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Best of John Robison

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Ask the Slot Expert: Why are penny slots so popular?

12 April 2017

Question: I hate penny slots, and that’s all I can find anymore here in Oklahoma. I’d love to go back to Vegas but I’m pretty sure the situation is the same there. I used to sit for hours enjoying huge banks of quarter and sometimes dollar machines, while waitresses occasionally brought me free drinks. I could play all night and have a really good time.

Can you explain to me what’s so appealing about penny slots?

Everyone else I see seems to be enjoying them. When I play penny slots, I sit down and start losing and that’s the end of the story.

Answer: You're right. Penny slots have taken over most of the slot floor in Las Vegas too. Last year, I lamented to a slot floorperson at a nearby casino that a bank of nonsmoking video poker machines at which I played frequently was replaced by penny slots. She said that the penny slots were taking over the slot floor.

The situation is not that bad. There will always be traditional three-reel slot machines on the floor and video poker also isn't going away. I think most casinos have found the machine mix that works for them, with a little tweaking now and then.

How did we get to this point?

First there was the Australian invasion. In the late 1990s, slot manufacturers introduced video slots based on the Australian model to the U.S. market. These multi-line machines differed from traditional, reel-spinning multi-line machines in four ways. The most obvious difference was that the machines were video based and didn't have reels. In addition, they typically featured five reels and not three. The third difference is that they had more paylines. Instead of the three or five paylines on a traditional multi-line machine, they had nine or more. The final difference is that you could bet more than one coin per line. The technical name for this type of machine is multi-line/multi-coin.

These machines were usually nickels or quarters. Ticket systems hadn't caught on yet.

Players liked these machines because of their betting flexibility. Some players liked to play a one coin or so on every line while others liked to load up on just one line. If they were winning, they could increase the number of lines they were playing or increase their bet per line. If things were not going well, they could cut back on the bet or the number of lines all the way down to one coin on one line.

Three other factors contributed to their popularity. First, they had a high hit frequency. Most spins paid something, even though the payout was rarely more than the total amount bet. Second, many machines were based on a licensed property, like an old TV show. And finally, many machines featured a bonus round. Getting to the bonus round one more time is a powerful incentive to keep playing.

It's important to note at this point that the goal of these machines is to give players more time on device, that is, more play for your money. In Australia, these machines were mainly in private clubs. People were looking for a something to do while having a Foster's with their mates and that wasn't going to cost a lot of money. Winning wasn't the primary goal, though my college friend who moved to Australia told me that he and his father-in-law used to do quite well on a pokie at their local club.

Casinos embraced ticket systems in the early 2000s. Getting rid of the physical coins let manufacturers lower the denomination to pennies and let them make multi-denomination machines on which you could choose to play for pennies, two cents (tuppence?), nickels, etc. Multi-denomination is almost a standard for video poker machines, but most slots are a single denomination, predominantly penny today.

One problem with a penny multi-coin/multi-line slot is that you could bet as little as a penny per spin by betting one credit on one line. Manufacturers eventually addressed this problem by removing the option to choose the number of lines played. Every line would be active on every spin and the only choice for the player was how many credits to bet on each line. This effectively raised the minimum bet to 25 cents or more.

Another problem with penny slots — and the one you wrote about — is that players said they rarely won on the machines. A traditional slot is like a reverse roller coaster. Your bankroll quickly climbs to the top of the hill when you hit a big payoff and then your bankroll slowly descends to the valley as the machine whittles away at your win. Penny slots have lots of slow whittling away, but not many big payoffs. Even the top jackpot on a payline may not pay that much because your bet is spread over many paylines and you don't have much bet on any single payline. Players had fewer opportunities to quit while they were ahead and even fewer opportunities to hit a big jackpot that could wipe out all their losses for a trip.

Manufacturers addressed this complaint by making machines more volatile. They designed games that didn't pay as frequently, so they could pay out more when they did hit. They made games more volatile using a number of techniques. One was to make some symbols wider than one reel or taller than one stop. This technique didn't really catch on. One that did is stacking symbols. Consecutive stops in sections of the video reels have the same symbol. A reel might have, for example, 20 red 7s in a row. When your screen is filled with the same symbol in every stop, that's the same as landing three of those symbols on a traditional machine.

Another way manufacturers added volatility is by making the bonus round pay more. And one way to do that is to have a multi-level progressive. It seems like every other machine today has Grand, Major, Minor and Mini progressive jackpots.

One last way manufacturers added volatility is by putting Quick Hit (Bally's version of the technique) symbols on the reels. The Quick Hit symbols frequently interrupt what would otherwise have been a winning combination, but when you get enough of them scattered on the screen, you win one of the progressive jackpots.

You can still find quarter and dollar machines in casinos, though no longer in the "huge banks" as before. You can continue to play those machines or try the higher volatility penny slots. After all, the goal of the higher volatility penny slots is to give a playing experience more like that of a traditional, reel-spinning machine.


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