I went to a party Saturday night, and whenever I go to parties, someone inevitably learns what I do for a living. (I write about gambling.)
This always leads to one of two or three outcomes:
I enjoy all these outcomes, by the way, but here’s what happened at this specific party.
A friend of mine started telling me the story of his friend who got fired from Walmart. Later the same day, his newly unemployed friend went to the Choctaw Casino in Durant and won $40,000 playing a slot machine.
My friend’s question to me was, “How do I do that?”
How can *I* choose the winning slot machine?
This post has the answer, but it’s almost certainly not what you’d think.
When I search for this phrase in the most popular search engines, I see pages touting this advice repeatedly:
You have to play the slot machines with the highest payback percentage.
What’s a payback percentage?
It’s also called “return to player” or “RTP.”
A slot machine’s return is the amount of money paid out to a slot machine player compared to the amount of money the player wagered. The RTP gets expressed as a percentage.
If you made $100 in wagers on a slot machine and won $125, you’d have a return of 125%. If you won $90, you’d have a return of 90%.
The difference between the return and the amount you wagered, obviously, is the casino’s profit.
The payback percentage, or return to player (RTP), is a statistical prediction of a slot machine’s return over a massive number of spins. The closer you get to infinity, the closer the game’s results should get to the payback percentage that the game is programmed to have.
In the long run, all slot machines have a payback percentage of less than 100%. This means that, in the long run, you’ll always lose at slot machines.
This theoretical payback percentage can get easily calculated if you have the probabilities behind the machine. It’s just the probability of each win multiplied by the amount of that win, divided by the amount you’d have to play every probability.
If, for example, a slot machine game had 10,000 possible combinations, and if you hit every combination, you’d win 9,000 coins, and the payback percentage would be 90%.
A slot machine doesn’t have to pay out less after a win to “catch up” to its payback percentage. Every spin of the reels on a slot machine is 100% random. The casino makes its profit because of the discrepancy between the odds of winning and the odds that each payout offers.
The payback percentage is not available to the consumer at most casinos. You have no way of calculating it because you have no way of knowing what the probability of getting a specific symbol on a stop is. You can’t calculate the probability of a combination of symbols without that information.
You have the payouts for the prizes, but you don’t know what your probability of winning those prizes is.
You could play two identical slot machine games sitting right next to each other. One of them might have a payback percentage of 91%, while the other might have a payback percentage of 96%.
You have NO way of telling which machine is better than the other, even if one of those games is paying out more than the other. After all, the payback percentage is a long-term phenomenon.
In the short run, anything can happen.
But even if you DID know the payback percentage for the game, you couldn’t choose the winning slot machine just by choosing the one with the higher payback percentage.
The probability of winning the big jackpot on most machines is at least 1000 to 1.
If you play for two hours, you might make 1,200 spins. You might even win the big jackpot.
But you’ll (usually) have wagered more money on the machine than you won.
You’ll find advice about how to find the slot machines with the highest payback percentages, but most of it is useless. At one time, sure, the slot machines closest to the aisles might have had higher payback percentages.
However, I’ve seen multiple interviews with multiple casino managers who insist that isn’t true.
You’ll also see people explain that the payback percentage on the higher-denomination machines is better. This is true as a general rule, but it might or might not be true at the casino where you’re playing. The penny and nickel machines might average 91% at your casino, while the dollar machines might average 95%, but that’s an AVERAGE.
This doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically have a higher payback percentage just because you played a higher-denomination machine.
Even if you did, you’re still fighting a negative expectation game.
A slot machine’s volatility is its variance from the predicted results. The higher the volatility is on a game, the wider the swings between the wins and losses tend to be.
A game with high volatility pays out less often but can sometimes offer bigger payouts to compensate.
A game with low volatility pays out more often, but those payouts are still low enough to guarantee the casino a profit.
The slot machines at your local casino aren’t labeled according to their volatility, by the way. There’s not a special section for low volatility slots.
You can, though, get an idea for the volatility of a slot machine game via your observations of how often they pay out.
To make your own estimate, you need to count how many spins you make. You also need to count how many of those spins are winners (as opposed to losers).
Divide the number of winning spins by the number of spins you’ve made, and you’ll have the hit ratio for that sample set.
The more spins you’ve made, the more likely the hit ratio you’re seeing is close to the expected ratio.
If you make 500 spins on a game in an hour, and 150 of those spins are winners, the hit ratio for that game is 30%.
If 200 of them were winners, the hit ratio would be 40%.
The game with the 40% hit ratio is the less volatile game.
But keep in mind that an hour’s worth of spins is not representative of the long run. Those are still short-term results. The longer you play, the more accurate your results will get.
You COULD also estimate the slot machine’s actual return over those 500 spins.
