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Ask the Slot Expert: Should I Avoid Slot Machines with Stacked Symbols?

4 March 2015

By John Robison, Slot Expert™

Last October I had back-to-back royal flushes at the Pala Casino in California, but no big jackpot.

I played craps for 12 hours until 3:15AM and then sat down at a nickel video poker machine to play for a few minutes and sip a soda before I went back to my room.

I put $20 in the machine. It was a "hot" machine and I started winning small amounts immediately. I jacked up the amount of my bet to $5 and continued alternately winning and losing. Eventually I got down to $3.75 and switched back to nickels. After four hands I had four spades and drew the queen for a royal flush.

Now I'm disgusted, shaking my head, thinking why not five hands ago when I had $5 bet. Just my luck (LOSER)! Bad enough I lost at craps, and now I miss the big payoff at video poker.

Still shaking my head, I hit the replay button and a royal flush in hearts came up.

It broke my heart. I hadn't changed the amount I was betting.

If only we could predict how much we are going to win on each hand, we could bet the minimum on the losers and the maximum on the winners. That's impossible, of course. The result of each hand is determined at random and there is no way to predict the outcome.

I played video poker at the Westgate in Las Vegas this past weekend. As I was playing, I wondered how frequently they paid royal flushes on the bank of six machines at which I like to play. I had never seen anyone hit a royal on the bank in all the time I'd played there. This past weekend, I finally saw two handpaid jackpots in the course of an hour. Unfortunately, neither was mine.

When I got to the machines, I saw that a lady was playing my favorite machine on the right end, so I had to play my second favorite machine, which is on the left end. I had played with these ladies before. They usually bounced from machine to machine trying to catch a hot streak.

After playing for a while -- and not winning as much on the machine as I had earlier that day -- I noticed that I was the only one playing and my favorite machine was available.

I cashed out and went to the machine. It was locked up, displaying a $2000 jackpot for four deuces. Nobody was around.

I have to admit that my first that was "finders keepers." Maybe somebody who couldn't provide valid ID had won it and run away before the slot personnel came.

Of course, I would never try to claim someone else's jackpot, so I went back to my backup machine. The slot personnel came shortly thereafter and put the machine out of service. I guess the lady had asked them to hold the machine for her.

I was holding my own at my backup machine when the ladies came back. I got a little ticked off when one of the ladies sat next to me. There are six machines in the bank and I was the only one there. I would not sit next to someone if I could leave a machine between us.

I thought I was getting my revenge as the lady had to keep feeding the machine. Eventually she stood up and I thought she and her friend were going to leave. I glanced over at her machine and saw that she had won $4000 for a royal flush.

Not back to back royals and not won by one person on one machine, but still two sizable jackpots in a short period of time.

Me? I turned $20 in free play into $400 that morning. That afternoon, while the ladies were hitting the big hands, I gave back my winnings.

And lost a filling eating a bagel while playing.

In your February 25, 2015, column, you say to stay away from video slots with stacked symbols and machines with symbols that are taller than one stop. What do you mean by those two things?

I am a craps player, but just started playing the machines.

You have to take my advice to stay away from those types of machines in context. The writer asked the best way to play a $1000 bankroll. I said that if he wanted to maximize playing time, he should play machines with high hit frequencies. Machines with stacked symbols and tall symbols don't hit as frequently as machines without them.

A video slot is any machine that has a video screen instead of spinning reels. The machines typically have five reels and many paylines -- sometimes 30 or more. Because you spread your bet out over multiple paylines and the machines can pay less than a push, the machines can hit more frequently than single payline machines. The downside of spreading your bet out is that you don't have much bet on any single payline, so you don't win much on any single payline. The high hit frequency gives you lots of small wins, frequently less than your total bet, and few big wins.

Although players -- myself included -- like the high hit frequency, they -- myself included -- find it hard to win enough to break even after a long cold streak. Sure, we may have gotten much more playing time for our, say, $200 loss than on a single payline machine, but it's much easier to win $200 betting $3 on a dollar machine than $3 on most penny slots.

In order to make the playing experience on a multi-line video slot more like that on a single-line machine, slot designers have put stacked symbols and tall symbols on some machines. With stacked symbols, the designers repeat a symbol multiple times in a row. If your screen fills up with red sevens in every position, for example, that's the same as betting everything on one payline and landing red sevens on each reel.

Instead of stacked symbols, some machines have tall symbols. These symbols are two, three or more stops tall. If your screen fills up with these tall symbols, it's the same as landing the symbol on each reel on a single-payline machine.

The upside of having stacked or tall symbols is that you have better chances of winning larger amounts on each spin. The downside is that you don't win as often. Many times one reel will fill up with a stacked or tall symbol and it interrupts other combinations that could have been winners.

There's no reason to stay away from these machines. Some of my favorite machines have these stacked or tall symbols. Just be aware that you need to bankroll as if you were playing a single-payline machine at that bet level. On machines without stacked or tall symbols, you can get more playing time from smaller bankrolls because these machines hit more often and give you more "tray money".

Send your slot and video poker questions to John Robison, Slot Expert™, at Because of the volume of mail I receive, I regret that I can't reply to every question.

Copyright © John Robison. Slot Expert and Ask the Slot Expert are trademarks of John Robison.


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John Robison
John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots