Are Low Level Progressive Slot Machines Ever Worth Playing?

by Michael Stevens
on December 24, 2018
10

Minute Read

Of all the fantasies entertained by casino gamblers, the dream of turning a few pennies into millions of dollars by landing a slot machine jackpot is perhaps the most alluring.

For one thing, the legions of recreational players who line up to visit Las Vegas every year might not know the ins and outs of poker, blackjack, or craps – but they can learn how to spin the slots in a matter of seconds.

Slots are also the perfect entry point for casino rookies on a budget, because a crisp hundred-dollar bill can be stretched out over several hundred spins and hours of fun.

But the biggest draw of them all is the chance to win truly life-changing money. Outside of a few progressive jackpot side bets included on modern table games, casinos tend to operate according to certain odds when it comes to paying out winning wagers.

A blackjack sharp can expect to simply double his wager when he beats the dealer, while one of the largest available payouts comes to 35 to 1 for landing a single number correctly on the roulette wheel.

That’s a sweet return, no doubt about it, but it pales in comparison to the massive rewards waiting to be won on the most popular progressive slot machines. I’m talking about seven- and even eight-figure sums, enormous piles of money that can last a prudent player for the rest of their life – and then some.

These jackpots are akin to lightning strikes, requiring whatever sort of good luck or random variance it takes to beat odds like 1 in 49,836,032- the chances you have to win the Megabucks jackpot on any given spin.

But when that thunderbolt from on high does happen to hit, your life will be forever altered by the stroke of good fortune.

One problem for progressive jackpot hunters, however, is the typically high stakes needed to compete for the largest payouts.

The legendary Megabucks game – the first wide-area progressive jackpot network which was introduced by International Game Technology (IGT) in 1986 – sets the standard with an initial seed of $10 million. But as a $1 machine, Megabucks requires players to place the maximum wager of $3 per spin in order to be eligible for the big bucks.

This high price point provides a barrier to entry for many players, especially folks who don’t gamble very often and aren’t too keen on losing several hundred dollars in a single sitting.

Fortunately, you’ll find a slew of other progressive slots – games like Wheel of Fortune, Millionaire 777s, PowerBucks, and QuarterMania are among the most popular nationwide – that fall into the “low level” category. Don’t get me wrong now, these games still pay out six- and seven-figure progressive jackpots, they just don’t cost an arm a leg per spin.

When most casino newbies learn about this tiered structure of slot machine jackpots, they naturally wonder whether the low-level machines are really worth it. After all, the odds against you remain astronomical, while the payouts can be cut down by 90 percent.

And as the old argument goes, if your number finally does come in and you catch lightning in a bottle, do you really want to be playing a penny ante progressive?

Well, that decision is all up to you of course, but I’d like to point out a few aspects of progressive slot gameplay to help make that choice much easier.

Below you’ll find a full guide to the world of low-level progressive slot machines, including information on payback percentages, how progressives compare to standard slots, the major jackpots out there waiting to be won, and even a lesson on paying taxes on your winnings.

When it’s all said and done, I hope to leave slot players better prepared to make informed spending decisions regarding progressives.

Low Level Progressive Slots 101: A Primer for New Players

When you play a progressive slot machine, the idea is that a tiny portion of every wager placed gets diverted and added to a separate jackpot “kitty.”

Every single non-jackpot spin sends a bit more money to the pile, which grows progressively larger as time goes by. Most progressive slots start with a preset jackpot amount, like the $10 million seed used in Megabucks, and begin climbing from there.

You’ll find two main forms of the progressive slot – standalone and wide area networks.

Standalone progressive slots are becoming a thing of the past nowadays, but the games are exactly what they sound like, with the progressive jackpot built by bets placed on that machine alone.

As for a wide area progressive, these games are linked together throughout a given property, city, state, or region. Megabucks was the first wide area progressive slot, with machines linked throughout Las Vegas, Reno, and the rest of Nevada.

Bets placed on any machine within the network add a portion to the jackpot, which allows wide area progressives to grow by leaps and bounds compared to a standalone machine.

