are also notorious for having slot machine games with low payback percentages.

The more complicated the game is, the lower the payback percentage is. All those extra bells and whistles like bonus games, fancy animation, and multiple paylines cost money to implement. And you pay for it in the form of a lower payback percentage and a higher house edge. If you can find a 3-reel, single line slot machine, you’ll have the best chance of walking away a winner.

Progressive slot machines have an ever-expanding jackpot, but you pay for that via a lower payback percentage, too. Every bet you make helps to fuel that jackpot. They take a tiny percentage from each bet and divert it directly to the jackpot. Your odds of winning that jackpot are long enough to be practically 0, so that money fueling the jackpot is just gone forever. It shouldn’t even count toward the calculation of the theoretical payout percentage.

Finally, consider trying video poker games. These aren’t true slot machines at all, but they offer a higher return to player even if you’re not familiar with how to play. They also offer you the opportunity to think and make decisions while you play. You might enjoy the mental stimulation of a video poker game.

5. Put Your Money In

There are still machines where you can input coins, but in today’s casino market, you’ll probably just be putting cash in the machine. They have a reader which looks similar to a change machine. When you feed cash into it, the credits appear on the machine so that you can start to play.

Since most gambling machines at most casinos use a ticket in/ticket out system, they also accept tickets in the reader. In the old days, you’d have to deal with lots of coins and cups to carry those coins around, but the tickets are a lot easier for both the player and the casino.

Before you put your money in, be sure to look at the front of the machine so you’ll know what denomination you’re playing for. If you insert a $100 bill into a dollar machine, you’ll have 100 credits. Insert that same bill into a $5 machine, and you’ll only have 20 credits.

You should also make yourself aware of how many coins you’re wagering per spin and per line. Most modern slots have multiple pay lines, and you have to pay to activate each one. This can add up fast even if you’re playing a low-denomination machine. For example, if you’re playing a penny slot machine which allows you to bet 5 units per line on 25 lines, you’re wagering $1.25 per spin if you place the max bet.

6. Always Play With Your Players Club Card Inserted

Almost all modern casinos have a players club you can join. You should join the players club and play with the card inserted into the machine. The casino tracks how much money you put into action over time and provides you with comps and rebates based on how much you are wagering.

You get these comps and rebates even if you walk away a winner.

That’s because the casino wants to reward you for playing. The more you play, the more you’ll lose in the long run. The casino doesn’t care about what happens in the short term, because they’re dealing with thousands of players on thousands of machines playing for thousands of hours a year. The long run happens for a casino much more quickly than it does for a player.

You might have legitimate reasons for not using the players club card, though. If you hate getting advertising in the mail, you might not want to join. If you have a philosophical problem with the casino tracking your playing tendencies, that might be a legitimate reason, too.

But if you want to minimize the house edge, use your players club card. It’s worth between 0.1% and 0.3% in rebates, and that might as well be real money. Over time it adds up, too.


Slot machines are available in a bewildering array of sizes, shapes, and sounds. Most of them are straightforward enough, though—you input your money, spin the reels, and hope for the best. If you get confused about what’s happening, you can always ask a friendly nearby gambler who looks like she knows what she’s doing. The casino staff are usually eager to help, too.

There’s no such thing as a professional slot machine player, but if you use a little bit of good sense, you can have a lot of fun for your money when you’re playing. Just stick with the games I recommended in this post to maximize your probability of winning.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016. ...

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