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Best of John Robison

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Ask the Slot Expert: Can you handicap slots?

26 April 2017

Question: Read your article about pick 3 out of 12 coins for progressive jackpot.

Many games say player participation has no effect on outcome in the rules. In other words, picking three coins is just for entertainment purposes.

Answer: The text I've seen is "Player interaction during the bonus round does not affect the outcome." As you said, picking the coins is just for entertainment.

Let's put the situation in other words still. The program running the slot machine has used the RNG to determine which progressive you have won. Despite appearances to the contrary, you do not have an equal chance at each progressive.

The presentation is definitely misleading. If you were actually betting on the bonus round, this deception would not be allowed. But the bonus round is not the base game and the machine is just revealing how much you won in the bonus. You can't lose. There are plenty of entertaining ways to reveal a pre-determined result, so I don't think these picking bonus rounds with predetermined results should be allowed. There's no real harm done, though — or, at least, no more harm than the wheel on Wheel of Fortune does — so I guess they're okay.

Players do hit the top jackpot once in a while. I saw someone hit the top progressive for over $4000 on a Zorro slot machine a few weeks ago.


Question: I have been handicapping horses for over 10 years. My spouse has recently started playing slots. Now she thinks she can handicap slot machines. How realistic is this kind of thinking?

Answer: Whether one can handicap slots depends on what your definition of handicap is. If you want to pick the one machine in a bank of machines that is going to pay you the most from a $100 bankroll — the winner of the horse race, that is — that's impossible. Results on a slot machine are determined at random. There's no way to predict when a machine is going to be generous.

If we're taking a long-term view — and handicapping in the sense of assigning odds — then there are some things we can do.

Higher denomination machines tend to have higher long-term paybacks than lower denomination machines. In the long run, therefore, you'll probably win more money playing $3 per spin on a dollar machine than on a penny slot.

Another way to handicap long-term payback is to check the payback data published for some jurisdictions. You can then play in the casino that has the highest payback for the denomination you play. You can also take it one step further and find the casino with the best combination of payback and slot club benefits for your denomination.

Looking at the pay table, furthermore, we can frequently determine whether the game will have a high or a low hit frequency. Any winning combination is a hit and it counts even if the amount you won is less than the amount you bet. Machines with high hit frequencies pay small amounts often. They tend to let you play longer for a given bankroll because the machine is frequently giving you (what used to be called) tray money.

Low hit frequency machines have fewer, larger hits and they are usually few and far between. You can easily run out of credits before a low hit frequency machine hits. Once it does, you'll have plenty of play money again. You just have to hope that it's enough to last until the next big hit.

Hit frequency is independent of long-term payback. A 95% long-term payback machine is a 95% long-term payback machine regardless of whether it has a low or a high hit frequency. Both machines will take you to the same place in the long run, but the ride will be rougher (higher highs and lower lows) playing the low hit frequency machine and you'll need a larger bankroll to see you through the cold spells.

You can search on this site for my articles about the characteristics of low hit frequency pay tables.

Slot handicappers can choose the machines with the hit frequency they like in the casino that gives them the best benefits.

Handicapping video poker is much easier than handicapping slots. Handicapping slots is more art than science because we can't tell the long-term payback of a slot machine. Handicapping video poker is all science — well, math — because video poker machines deal from a fair deck. (Note that the following applies to RNG-based machines and not to Class II, bingo-based machines and not necessarily to Video Lottery Terminals.) We can therefore calculate the long-term payback of a video poker pay table.

You'll have to learn the proper strategy to use to achieve that long-term payback, though. Some strategies are relatively straightforward (like most Jacks or Better strategies), which others have so many lines and special cases (like Triple Double Bonus) that I think they're best for the occasional shot at a big-paying quad payoff.

And speaking of quad bonuses, I was playing $2 9/6 Jacks or Better last week. A lady sat down at the machine next to me and played $1 Triple Double Bonus. She hit four aces with a kicker for a nice royal-like $4000 jackpot. After she got paid, I noticed that she played around with the game menu. A few minutes later, she had another hand pay, this time for $1250. It was just a regular quad. When I congratulated her, she said that she decided to switch to $5 for while to see if lightning would strike again. It did.

Like the slot handicappers, the video poker handicappers can choose the combination of pay table and casino that will give them the greatest return.

To sum up, if handicapping means picking the winner of the race, it's not realistic thinking; it's wishful thinking. If handicapping means something more akin to assigning odds, on the other hand, then we can in many instances say that one machine is better than another.


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