As for the games themselves, progressive slots come in every theme and format under the sun. A slot like Megabucks uses no bells and whistles, relying on the tried and true three-reel alignment with a single payline through the center.

You won’t find any video clips, side games, bonus rounds, stacked symbols, or any of the frills commonly associated with modern slot gameplay.

But head over to another of the world’s most popular progressive slots, Wheel of Fortune by IGT, and the gameplay takes on a more familiar feel.

Depending on the version you happen to find, you’ll be playing with a slew of additional gameplay features, including scatter symbols, wheel-spinning side games, and even a chance to solve the famous puzzle.

Just take a look at the list of Wheel of Fortune slot variants rolled out by IGT over the years to get an idea of the variety players are working with:

Wheel of Fortune Slots by IGT

  • 5 Reel
  • Classic
  • Double 3x4x5 Lucky Pays
  • Double 3x4x5 Times Pay
  • Double Diamond
  • Double Diamond 2X
  • Five Times Pay
  • Five Times Pay Red White & Blue
  • Pink Diamond
  • Red Hot Wild
  • Retro Multi-Win
  • Ruby 7’s
  • Secret Spins
  • Sizzling 7
  • Super Diamonds
  • Super Spin
  • Super Times Pay
  • Ten Times Pay
  • Triple Action
  • Triple Diamond
  • Triple Double Emeralds
  • Triple Double Red Hot 7s
  • Triple Double Stars
  • Triple Double Topaz
  • Triple Extreme Spin
  • Triple Point Re-Spin
  • Triple Strike
  • Video Reel Money Spin Pennies
  • Wild Getaway
  • Winning 7s

Clearly then, progressive slots can’t be pegged down into one group of games or another. These slots really do run the gamut, and players will find plenty of variety to choose from when wandering the casino floor.

But while the insane jackpot amounts are what sets progressive machines apart from their peers, the ridiculous paydays do come at a cost.

For slot players, the bottom line when assessing a game’s viability is a metric known as payback percentage. Also known as the return to player (RTP) rate, this metric defines a player’s overall odds of winning in the long run.

If you’re a table games player by trade, you’ll probably recognize the term house edge, which also reflects a game’s odds – only in reverse.

Here’s how it works:

Let’s say your slot of choice runs at a 93 percent payback rate, which falls within the industry average. That number simply means that for every $100 you wager over the long run, you can expect to get back $93 in return.

Now, that’s just an expected return, mind you – so you’ll invariably lose a $100 here and there, or win a few hundred, or maybe even break even. Short-term results don’t reflect payback percentage rates very well, as you need millions of spins to reach the theoretical return.

On a game like that, the house edge would be 7 percent – or the inverse of the payback percentage. But seeing as how slot players stick with payback percentage, I’ll use that phrase going forward.

The thing about progressive slots is that they almost always offer a lower average payback percentage when compared to standard machines.

That’s due to those tiny slivers of each bet that get diverted to the progressive jackpot. With those funds “withheld” from the base game payouts – all of those smaller wins you’ll land while chasing the big one –the game’s overall payback percentage slips slightly as a result.

You can see this dip quite clearly by examining slot machine survey data compiled by the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB):

$1 Slot Machines

  • The Strip – 93.03 percent
  • Downtown – 94.78 percent
  • Boulder Strip – 95.60 percent
  • Las Vegas – 95.74 percent

$1 Megabucks Machines

  • The Strip – 87.10 percent
  • Downtown – 87.55 percent
  • Boulder Strip – 88.91 percent
  • Las Vegas – 87.53 percent

According to the NGCB numbers above, $1 slots that don’t offer a progressive jackpot offer payback up to 7 percent higher than their progressive counterparts. That’s an absolutely enormous difference when statistical probability is concerned.

In essence, slot players who choose progressive games go from playing roulette (5.26 percent house edge) to the worst bets on a craps table (12-13 percent house edge).

Another way payback percentage is impacted on progressive slot games your choice of coin denomination.

