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Best of John Robison

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Ask the Slot Expert: Turning free play into real cash

6 November 2019

Question: On the rare occasion that I win a decent free play bonus, what strategy would you recommend to turn as much of it into take-home cash as possible?

Answer: A very timely question. A few months ago I earned $1,000 in free play in a promotion, and last week I won $1,000 in free play in a tournament.

I think it's important to remember that playing free play is a one-off situation and the long term does not apply. Even $10,000 in free play played at $5 a shot is decidedly short term.

I know a good example that illustrates how short-term thinking can differ from long-term thinking. Many years ago, John Grochowski was a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?. He passed the telephone qualification stage to be invited to be a contestant, and then he won the Fastest Finger round to advance to the hot seat and play the game with Regis.

His $32,000 question (an important milestone in that version of the game because getting that question correct guaranteed you would walk away with at least $32,000) was to name the nation that was once called Hibernia. Two of the choices were Spain and Ireland.

Having grown up in the New York-influenced half of New Jersey, I knew that the Ancient Order of Hibernians was once the official sponsor of the St. Patrick's Day parade and the answer was Ireland. Spain was a trick answer to lead a contestant to confuse Iberia with Hibernia.

Even though John was pretty sure that the correct was Ireland, he had doubts so he phoned a friend and got the question right. Although you want to save your lifelines for as long as possible, you can't afford to get a question wrong. You have to use your lifelines when you need them.

John had no lifelines left when he got to the $250,000 question. Name the scientist who showed that the universe is expanding. John correctly thought that the answer was Edmund Hubble, but he wasn't sure. He had eliminated two of the four answers in his mind and was torn between Hubble and another scientist. At this point, the Hubble Space Telescope had been in orbit for about a decade, so it's not surprising that people had forgotten one of Hubble's achievements.

John decided to play it safe and stop with $125,000.

Some people on a video poker message board said that the mathematically correct play was for him take a guess. Assuming he was correct in eliminating two of the answers, he had a 50-50 chance of answering correctly and the expected value of answering was $141,000 (0.5($250,000) + 0.5($32,000)), which is greater than $125,000. (The value of answering correctly is actually more than $250,000 because he might have answered more questions correctly and stopped with more money or even won $1,000,000.)

So he settled for $125,000 even though the expected value of the play option was $141,000. I'll let John explain why he didn't follow the math.

Millionaire is not a long-run situation; it's a one-shot deal. Once you're in the hot seat, you can never go back.... There's no long run for the probabilities to balance out. You either are correct for $250,000, or wrong and drop back to $32,000.

The same situation applies to using free play. Long-term payback doesn't matter because you don't have enough free play to get anywhere near the long term. Hit frequency, on the other hand, does matter. You want a game that hits frequently, even if it is for less than a push.

What about a game that hits less frequently but has some big payouts? The problem with playing this type of game is that you won't walk away with very much if you don't hit one of those big payouts.

Here's how I use free play. I use recurring free play offers on my regular game in that casino, be it NSU, 9/6 Jacks or 8/5 Bonus. If I win a few hundred dollars in free play, I'll most likely use it on my regular game too.

I might get a bit creative when I have more than a few hundred to play with. A few months ago, I used a little over half of my $1,000 in free play playing a Deuces Wild pay table on Stack the Deck. You can get a big payout when you get a hand that stacks the deuces. I was hoping to hit a big hand to help recoup some of my loss earning the points needed to get the free play, but a big payout eluded me. I was able to win a little under $400.

Next I won about $30 from $24 in free play on a slot machine and finished up winning $380 on $435 in free play on two quarter video poker pay tables. Normally I play dollars, but I decided to go for more chances for smaller payouts.

My net win for $1,000 in free play was $783.80. A friend of mine who also earned $1,000 in free play in this promotion used her free play on dollar 8/5 Bonus. She did a little better than I did, winning about $850.

A few days ago I won another $1,000 in free play. My plan this time was to play a bit through some high hit frequency $5 slots, a few hands on a $5 video poker machine, and then the bulk on dollar NSU. I threw the high denomination slots into the mix because even the hits on the bottom of the pay table are good money when you bet that much.

It's gotten difficult to find high hit frequency high-denomination slots. Most of the reel-spinners at that level have multiplying wild symbols, which tend to decrease hit frequency. I found a Triple Double Diamond that was almost a straight multiplier and picked up $130 from $150 free play dollars on that machine.

I won only $35 on the $5 video poker machine. Even though it was a three-coin max machine, the free play goes quickly at $15 per hand. I bailed after using $75 of the free play. (To add insult to injury, I've gotten a truly disgusting number of natural quads on NSU since that day. Aces dealt, twos, threes, fours and the other ranks. Hitting just one of those on the free play would have been nice.)

I picked up another $60 from $75 in free play from a penny slot on which I had had some luck in the past. Then I finished up on NSU, winning a total of $780 from the free play.

To sum up, you'll get the most consistent results playing high hit frequency games, but you may not get a big payday. If you want to try for the big payday, you can play games that don't hit as frequently but tend to pay more when they do. Just be prepared to win less than with the high hit frequency option if you don't hit a big payout.

Finally, you can play a portion of the free play on the big payout games to try for a big win, but then play the bulk of it on the high hit frequency machines to ensure you walk away with something.

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