How to Win on Slot Machines

Today we take a look at the odds of winning (and losing) at slots. You’ll learn how to calculate the odds of hitting a certain winning combination, why the house always wins at slots, and what you can do to improve your chances of winning that jackpot.

How it All Began

The first real money slot machine was invented in the late 1800s by Charles Fey, but they didn’t become extremely popular until Bugsy Siegel filled the Flamingo Hilton hotel in Las Vegas with them in the late 1940s. The father of the Las Vegas’ gambling mecca, Siegel decided that he needed to entertain the wives and girlfriends of his high-rolling friends while the men played other games. Everyone loves a slot machine because it requires no special skill and you can play at your own leisurely pace.

Often referred to as “one-armed bandits,” slot machines are definitely games of chance. They had humble beginnings as simple mechanical devices with only three reels to spin. Today, they have three to five spinning reels and are controlled by computers. The slot machine window shows the reels, the spinning wheels with symbols printed on them, to the player.

The original mechanical slot machines had only 20 symbols on each reel. These days, reels have many more symbols—sometimes hundreds! The object of a slot machine is to form a winning combination along a payline. A payline is the line in the slot machine window where the matching symbols must appear in order to win. Some slot machines have as many as eight paylines, but most only have one. You must pay in more to play machines that have multiple playlines.

The payout table printed on the front of the machine will tell you what combinations are winners, and how much each one will pay out when completed. If the symbols don’t form a winning combination, it’s okay. You can just try again!

Calculating Winning Combinations

Slot machines can have a variety of symbols, like cherries, 7s, double diamonds, or bars. The type of symbol doesn’t matter; it just adds to the feel of the game. What matters, and what you should always keep in mind, is the number of reels and the number of symbols on each of them. It becomes harder and harder to win the jackpot, or even form a winning combination, as the number of reels and symbols increases.

Let’s say that three gold 7s on a payline will win the jackpot. That means it’s a good bet there’s only one gold 7 on each reel. A three-reel machine, with 20 symbols on each reel, only gives you a 1-in-8,000 chance of actually hitting the jackpot. Here’s the math to give you a little more insight:

  • Number of gold 7s on each reel: 1-1-1
  • All possible combinations on all three reels: 20 x 20 x 20 = 8,000
  • Odds of hitting a gold 7 on one reel: 1/20
  • Odds of hitting gold 7s on all three reels: 1/20 x 1/20 x 1/20 = 1/8,000, or 1 in 8,000

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Some slot machines have even more symbols on their reels. If a machine has 120 symbols, instead of just 20, but still has only one gold 7 on each, the odds of a jackpot-winning combination fall to:

1/120 x 1/120 x 1/120, or 1 in 1,728,000.

A five-reel machine offers an even lower jackpot potential, even if it only has 20 symbols on each reel. The odds of a jackpot on a 5-reel, 20-symbol machine are:

1/20 x 1/20 x 1/20 x 1/20 x 1/20, or 1 in 3,200,000.

That’s less than one chance at a jackpot in three million attempts!

“The more the merrier” doesn’t apply to slots. The more reels and symbols there are, the lower your chances of getting those winning combinations.

But What About Those Big Jackpots?

The original mechanical slot machines of the past had limited odds against you, based on the number of reels that could be crammed into the cabinet, and the number of symbols that could be printed on each reel. Not so with the computerized slot machines of today. These machines have each reel programmed into the computer controlling the machine, the number of symbols for the reels depending on the size of the jackpot offered. Take, for example, two similar three-coin, three-reel quarter machines. The one offering the higher jackpot amount will usually have more symbols programmed onto each reel than the smaller jackpot machine, thereby lowering the chances of winning the biggest payout.

There’s a reason behind the larger number of symbols on high jackpot machines. They’re programmed with more symbols to create rarer jackpots, letting the machine generate even more money—enough to both cover the jackpot, and earn income for the casino. Computer technology allows slot machines to be programmed as though they have hundreds or perhaps even thousands of symbols on the reels, increasing the odds of winning to astronomical levels.

Random Numbers Determine Wealth

A pay cycle is a theoretical name for the number of plays a slot machine needs to cycle through every possible combination. Thinking logically, if a machine offered 1-in-8,000 odds, it would restart its pay cycle with spin 8,001. In theory, during those 8,000 plays the machine should spin to every possible winning combination, including the jackpot, at least once. This, however, isn’t the case.

The idea of a pay cycle describes a slots machine with a long run of playing. In the short run, the pay cycle idea falls apart. Modern slot machines that are computer controlled have a number assigned to each possible combination of symbols. The computer then generates a random number with each spin to correspond with a symbol combination. The random number generator is always running. It will only pause for a fraction of a second when you pull the slot handle or hit the Spin button. That minuscule pause determines the random number, which decides the resulting combination, for that particular spin. Even while the reels are still spinning, the computer is still generating random numbers in preparation for your next spin.

The way the random number generator works, it’s possible to hit the jackpot again right after you’ve won it. Or it could take another 80,000 spins. The only sure thing is that over the life of the machine, the jackpot winnings will average out to 1 in 8,000.

Slot Machine Payback Percentages / RTP

The odds are against you in this game of chance, but that’s not the only hurdle. The casino has one more thing on its side: percentages. The house will set up a machine to keep a certain percentage of the coins played during a pay cycle. The normal payout or return-to-player (RTP) for most machines is between 80 and 98 percent of the coins played over the course of an entire pay cycle.

The percentages are what most casinos will advertise. Some even exclaim “a payout as high as 97.4 percent or higher”! That’s a decent percentage, but in the long run, it means you’ll be losing at a rate of 2.6 percent the coins you play. Don’t be fooled, though, because those percentages aren’t instant. Not every machine will pay out 97.4 percent, nor will every player lose at a low 2.6 percent rate. It simply means that over a long enough period of time, the machine will pay out an average of 97.4 percent. That 2.6 percent loss is profit for the casino.

Odds of Various Types of Slot Machines

Slots machines come in two basic varieties: progressives and flat tops. Progressive slot machines offer a jackpot that grows in size with every coin played. These progressive jackpot machines are usually identifiable by the flashing payout sign at the top of the machine or positioned over a group of machines that share a single ever-growing jackpot.

If the progressive jackpot is shared by several machines, it grows when each machine is fed coins, not just one. This means any machine in the group can win the jackpot. Progressive jackpots don’t have to be limited to a single casino, either. One progressive jackpot called Megabucks was wired to slot machine throughout the entire state of Nevada. That one paid a student $10.9 million after only five minutes of play. While these multi-machine progressives offer the highest jackpots, they also offer the worst odds.

Flat tops have a fixed jackpot, every jackpot, no matter how long you play or how many coins you feed the machine. These machines operate independently, meaning they don’t have to be placed in groups with other machines. Sometimes, though, they are still placed in carousels or banks—circular groups and back-to-back groups of machines, respectively—like progressive machines. People believe these flat tops will pay out more often than progressive machines. This is probably true, keeping in mind the odds discussed before.

In addition to these designations for individual play, get to know these terms:

  • A carousel is a group of slots machines arranged in a circle.
  • A bank is a group of slots machines arranged back to back.

So What Do I Play?

Choosing the right machine is the most important decision when playing slots. Pick a machine that’s within your allotted budget, and provides the amount of risk you’re willing to take. There are machines for players ranging from the timid to the wild, and everywhere in-between.

The following decisions must be made, whether you’re looking at a progressive machine or a standalone flat top:

  • What denomination of coins does the machine take?
  • How many reels does the machine offer, and how many coins may you play?
  • Does the machine have only a single payline, or multiple paylines?

With contemporary slot machines, most modern casinos operate quarter or dollar machines, with a few nickel machines around the edges. Larger casinos have begun offering high-roller-style machines, ranging from $5 to as high as $500 per spin, most of them in special VIP lounges. These machines usually require special coin tokens or actually accept cash bills.

Denomination Affects Payout

Different denominations of slot machines pay out differently. In other words, the amount you bet determines how big the jackpot will get.

For the most part, penny slot machines have the lowest payout percentage available. Quarter machines will pay out more than pennies, and dollars are even better than quarters. This is because the cost of running a slot machine is as straightforward as simply keeping a percentage of the coins the machines are fed. Operating costs take things like maintenance, floor space, and the number of change people into account.

The machine must keep a higher percentage of the coins it takes in if the denominations accepted are smaller. Because of this scaled percentage, nickels pay out the least, while $5, $25 and higher machines will generally pay out the most. Determining the denomination of a machine is as simple as looking at the light on top of the cabinet, also known as the candle. The color at the bottom of the candle indicates what denomination the machine accepts. The top is always white, and will light up when the jackpot is hit, or the machine requires servicing. This color-coded system allows technicians, players, and floor people to identify machines more easily. The bottom color-coding can be deciphered as follows:

  • Red is a nickel machine.
  • Yellow is a quarter machine.
  • Orange or gold is a half-dollar machine.
  • Blue is a dollar machine.
  • Purple is a five-dollar machine.

Spin Those Wheels to Fortune

Three-reel machines are most common, allowing a maximum bet of two or three coins per spin.

The four- and five-reel machines are usually harder to hit progressives. Machines wired for mega-jackpots are primarily four- and five-reel slots, usually allowing up to five coins per spin. It’s possible that as the mega-jackpots grow, in an attempt by casinos to outdo each other, the number of reels may grow even higher. The problem with this is, the more reels, the more losing symbols.

Many Ways to Pay

While three paylines are available on some machines, more standard slot machines have only one. Machines with three paylines offer more chances to get a winning combination per spin, but they require at least one to activate each payline.

The first coin you play will activate the center payline, allowing payouts for a combination in the middle. The upper line is activated by the second coin, the bottom line by the third. Getting a winning combination on any active payline will trigger a payout, so if you’re not playing the maximum bet, you’re missing out on even more chances to win. Always check the number of paylines—some offer eight or more!

So How Much Do I Bet?

Slots machines offer various subtle variations. Many two-coin, three-reel machines with only a single payline exist that will pay out double for a winning combination if two coins are played, rather than just one. For these machines, the second coin only increases the possible payout.