The Pros and Cons of Playing Slot Machines
When you walk through any casino in the world – from Las Vegas to London and anywhere in between – you’ll find one game spread in more abundance than all the others combined: slot machines.
One-armed bandits, fruit machines, pokies – whatever you call them, slots are the lifeblood of the gambling industry. Millions of players every year sit down to take a spin, hoping to parlay a few coins into a fortune if the stars align.
Slot machines are also one of the oldest casino games out there today, tracing their roots all the way back to 1895.
And the slots are a quintessentially American way to gamble, offering any and everybody who has a penny to spare the opportunity to cash in big. Nobody has an advantage while playing slots, you don’t have to beat the dealer, and when the symbols line up perfectly, those progressive jackpot paydays are unrivaled.
Indeed, slot machines are an intriguing choice for gamblers who are just beginning their introduction to the casino industry. They’re abundant, inexpensive, and easy to play, making slots the perfect way to place your first casino wager.
But with that said, slot machines do offer a definitive set of drawbacks as well. You can’t use skill or strategy to give yourself better odds, and as a result, those odds are typically quite terrible.
Depending on who you ask, slots are either the most wonderful way to spend a day at the casino, or the devil’s invention designed to separate suckers from their bankroll.
On that note, I’d like to present a fair and objective analysis of slot machines from both sides of the proverbial coin. First, you’ll learn about the three main reasons that experienced gamblers tend to avoid the slots. After that, I’ll cover three benefits that slots offer for casino beginners, and even veterans who know how to extract every ounce of value from the house.
3 Reasons You Should Never Play Slot Machines
Slots have a poor reputation within the casino gambling world, and many longtime players wouldn’t be caught dead spinning the reels. Whether or not the games deserve that level of derision is a matter of perspective of course, but considering the three drawbacks listed below, informed players have good reason to bring their bets elsewhere.
1. They’re Bad Bets
Most people recognize that slot machines aren’t exactly the best bet in the house, but many players don’t realize just how bad they can be.
And that’s by design. The casino industry was built on a concept known as house edge, which reflects the statistical advantage held by the house on a particular wager or game over the long run.
In blackjack, for example, a good player who uses basic strategy faces a house edge of only 0.50 percent on average. In other words, for every $100 this player bets over the infinite long run, the casino can expect to win $0.50 – paying the player back $99.50 in return.
Now, that’s still a loss after all, but dropping fifty cents for every hundred bucks you bet is one of the best situations you’ll find on the casino floor. Remember, the house isn’t out to spread games where players hold the edge, so they’ll always have a leg up.
How much of a leg up, however, depends on what game you play. For slot specialists, the average house edge comes out to around 6-8 percent, depending on factors like coin denomination, payline count, progressive or preset jackpots, bonus features, and other gameplay elements.
In the slot world, house edge gets flipped on its head to arrive at a figure known as payback percentage. In the blackjack example above, the payback percentage stands at 99.50 percent -or the house edge figure subtracted from 100.
Take a look below to see how the slots stack up at the two major casinos in Connecticut – Foxwoods Resort and the Mohegan Sun:
As you can see, the payback percentage rates vary wildly across the board, based largely on the size of the coin you’re wagering. Penny slot players face the steepest uphill climb, with the house holding an obscene edge of more than 10 percent. And even if you’re betting a dollar per spin, the house’s edge is still nearly 7 percent.
To put those numbers in perspective, even a notorious “sucker” game like American roulette with two zeroes on the wheel offers a 5.26 percent house edge. In other words, you can be twice as well off in terms of win probability simply by ditching the slots for roulette – another game of chance based on spinning and hoping.
All things considered, with so many low house edge skill games to choose from, you really don’t have any incentive to grind slot machines. Blackjack offers a fraction of the house edge, and if you don’t like the idea of playing with other people and a dealer, video poker is a machine-based game that runs house edges of less than 1 percent for most variants.
2. They’re Boring
Another common complaint about slot machines is that they don’t offer much in the way of a challenge – or even entertainment.
This criticism is largely rooted in the old days, when slot machines featured nothing but three spinning reels, basic card rank or fruit symbols, and static prizes. I’ll be the first to admit that slots have evolved since then, with the advent of video screen technology turning them into something straight out of the arcade.
Today’s modern video slots definitely do offer a ton of extra features to keep you busy – see the first entry of the next section for more on this – but for my money anyway, they’re still boring as all get out.
Just take a look at the slot area the next time you’re strolling through the casino. You’ll see a scene straight out of “The Walking Dead,” with zombified players staring into the ether, only moving to push the “SPIN” button over and over again. That’s not my idea of fun, not in the slightest.
And even with the newer video slots, once you strip away the trappings of a themed game, sound effects, and movie clips – the gameplay always follows the exact same model. You choose your coin size, push “SPIN,” then sit back and see what the reels have in store.
Wash, rinse, and repeat.
I may be partial here, as I spent a fair chunk of my adult life playing skill-based casino games for a living. But when I go and gamble, I’m looking to challenge myself, to test my intellect and insight in a battle against the odds.
Blackjack lets me analyze my hand in relation to the dealer’s up card, before offering a series of decisions (stand, hit, double down, split) that allow me to directly influence the outcome. On a video poker machine, my memorization skills are tested over and over again, and unless I can recall the correct play given five starting cards, I’ll be at the mercy of the machine.
Even games of chance like roulette and craps offer a wide variety of bets to choose from, turning the random draw into a different experience each time you play.
But at the slot machine, you have reel symbols spinning and paylines you hope to connect, along with a random number generator (RNG) determining what happens next. The outcome is out of your hands as soon as you click “SPIN,” and the whole experience lasts for only a few seconds at most.
Unless you get your kicks entering data into a spreadsheet, or tapping away at a calculator, slot machine gameplay will quickly become quite boring for most players.
3. They’re Inconsistent
This one gets my goat more than any other, perhaps because I’m accustomed to standardization within my own favorite games.
Simply put, slot machines – even identical games – vary wildly in terms of the odds offered, payouts produced, and most importantly, the house edge.
Let’s say you’re visiting the fabulous Strip in Las Vegas for your very first casino excursion. Naturally, you want to test the waters with an easy game like the slots, so you pull up a seat at a flashy new Wheel of Fortune game and take a shot. A half hour or so later, and your $100 stake has evaporated like it was never there at all.
Later on in the trip, a local pal decides to take you to the Downtown district, where decades old casinos like the Golden Nugget line Fremont Street. You see another Wheel of Fortune slot bank and decide to try one last time, only to find this game plays much differently than it did on The Strip.
Here, amidst the rundown carpets and smoky rooms that define Downtown Vegas, you seem to have a much better chance to win. You’re not a millionaire or anything, but you’re collecting many more small winners, and even a few hefty line pays that fill your bucket of coins to the brim (and yes, the old Downtown casinos still use coin buckets).
Later on that night, you’re wondering why the same slot seemed to be so much more generous a few miles down the road. A few minutes of research later, and you find the following slot machine payback percentage data compiled by the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB):
Las Vegas Slot Machine Paybacks by Location
1¢ Slot Machines
- The Strip – 88.45 percent
- Downtown – 88.66 percent
- Boulder Strip – 90.42 percent
- Las Vegas – 90.71 percent
5¢ Slot Machines
- The Strip – 91.84 percent
- Downtown – 92.08 percent
- Boulder Strip – 95.73 percent
- Las Vegas – 95.38 percent
25¢ Slot Machines
- The Strip – 90.59 percent
- Downtown – 94.48 percent
- Boulder Strip – 96.39 percent
- Las Vegas – 96.58 percent
$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
All Slot Machines
- The Strip – 92.12 percent
- Downtown – 92.87 percent
- Boulder Strip – 94.42 percent
- Las Vegas – 93.62 percent
As it turns out, that intuition about Downtown slots being more playable – and payable – was spot on.
According to the NGCB, a survey of ever slot machine in Las Vegas shows games on The Strip hold an average house edge of 7.88 percent. Meanwhile, the exact same slots in the Downtown District offer a lower house edge of 7.13 percent.
That goes for all slots, but as you can see by sorting through the numbers above, coin denomination differences can exacerbate the issue even further.
Most players stick to the $0.25 quarter slots, and when you play those on The Strip, you’re up against a house edge of 9.41 percent. Head over to Downtown, however, and the house edge drops dramatically to just 5.52 percent. And if you make your way to North Las Vegas, the house edge dips even further to 3.42 percent.
That’s right, you can cut your house edge nearly in half by relocating from The Strip to Downtown casinos.
Knowing this information is incredibly useful of course, but I’m not a fan shopping around town for the best games. In my view, games should be standardized across the board, with one Wheel of Fortune slot paying out at the exact same rate as any other.
3 Reasons You Should Play Slot Machines
Now that you know about the drawbacks associated with slot machines, let’s take a look at the main reasons why so many people consider them their favorite game.
1. They’re Fun to Play
Just ask your grandparents if the slots are fun, and when you see their smile light up, you’ll know why these games are so popular.
They may not be for me, but I can surely see why slots hold such widespread appeal.
First off, you’re playing comfortably by yourself, with no tablemates hectoring you to play faster or make certain plays. This turns the typical slot machine into your own personal bubble, protected from the pressures associated with more intense skill-based gambling.
And like I alluded to above, today’s slot machines are more like full-fledged entertainment venues than simple reel-spinning diversions. These games are interactive in nature, sprucing up the standard spin with expanded gameplay features like bonus rounds that incorporate skill-based elements. I’m talking about target shooting, memorization challenges, and other add-ons that give the player something more to do.
