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Best of John Robison

Gaming Guru

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Ask the Slot Expert: When should I give up on a slot machine?

13 May 2015

I have terrible luck at slot machines. I can honestly say that I haven't won in a long time. A friend told me that I don't sit at a machine long enough. You have to sit there and play and play.

If I put $20 in a machine and haven't really won anything, should I find another machine?

How do you know when to give up on a machine?

Let me take a brief digression before I answer your questions.

I hear many of today's slot players complain about losing consistently. I too have the same complaint. Our consistent losses may not be so much a result of how long we play but the result of which machines we play.

Today's penny video slots have increased players' average bets. Instead of betting 75 cents or a buck per spin like we did on a quarter machine, many players have stepped up to a couple of bucks or more per spin -- sometimes even betting more per spin than they did on a dollar machine. As a general rule, though, most slot directors order very low long-term paybacks for their penny machines. That may have made sense when one could bet one penny on one payline, but now many machines have minimum bets of 40 or more cents. These machines should have paybacks like half-dollar machines or higher. Low long-term payback can make it more difficult to make a profit on a machine.

I think the biggest cause of consistent losses, however, is the very nature of most video slots. By spreading our bet out over multiple lines, we get a high hit frequency because we have so many paylines in play. The two problems with spreading the bet are that most of the hits pay less than our total bet and even when we hit a high-paying combination, it doesn't pay that much because we don't have much bet on any particular payline -- our fairly large bet is spread thinly over many paylines.

You can put $100 in a penny slot, bet $2 per spin, play for a while and be down $80. In order to break even, you have to win 40 times your $2 bet. How many times have you hit 40 times your bet on a penny slot?

If you played that same $2 bet on a Double Diamond machine, on the other hand, triple bars, double bars with a Double Diamond symbol, and single bars with two Double Diamond symbols all pay 40 times your bet or more. I don't have any records to back it up, but it seems like I was able to win back losses or show a profit more often on single-payline machines than on today's video slots.

Manufacturers have realized consistent losses are a problem and they're designing games with stacked symbols and symbols that are taller than one stop or wider than one reel. These techniques have the effect of increasing the volatility on the machines and making hits less frequent but larger. They're making the math of these machines closer to the math -- and playing experience -- on a single-payline machine.

For example, Bally's Fireball II After Burn is one machine I like to play. On this machine, a symbol is chosen at random to fill a consecutive set of stops on each reel. If the same symbol is chosen for each reel, and the reels stop so the stacked symbols fill each reel, your screen is filled with, say, red 7s in every position and every payline has five red 7s. This is exactly the same as landing the red 7s on a single-payline machine.

To finally address your questions, should you leave a machine if it hasn't paid off after $20? Let's look at what has changed after that $20. Nothing. Your odds of hitting any winning combination are the same on every spin, regardless of how much money you've played, won or lost in the machine. There's no mathematical reason to leave the machine -- or to stay at the machine, for that matter. The odds haven't changed.

When there's no mathematical reason to do something in the casino, players can use their emotions. I would give up on a machine if you've gotten frustrated playing it or you feel that the machines owes you.

I remember playing a particularly stingy machine in Atlantic City a few years ago. The lady next to me kept hitting small amounts and there was a constant clanging of coins dropping in her tray. (Okay, this was many years ago.) I, on the other hand, was constantly feeding my machine. After I sated that machine's hunger for my cash for the fourth time, she turned to me and said, "That machines owes you."

I thought so too, but it never hit anything good and I left it a loser and not too happy.

On the opposite side of the ledger, I've had a blast playing Star Trek and Lord of the Rings machines and, although I would have preferred winning some money, I accepted losing because I had so much fun playing the machines.

In short, I recommend you stop playing a machine when it's no longer fun playing it.


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