This page is focused on low level progressive games, which I’ll define as anything between a penny slot and a $1 per spin machine. Unfortunately for jackpot hunters, a game’s payback percentage is at its lowest when you’re betting pennies, and it increases gradually as you ramp up the stakes.

Connecticut is home to two major casino resorts- Foxwoods Resort and the Mohegan Sun – and as you can see below, both venues follow this payback percentage ladder to a tee:

Foxwoods

Coin Payback
89.45 percent
91.42 percent
90.33 percent
25¢ 91.84 percent
50¢ 90.94 percent
$1 93.26 percent
$5 93.79 percent
$10 94.74 percent
$25 94.43 percent
$100 94.75 percent

Mohegan Sun

Coin Payback
1/4¢ 86.06 percent
1/2¢ 85.83 percent
89.13 percent
89.58 percent
88.16 percent
25¢ 91.76 percent
50¢ 92.45 percent
$1 93.36 percent
$5 93.87 percent
$10 96.46 percent
$25 94.15 percent
$100 94.77 percent

The data stays consistent no matter where you’re playing though, so always be sure to take the link between coin denomination and payback percentage into account. If you can only play at the penny or nickel stakes, your payback percentage will slide by 4 percent or so compared to folks spinning for a dollar per play.

What the Big Casino Chains Say About Progressive Slots

One way gamblers can determine whether a certain game is favorable is by paying attention to how the casinos market that product.

Games that give players a fighting chance, like blackjack and baccarat, aren’t featured very prominently in the major casino chains’ marketing strategy.

Sure, you’ll always have plenty of those tables on hand at every casino, but the operators don’t make a point to trumpet their availability, as they offer some of the lowest house edge rates around.

As for the progressive slots, well, let’s just say it’s a different story.

The big casinos love making headlines out of their jackpot winners, using the improbable tales to bring players to the floor in droves.

That’s how I know all about Nicholas Blaskowski and Nicole Perry of Phoenix, Arizona, the lucky couple who pocketed $944,337.37 for winning the Willy Wonka: World of Wonka progressive jackpot.

Their big moment came in June of last year at the Harrah’s Las Vegas, where lightning managed to strike twice just three months later.

On Labor Day of last year, the very same Willy Wonka machine distributed another $787,842 jackpot.

Caesars Entertainment, the parent company of Harrah’s, pounced on the positive publicity by issuing the following statement about “millionaire moments” produced by progressive slots:

“There are a growing number of ways to win and even become a millionaire at Caesars Entertainment resorts nationwide.

Popular slot machines like Wheel of Fortune, Mega Bucks and Wizard of Oz routinely reach multi-million dollar jackpots.

With special events and promotions in a number of key markets, Caesars Entertainment is consistently pioneering games to offer players innovative and entertaining ways become the next instant millionaire.”

Another major casino chain, MGM Resorts, famously had a standalone slot game called Lion’s Share that didn’t pay its jackpot for its first 20 years on the floor.

Without a wide area network to goose the numbers, the Lion’s Share machine “only” grew a jackpot of $2.4 million, which was finally triggered in 2014 – after two decades – by Linda and Walter Misco of Chester, New Hampshire.

At the time, Justin Andrews of the MGM Grand told local news outlets that Lion’s Share – the last of its line after it was removed post-jackpot – served as an attention magnet, even amidst the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas Strip:

“This game probably gets played about five times more than our average game on the casino floor. Our staff gets asked every single day, multiple times, where this game is, from people who haven’t played it before.”

While these feel-good stories are admittedly fun, savvy gamblers have long since realized that the house always has its own interests at heart. When casino corporations are happily putting out press releases about progressive slot games, you can be sure that these machines tilt heavily in the house’s favor.

The Life-Changing Jackpots That Make Progressive Slots so Popular

You know about Megabucks, Wheel of Fortune, and Lion’s Share, but the casino industry is home to hundreds of progressive slot games.

Just take a look at IGT – just one of a dozen or so top-tier slot designers – to see how the company’s jackpots stack up. As you can see, the jackpot hauls increase and decrease in kind along with your coin denomination.

