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Best of John Robison

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Ask the Slot Expert: Why can't I win on the slots today?

22 October 2014

I like playing the video slots, but it seems like I never win. I sometimes left the casino with a profit playing the old machines.

My friends all say the same thing. We don't win anymore.

You and your friends have a complaint I've heard many times now that video slots, specifically multi-coin/multi-line machines, have taken over the a large percentage of the slot floor. You used to occasionally have a profitable casino visit — sometimes really profitable — but now that most of your play is on video slots, you almost always leave with a loss and any profits are small.

The math of the first generation of video slots is to blame. These machines were inspired by the Australian pokies, which featured frequent, small pays. These machines gave players what used to be known as "tray money," money that kept you in the game without having to feed the machine. The end result is that these machines tended to give the player more "time on device" for a given bankroll than on a traditional, reel-spinning machine. And players could bet a dollar or more per spin with smaller bankrolls than on a dollar slot and get a decent amount of playing time because of those frequent hits.

Another way to describe these machines is that they have a high hit frequency, much higher than on a single payline machine because the multi-line machines can pay less than a push. A quarter single-line machine has to pay some multiple of a 25-cent bet, $0.25, $0.50, $0.75, $1.00 and so on. When you spread that same 25-cent bet over 25 lines, however, the video slot can pay you less than 25 cents on the spin because you have one cent bet per line.

That small bet per line is the reason you don't win as much on the video slots. A 100 times payout on a single-line quarter machine with 25 cents bet pays $25. That same 100 times payout on a penny bet is a buck.

The high hit frequency on video slots leads to low volatility. Your bankroll swings tend to be less severe on multi-line machines than on single-line machines. In other words, you don't lose as much and you don't win as much.

The trade-off with this math model of slot machine design is that you exchange the chances for big payouts to get more playing time for your bankroll. What you and your friends may not realize is that even though you may consistently be leaving with a loss, you're getting more play for that loss than you did on the old slot machines.

The slot manufacturers and casinos know that these frequent losses are jeopardizing slot players' love affairs with video slots. As a result, manufacturers are adding volatility back into some video slots.

Why do some slots have symbols that take up more than one payline? And why do some slots repeat some symbols multiple time on a reel?

Slot manufacturers are trying to add some volatility back into video slots. Increased volatility means fewer small hits and more bigger hits.

One way to increase volatility is to let players choose the volatility they want. IGT's Twilight Zone machine has three separate reel layouts, each with different hit frequencies and volatilities. The least volatile layout, which is described as having frequent, small hits, has a hit frequency of 40 percent — that is, 4 out of 10 spins will pay back something. The middle volatility layout has a hit frequency of 35 percent and the most volatile layout, 30 percent.

Another way to increase volatility is to add a side bet to the basic game. WMS' original Star Trek: Red Alert game gave the option to make an additional bet per spin to activate a bonus feature. When you made the extra bet, an additional bonus event was triggered randomly. One event was called "The Spock Multiplier," in which Spock appears and multiplies all line wins from 3 times to 10 times. Most of the time, you just lost the additional bet. But when the bonus feature was triggered, you could have a good hit.

Still another way to add volatility is the subject of your question. The general term for symbols that take up more than one stop or that are repeated consecutively on more than one stop on a reel is "stacked symbols."

When your screen is filled with stacked symbols, you have the chance for a big win. Five sevens on one payline may only pay $2, but when your screen is filled with sevens so all 25 paylines have five sevens, you've just hit for $50.

Stacked symbols give you the possibility of having a winning combination repeated over multiple paylines when they line up the right way. Most of the time you'll notice, though, that a stacked symbol gets in the way of a different combination of symbols. That stack of red sevens in the middle reel that would be worth so much if the first two reels were also red sevens just spoils the stacks of galaxy symbols that landed on the first two reels — at least that's happened to me many times when I was playing a Bally Fireball II After Burn last month.

Slot manufacturers are increasing the volatility on some video slots to address the complaint raised in the first letter. Increased volatility means fewer, but bigger hits and you have a better chance of leaving the machine with a profit.

On a high-hit-frequency, low-volatility game, you may get a lot of play out of a $200 bankroll, but once you've lost a good chunk of it, it's very difficult to hit a payout that will bring you back even. On the high volatility game, on the other hand, you may not get as much play for your bankroll, but you'll have a better chance at hitting something that can wipe out your losses or even give you a profit.

On my most recent trip to Las Vegas, I spent many hours playing machines with high volatility. On the Bally machine I mentioned, I had a few good hits in my first session and then the second session was ice cold with the stacked symbols ruining other combinations.

I also played a game from Multimedia Games, a manufacturer whose games I hadn't played before, called Starry Night. Although named after the Van Gogh painting, the graphics are reminiscent of the old Melies silent film Trip to the Moon. This machine has sun, comet and moon symbols that are three stops high. Unfortunately, there's no payoff for mixed symbols. In my first session, I lined up the same symbol a few times and had a nice profit. In the next session, the sun kept landing in the middle of two comets and I didn't hit anything good.

I spent most of my time, though, playing the latest Star Trek slot, Starship Enterprise. I was red hot on my next-to-last day and hit a few wins worth over $100 on a $2.50 bet. At the end of the session, I had $600, more than enough to settle my marker. My last day, on which all of the ice cold sessions I've described occurred, took back most of my winnings. Even my beloved Star Trek machine had no love for me that day. And I almost played $100 of free play on a dollar 9/6 Jacks machine without a single winning hand. It was a bad day.

By increasing the volatility of some video slots, manufacturers are trying to bring the math — and the playing experiences of wins and losses — closer to that of a traditional reel-spinning slot. Players have to keep this in mind and bankroll accordingly. If you're going to be playing dollars per spin on a high-volatility video slot, bankroll as if you're playing a dollar slot.


Ask the Slot Expert: Why can't I win on the slots today? is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
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