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Best of John Robison

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Ask the Slot Expert: Betting more and winning less

3 May 2017

Question: I live in Oklahoma and visit the Native American Casinos once a week or so. It is rare we hit a bonus. I tried raising my bet to the maximum and my results were almost no hits at all. Are the machines set to pay less frequently?

I find it odd that max bets rarely produce a win on the casinos I visit. I did this twice for a test and I find I am better off playing the minimum bet. I still lose, but not as bad as playing maximum.

Your thoughts, please.

Answer: Losing less when you bet less is the way it usually goes. Mathematically speaking, the only time you should increase your bet is when your expected loss per decision for the higher bet is lower than the expected loss per decision for the lower bet.

Note that I didn't say long-term payback. Consider the case of playing a two-coin dollar slot machine with a bonus on the jackpot when you play two coins. Let's say that the long-term payback when playing one coin is 95% and 96% when playing two coins. Is it mathematically better to play one coin or two coins per spin?

Just looking at long-term payback, playing two coins seems to be better. But let's look at what we're going to lose, on average, per spin.

At one coin, we're risking $1 per spin. The long-term payback at one coin is 95%, so the house edge is 5%. We expect to lose 5 cents per spin (5% of $1).

At two coins, we're risking $2 per spin. The long-term payback at two coins is 96%, so the house edge is 4%. We expect to lose 8 cents per spin (4% of $2).

When you increase your bet, you need a commensurate decrease in the house edge just to break even. Double your bet and you have to cut the house edge in half -- just to break even. Such large decreases in house edges when betting more coins or going up in denomination doesn't happen often on slot machines.

I don't know whether you're playing Class II (Bingo-based) or Class III (RNG-based) machines. My following comments apply only to Class III machines.

Most state's regulations are modeled on the trinity of slot regulations — Nevada, New Jersey and Mississippi. The regulations in these jurisdictions state that the number of coins played cannot have an influence on the result. The number of coins played can determine what combinations are winning combinations and how much a winning combination pays, but it can't be used to determine what symbols land on the payline or appear on the screen.

I've certainly seen — and experienced — the phenomena of frequent hits and bonus rounds at low bets and few hits and bonus rounds at higher bets. This doesn't occur because the machines are set to hit less frequently at higher bets. The usual culprits are selective memory and insufficient sample size.

Say you're betting 40 cents per spin and hitting frequently. You jump up to $1.20 per spin to really soak the casino. Six spins with no hits can convince you that the machine was luring you in at the low bet and then soaking you when you tripled it. If you already had the suspicion that the machine doesn't hit as frequently at the high bet, if you switch back and forth between bets, you tend to remember the hot streaks at the low bet and the cold streaks at the high bet.

I recommend that players who suspect that the amount bet affects hit frequency should perform an experiment. Play 1000 spins at the low bet and 1,000 spins at the high bet. Keep track of the number of hits you get at each bet level. The ratios of hits to spins at each bet level should be very close, and the ratios should get closer and closer as you play more spins at each bet level.

It took quite a few years for players to realize a characteristic of high hit frequency penny slots. Players said that they rarely left the casino ahead after switching from traditional, reel-spinning quarter or dollar machines to multi-line/multi-coin penny machines. This characteristic is really the original business model of the penny slot.

The machines were designed to give players many frequent small hits. That gave players (what used to called) tray money to keep them playing without having to put more money in the machine.

The frequent small hits did two things. They tended to give players more playing time (time on device in industry lingo) for a given bankroll. They also made it very difficult for players to break even or show a profit on the machines.

Players may have been hitting every other or every third spin, but the amount they won was very frequently less than the amount they bet. Their credit meters were slowly going down. If they were lucky enough to land a high-paying combination on a payline, it didn't pay that much because their total bet was divided over 9, 20, 50 — a number of lines. Big, break-even hits were infrequent.

Slot designers addressed this problem by making the math of penny slots more like that of a traditional slot. They did this using a few techniques. They added stacked symbols — that is, consecutive stops on a reel with the same symbol — to the reels. When the reels stop on an area of stacked red 7s, for example, that's the same as lining up three red 7s on a single payline on a traditional slot machine. A similar technique not used much anymore is having some symbols taller than one stop or wider than one reel.

A third technique is scatter pays with progressive jackpots like the sometimes incorrectly named Quick Hit machines from Bally. A final technique is the multi-level Mini-Minor-Major-Grand progressive jackpots that I first saw on Asian-themed machines and are now appearing on others. Both of these progressives give you a chance to hit a payoff that just might be enough to get you back to break even, if not even a profit.

Well, those are my thoughts. Betting less is usually the most effective method to decrease your losses. Stick with minimum bets if you want to minimize your losses.


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
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