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Ask the Slot Expert: Slot machine volatility1 January 2014
Slot machines send your bankroll on a roller coaster ride from the bizarro universe. On a regular roller coaster, you climb up very slowly and drop down very quickly.
On the slot machine's bizarro roller coaster, your bankroll goes down very slowly, but it can go up very quickly. You can't lose more than the amount you're betting per spin, so that limits how quickly your bankroll can drop. Your bankroll can jump up very quickly, however, especially if you hit the jackpot or another high-paying combination.
Low volatility machines hit small amounts fairly frequently. Your bankroll usually doesn't disappear quickly because the machine hits so frequently. Cold spells tend to be short-lived. Your bankroll also probably won't get very high because you usually win small amounts. Low volatility machines are like Kansas -- no tall mountains, no deep valleys. Low volatility is for people who don't like to have to feed machines frequently.
High volatility machines hit larger amounts less frequently. You might lose your entire session bankroll quickly because hits are not as frequent as on a low-volatility machine. You might have to feed the machine to keep playing it if you hit a cold spell, which can be long. When you hit something, though, the amounts tend to be large. Compared with the low volatility machine, your bankroll will go down more quickly and go higher when you play the high volatility machines.
Some players like the stomach-churning excitement of playing a high volatility machine. They have the bankroll for and don't mind feeding a machine to keep playing in search of a nice payday. Other players prefer a more gentle ride and will gladly trade some excitement for tending to get more play from their buy-ins.
I like low volatility in video poker. My favorite paytable is 9/6 Jacks or Better. I can frequently get a lot of play from $100. I was recently at the LVH (formerly the Las Vegas Hilton) playing dollar 9/6 Jacks. I had a coupon to get an extra $25 on jackpots of $100 or more. When I hit four of a kind, I had to wait for a floorperson to come and pay me the bonus.
The hand I had was four aces and a deuce. As I was waiting, a passerby pointed out that had I been playing Double Double Bonus, I would have won $2,000 instead of $125. I politely agreed with him.
While it's true that I didn't win as much as I could have, the Double Double Bonus paytable is too volatile for my liking. I would have gotten only a push on all of those two pairs I hit and wouldn't have had as much "tray money" to keep me from having to feed the machine.
On a slot machine, I'm willing to go for more volatility because I have less money at risk per spin. I'll play some at each volatility level, but usually settle in on the medium level. That usually keeps me from having to continually feed a machine, but also gives me a chance at hitting a nice payday.
Finally, remember that volatility say nothing about long-term payback. The two are independent. Long-term payback tells us how much of our money the machine will hold in the long run. Volatility tells us how bumpy the ride to the long run will be.
Send your slot and video poker questions to John Robison, Slot Expert™, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Because of the volume of mail I receive, I regret that I can't reply to every question.
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