Multiply the amount you wagered per spin by the number of spins you made. Then divide how much the game paid out by that amount to get a percentage.
If you put $500 into a $1/spin game, and then you make 500 spins, you’ve wagered $500.
Let’s say you have $400 left after all that wagering. This accounts for all your wins and losses, so the payback percentage — the observed return — is 80%.
That doesn’t mean that this is the theoretical return, but it might be close — especially if it’s a low volatility machine.
Does any of this information help you choose the winning slot machine, though?
You might have already heard of this system, but if not, here’s how it’s supposed to work.
The zig-zag system tries to identify slot machines that are about to pay out by looking at the pattern of the symbols on an inactive machine. You’re supposed to look through the slot machines on the casino floor and find one where the winning symbols are in a zig-zag pattern on the front of the machine.
It doesn’t really matter much what the pattern looks like. As long as three winning symbols are present somewhere on the front of the machine, that machine is supposedly “ready” to pay off.
Proponents of the system even suggest that games with two winning symbols showing are getting close to paying off, too.
The idea is that the symbols are coming up more often because the game is getting ready to pay off. Therefore, you’re supposed to sit down and play until those symbols actually do line up on one of the pay lines, and you win.
You can picture these zig-zag symbols in your mind as diagonal lines connecting the symbols on the front of the machine. They might make a V or upside-down V, for example. This is also called a diamond, and it’s supposed to be the best pattern you could ask for.
I can only think of one problem with the zig-zag system.
It doesn’t work.
Understanding why involves understanding something about how a slot machine works. Those spinning reels on the inside of the machine aren’t actually physical reels. They’re controlled by a random number generator. This is especially obvious with video slots, where all the action is entirely animated.
The random number generator (RNG) is a computer program that cycles through thousands of numbers per second. When you click the “spin” button or pull the lever, the computer program stops on a number. That number corresponds to a combination of reel symbols.
Before the reels stop spinning, the RNG has determined the outcome, win or lose.
Every spin of the reels is an independent trial. What’s happened on the previous spin has no effect on your subsequent spins.
My favorite strategies for playing slots come from a book by John Patrick. In it, he outlines several money management techniques which are supposed to help you win at slot machines. All of his strategies are more or less worthless.
Below are some of the concepts he suggests.
The first is the concept of a “naked pull.”
For example, you might choose 7 as your naked pull limit. If you play a slot machine game and get 7 losing spins in a row, you would quit playing that machine and move on to another machine.
This MIGHT help you avoid a low volatility slot machine game, but it doesn’t do much for your probability of winning in the long run. In fact, it does nothing in aid of that.
Having a naked pull limit, though, can be an interesting way to get in some action at multiple slot machines. In that case, you might have a more interesting and fun time playing, which is a type of winning in itself.
Another concept that he suggests is having a session bankroll.
He combines the idea of a session bankroll with the idea of a loss limit and a win goal. These are just percentages of your bankroll that are going to serve as the end of your session.
For example, you might set a win goal of $50 and a loss limit of $20. If your bankroll slips to $80, you quit for the session. If your bankroll grows to $150, you quit for the session.
This, by the way, does nothing to increase your probability of finding a winning machine. It just means you won’t gamble an entire session bankroll.
It also means that sometimes you’ll grind out a winning session.
In the long run, though, you’ll wind up with a loss similar to what you’d expected based on the theoretical payback percentage of the machine. The longer you play, the more likely you are to wind up with those kinds of results.
All his systems combine these concepts to create cleverly named systems, but none of them do anything to get you an advantage at slot machines.
You can’t choose a winning slot machine because you can’t predict the future. Slot machines are random. They’re also an example of negative expectation games.
If you play slot machines long enough, you’ll surely lose.
The expected return on these games is a long-term expectation. This means that not only CAN you win in the short run, but you’re almost guaranteed to have an occasional win in the short run.
In fact, the casino is counting on it.
If you never won, you’d never play.
The trick is to have some idea of what kind of win will satisfy you. When you know what that is, you can play until you hit it and call it a day.
As long as you understand that if you keep playing negative expectation games, you’ll eventually lose all your money, you’ll be okay.
And NEVER spend money on any kind of lame slot machine system that guarantees you the secret to choosing a slot machine that’s ready to pay out.
Slot machines are fun, and choosing a winning slot machine seems like a worthy goal.
Luckily for us, it’s a skill that everyone has in equal amounts. Everyone has a 0% probability of accurately predicting which slot machine is going to be the winning machine.
It’s not like the World Series of Poker, where the players’ skill levels have a huge effect on the outcome.
Sure, you can win at slots.
People do it every day.
It just takes luck and a willingness to lose some money trying to win.
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