And while the eight-figure Megabucks payout is certainly the highlight, you can win more than $1 million on seven other games.

Speaking of Megabucks, the game has risen to become the most popular progressive in the world for one simple reason – its jackpots are truly life-changing.

Don’t take my word for it though, you can see the payouts for yourself in the table below:

Megabucks Jackpot History (2010 – 2017)

DATE CASINO CITY, STATE JACKPOT AMOUNT
08/08/17 Fremont Las Vegas, NV $11,809,407.24
03/22/16 Gold Dust West Elko, NV $12,515,708.83
03/14/15 Westgate Hotel and Casino Las Vegas, NV $10,744,293.40
11/30/14 Rampart Casino Las Vegas, NV $14,282,544.21
12/05/13 MGM Grand Casino Las Vegas, NV $10,337,637.92
11/04/13 MGM Grand Casino Las Vegas, NV $12,463,147.70
04/10/13 Bonanza Casino Reno, NV $11,798,514.65
12/14/12 M Resort Las Vegas, NV $17,329,817.67
06/15/11 Grand Sierra Resort Reno, NV $10,379,294.92
04/22/11 Aria Hotel and Casino Las Vegas, NV $10,636,897.78
01/21/11 Aria Hotel and Casino Las Vegas, NV $12,769,933.87
02/21/10 Reno Airport Reno, NV $10,422,754.08

Just imagine landing at the Reno Airport, of all places, plunking down a few bucks before your baggage arrives, and becoming an instant millionaire 10 times over. That’s the dream offered by progressive slot, and it’s a dream that endures because players do manage to win it once every year or so.

If you’re interested in learning more about the biggest progressive jackpot pulls in Sin City history, check out this informative slideshow compiled by the Las Vegas Sun:

Another reason progressive slots are so enticing is that their jackpots seem to be “contagious.” That’s not based on any science, as slot payouts are random by nature, but you’ll come across many stories of the same game or machine paying out in clusters.

There was the Willy Wonka machine at Harrah’s, of course, but these stories are a dime a dozen.

The Wheel of Fortune slot paid out $1.5 million at Hard Rock Casino Biloxi in Mississippi last July. Just four days before that, another Wheel of Fortune machine triggered an $8.3 million win at Fitz Casino in Tunica – making Mississippi the temporary home of instant millionaires.

Jacob Lanning, director of product management for IGT, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that jackpot clusters aren’t exactly an illusion either:

“That is a very exciting thing. We’ve had it a number of times and especially with a busy holiday weekend. If there’s more players playing, there’s more likelihood of people winning.”

How Uncle Sam Taxes Progressive Jackpot Payouts

On a final note, deciding to play low level progressive slot games can often come down to the potential tax liabilities involved.

According to the federal tax code, gamblers who win anywhere from $1 to $1,199 can simply take their cash in hand and head home without worrying about the IRS.

On wins of $1,200 to $4,999, however, the tax man wants their cut. If you trigger a jackpot within this range, you’ll need to complete a W-2G tax form to report those winnings.

And be sure to have your social security number handy, as most casinos will automatically subtract the 28 percent withholding required by the IRS if you don’t.

And as for those million-dollar scores, any win of $5,000 or higher is considered part of your annual income. As such, the big winners get bumped into a higher tax bracket by virtue of their jackpot, with up to 40 percent of their winnings headed into federal coffers.

Parting ways with nearly half of your hard-earned jackpot is never fun, which is why many slot aficionados like to stick to the lower level progressives. You may not win eight-figures, but scoring a six-figure jackpot results in a much smaller tax liability down the road.

Conclusion

Low level progressive slots can be highly entertaining, and potentially lucrative when lady luck is on your side, but they do have several drawbacks. The lower payback percentage certainly hurts, so players need a bigger bankroll to cope with the invariable swings and losing streaks.

But when you aren’t able to chase $3 spins on a machine like Megabucks, spinning away for pennies at a time – with a progressive jackpot still waiting to be won – offers the next best thing.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens

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