Throw in the proliferation of themed games that hold licenses from major pop culture properties – everything from “Sex and the City” to “Game of Thrones” can be found in slot form today – and you’ll never lack for fun grinding slots in 2018.
2. They’re Easy to Learn
This is perhaps the most important factor in understanding why slots are so popular worldwide.
Casinos can be an intimidating environment for the uninitiated, with grizzled gamblers lording over their table games, and stern dealers directing the action. Just take a look at any craps table to find a frenzy of yelling, dice tumbling, and chip splashing to see what I mean.
If you’re walking into that sort of scene for the first time, ponying up a few bucks and placing your bet can might seem like a nonstarter. Best to stand a few feet away and observe the action, rather than dive right in and risk embarrassment.
But with the slots, anybody who has a buck to spare can sit down by themselves and try things out. No dealers pestering you with commands, no tablemates complaining about your pace of play – just you and the game.
With that maiden voyage now out of the way, casino novices don’t need much in the way of teaching to learn how to play slots. You bet, you spin, and if you’re lucky, you win. That really is the extent of it when it comes to slot gameplay instruction.
Of course, it’s not that easy, and players need to learn about paylines, coin denominations, house edge rates, game selection, and bonus features. But all of that information is readily available on the machine’s help menu, and anybody who can read will soon find themselves mastering the ins and outs of any given machine.
3. They’re Potentially Lucrative
Ask any slot player what brings them back to the machines, and invariably the word “jackpot” will come up.
Recreational gamblers are enamored by the idea of turning rags into riches, scoring a life-changing sum simply because their small risk was rewarded in a major way.
But while blackjack specialists have to win hundreds of hands in a session to squeeze out a small profit, slot enthusiasts can turn a single spin into millions.
Don’t take my word for it, just ask the NGCB, which keeps a running count of jackpots paid out by the Megabucks machine, the Silver State’s largest progressive jackpot slot network:
Megabucks Jackpot History (2010 – 2017)
|DATE||CASINO||CITY, STATE||JACKPOT AMOUNT|
|8/8/2017||Fremont||Las Vegas, NV||$11,809,407.24|
|3/22/2016||Gold Dust West||Elko, NV||$12,515,708.83|
|3/14/2015||Westgate Hotel & Casino||Las Vegas, NV||$10,744,293.40|
|11/30/2014||Rampart Casino||Las Vegas, NV||$14,282,544.21|
|12/5/2013||MGM Grand Casino||Las Vegas, NV||$10,337,637.92|
|11/4/2013||MGM Grand Casino||Las Vegas, NV||$12,463,147.70|
|4/10/2013||Bonanza Casino||Reno, NV||$11,798,514.65|
|12/14/2012||M Resort||Las Vegas, NV||$17,329,817.67|
|6/15/2011||Grand Sierra Resort||Reno, NV||$10,379,294.92|
|4/22/2011||Aria Hotel & Casino||Las Vegas, NV||$10,636,897.78|
|1/21/2011||Aria Hotel and Casino||Las Vegas, NV||$12,769,933.87|
|2/21/2010||Reno Airport||Reno, NV||$10,422,754.08|
For the relatively affordable price of $3 per spin, dozens of lucky players have parlayed their Megabucks slot session into a lottery-like jackpot.
Now, don’t get me wrong here, hitting the Megabucks jackpot is a true longshot, coming in at 1 in 49,836,032 odds. When you realize that being struck by lightning is only a 1 in 700,000 shot, the sheer scope of Megabucks’ jackpot odds become crystal clear.
Even so, the allure of these enormous jackpot payouts keeps players coming back to the casino in droves. The Megabucks game is an outlier, after all, and the lower-level progressive games offer six-figure jackpots at much better odds.
No matter what game you prefer, the main goal when you press the “SPIN” button is always bagging the machine’s top prize. After all, somebody’s got to win it eventually, so why not you?
With that said, playing the progressive jackpot games like Megabucks and its ilk does incur an increased level of risk.
Check out the payback percentage rates for standard, non-progressive slots and how the compare to their progressive cousins below:
$1 Standard Slot Machines
- The Strip – 93.03 percent
- Downtown – 94.78 percent
- Boulder Strip – 95.60 percent
- N. Las Vegas – 95.74 percent
$1 Megabucks Progressive Machines
- The Strip – 87.10 percent
- Downtown – 87.55 percent
- Boulder Strip – 88.91 percent
- N. Las Vegas – 87.53 percent
The price you pay for chasing progressive jackpots stands right around 7-8 percent in terms of house edge. For most players, that price is well worth it though, because you just can’t win a million bucks by putting a few dollars on the line anywhere else.
If you don’t mind going up against long odds, and you have expendable income, hunting for big-time jackpots on the slots is a bona fide American tradition.
Like any other form of gambling, deciding whether or not to play slots is a completely personal choice – and I hope the balanced examination found on this page helps make that choice much easier going forward.