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Best of John Robison

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Ask the Slot Expert: I never win playing slots today

15 January 2020

Question: I wrote one time a while back regarding hardly ever winning.

The answer is the RNG works.

I must say I have lost all faith in going to play slots.

My wife and I have been playing the same machines for more than 20 years and budgeting the same amount during this period.

Over the years, we always had many wins. I kept a balance sheet and we were always in the black until the last nine months.

Now, neither of us win hardly anything at all.

Our balance sheet is no longer in the black.

Many other long-time players are saying the same thing.

I do understand, RNG. Seems strange we can go from winning players to never-winning players.

As mentioned, this had been over a substantial period of time.

Your thoughts?

Answer: I think you already have the answer: the RNG works.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, there so many unknowns in letters like these that it's impossible to come up with an explanation. For example, how many times do you play per month? How long do you play each time? What games do you play? Are you using a money management method?

Let's look at some of these questions to see why some players may not be winning as frequently as they used to before addressing your letter directly.

How often you play and how long you play can be summed up as how many spins or hands do you play. The more spins or hands you play, the closer your long-term results will be to the long-term paybacks of the machines you play. But still make no mistake about it, we're talking about millions of plays to really home in on the long-term payback and randomness has a far greater effect on the results of any individual session.

Did you used to play quarter machines and now you're playing penny machines? Even with a minimum bet of 25 or more cents per spin, some slot directors only see the penny denomination and install machines with lower long-term paybacks than their quarter-denomination machines. Playing at a lower long-term payback is really a long-term problem and, I daresay, few if any slot players play the millions of spins necessary for a percentage or more decrease in payback to have a greater effect on their results than randomness.

The volatility of the machines has a more immediate effect. Low volatility machines give frequent small wins and rare large wins. Higher volatility machines give less frequent small wins in order to pay more large wins.

It was tough to win on many of the early video slots. These low volatility machines paid you back a little something on almost every spin because your bet was spread over many lines But the bet was so small on each line, it was difficult to score a big win on a spin. I think this was the start of more widespread complaints from players about not winning anymore. The frequent small payouts gave players more playing time from their bankrolls, but the rarity of big payouts made breaking even or showing a profit more difficult.

Slot designers addressed these complaints with numerous devices: bonus rounds, scatter-pay progressives, stacked symbols, randomly triggered features. These devices added volatility to the games and gave players the chance to have a big payout on a spin. But if you didn't get your share of those features -- or, more frustrating, you got them and did poorly in them -- you'll probably have a losing session.

Slot designers have to balance the payback of the base game with the payback of the extra features. They also have to balance how frequently the features hit with how much they pay -- frequently hitting features can't be very generous.

Let's take a quick look at video poker volatility. Some casinos are replacing their high-paying low-volatility games with high-paying high-volatility games. Some people I know have had to switch from Jacks or Better to Bonus, Double Bonus or Double Double Bonus. Jacks or Better gives you a fairly smooth ride, but paytables with modifiers in their names will tend to give you more losing sessions with a few stellar winners in the mix.

Money management may also affect your results. Compare the plan of playing 500 spins with the plan of playing 500 spins and quitting if you lose $100. The plan with the loss limit will tend to yield more losing sessions. Plenty of times I've had a significant loss on my way to playing the amount I planned to play, and then I've hit a few good spins or hands and I'm back near breakeven or even have a profit. (Of course, sometimes things went to hell in a handbasket and stopping at the small loss looked pretty good with 20/20 hindsight.)

Turning to your letter, I'm a bit skeptical that you've been playing the same machines for 20 years. Twenty years is a long time for a machine to be on a slot floor. Manufacturers frequently reintroduce a slot game on their new platforms, so in that sense you're playing the same game, but not the same machine. Moreover, I frequently go back to a casino to play a machine I've played there before -- sometimes even the previous day -- only to find that it's been replaced by another machine.

Regardless of the longevity of the machines you play, in one statement you say that you are "never-winning" and in another that you "win hardly anything at all." Maybe we can settle on you win sometimes, but not at as much as you had in the past.

You also said that your balance sheet is in the red now. Slots are a negative expectation game, so it's not surprising that your long-term, overall results have crossed into negative territory.

I think you put your finger on the reason you've had poor results. The results are random. Losing streaks, even long losing streaks, can occur.

Last December was a particularly bad month for me. I had one losing session after another playing NSU Deuces -- playing the same group of machines I had played profitably many times before. In one sense I may have contributed to my poor showing. I was getting so frustrated that I sometimes played just a few hundred hands, either to lock in a small win or avoid a bigger loss. (And we can also take a brief detour into The Conspiracy Zone -- I didn't do well in December because the casinos had to make their numbers for the year. Nonsense.)

One expects to get four deuces about once every 5300 hands. I went 11,681, 6,483, and 18,410 hands between deuces last December. Santa didn't bring me a royal last Christmas (and he didn't give me my deuces until the day after Christmas, I guess his sleigh was full), but when I finally got another royal last week it had been over 50,000 hands since my last one -- not that far off from the expected interval of about 43,000 hands. But the royal before that one came 106,000 hands after the prior royal.

Losing streaks can be coincident too. A few friends and I participated in a casino promotion over the summer. It wasn't a great promotion, but we had a very small edge if we played the best video poker machines the casino offered. All four us did very poorly. I got the award for losing the most money in the promotion, an award I would have been very happy not to have won.

I wrote above that it's tough to win on some machines if you don't get your share of the bonus features. When I'm trying out a new machine, I frequently play enough spins to trigger each of the bonus features. For example, some machines have a free games feature and a locking prize ball feature. I'll play enough spins to trigger each.

I played 1000 spins on one machine and didn't get the bonus round. Of course, the person playing the machine next to me hit the bonus a few times in the short time that she played. The next day, I tried the machine that was generous with the bonus rounds and went another 1000 spins without the bonus.

That's very unusual. I've gone a few hundred spins in between bonuses before (and sometimes single-digit spins!), but never multiple thousands. But it can happen.

Royals are supposed to hit about every 40,000 hands, but it's not unusual to go 60,000, 80,000, 100,000 or 120,000 or more hands without a royal. It's all random.

When I first wrote about my bad December, I said that things would get better. They did. So far I've had a royal and three sets of deuces and January is only half over.

It's the answer no one wants to hear -- and some don't believe -- but there's nothing in your experience that couldn't be the result of randomness.

And a word of encouragement if you continue playing: Play machines you enjoy playing; have fun playing. Things will get better.

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