How to Win at Slots

A huge jackpot is displayed on a slot machine game screen capture.
While there may be no way to guarantee you will win at slots, large jackpots are occasionally won. This screen capture depicts a massive jackpot – won on a free game, so no money was actually paid out.

How do you win at slot games?  The answer should be obvious: random chance throws a bone your way.  But what people really want to know is, “how do you improve your chances of winning at slot machine games?”  That’s a question that requires a more thoughtful answer, so let’s think about what it takes to win at slots.  This article outlines what you need to to improve your chances of winning.  Here is a quick summary:

  1. Keep your slot game wagers as low as possible
  2. Play slot games with a high return to player
  3. Play low variance slot games
  4. Do NOT play for the bonus game or jackpot
  5. Set hard limits for yourself

Some of these tips may seem counter-intuitive but they are designed to give you the best statistical advantage possible over what is essentially a series of random events.  Your objective when playing a slot game to win is to play as long as possible to give yourself more chances to accumulate a lot of money.

First, let’s look at how slot games work.  I don’t mean the spinning of reels and all that.  A slot machine game is a money moving machine.  You put a certain amount of money into the machine and then it sort of slurries all that cash around and hands you back some cash.

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Over time the game takes in a lot of cash from and pays back a lot of to players.  What is paid to players is called “Return to Player”.  When you read about slot games you’ll often find the reviewers talking about “theoretical return to player” or something similar.  The RTP ranges anywhere from 60% on some older land-based casino games to 98% on some online slot games.  The newer land-based casino games have been pushing that RTP up to compete with the online slot games.

What RTP really means is “how much money (over time) the casino is NOT keeping for itself”.  In other words, if you want to know how much a casino expects to make from any particular slot game, just subtract the RTP from 100 per cent and that is what the casino hopes it will take in.

The average life expectancy of a land-based casino machine is about 7 years.  So a casino might expect to keep about 40% of all the money players put into the worst-performing (from the players’ perspective) slot machine over a period of 7 years.  In reality you may find that machine is still being played somewhere and handing its 40% over to someone, maybe a small roadside gambling parlor.

However, some really big jackpots have been paid out to players who kept putting their money into low RTP machines.  After all, if there are never any winners no one wants to play the machines.  So the RTP itself does not tell you anything about how likely a machine is to pay you a big handsome reward.

Worse, slot machine games have been running off random number generator chips since the late 1980s.  These little computers may not be perfect at what they do but they are reasonably unpredictable.  The worst RTP slot game in the world could make you a millionaire on your first spin.  It has happened.

On the other hand, a majority of spins are paid for by “money in the machine”.  In other words, you could deposit $300 in a slot game and play all night.  You might lose it all within 15 minutes, too, but many a gamer has made that $300 last for hours.  All those spins go into the theoretical return to player calculation, too.

So now that we have the background information out of the way, let’s look at what you can do to improve your chances of winning on a slot game.

First, keep your wagers as low as possible.  The less you bet per spin the longer it takes to lose all your money.  You should always play against the worst-case scenario.  Expect to lose all your money.

Second, play games that have a high return to player.  The RTP doesn’t guarantee you anything except that the casino’s retention rate is as low as possible.  If you deposit $300 in a slot game with a 90% RTP the casino expects to pull about $30 out of that game from your deposit at some point in time.  They don’t know who keeps the other $270.  It might be you or it might be someone else.  So playing a game with a higher RTP at least means most of the money you put in should be paid back to players.

Third, play games that have low variance.  Variance is bit hard to define.  In the simplest terms, the more often a slot game pays a player the less likely it will pay much per win.  This high frequency of payoffs is an indication that you are on a low variance slot game.

Fourth, do not play for the bonus game or jackpot.  Bonus games make slot games fun and jackpots make slot games exciting.  But the bonus rounds and the progressive jackpots are either not going to pay much or they are not going to come around very often.  Why?  Because all that prize money comes from the players.  The casino only puts up the prize money on its newest games before they have pulled in enough player deposits to cover all the prizes.

Fifth, set some hard limits for yourself.  Whether its a fixed length of time you spend on any game or a fixed amount of money you are willing to “lose”, play within limits.  This helps you moderate your losses and consolidate your wins.  You really only lose money when you stop playing the game.  As long as you have some of your deposit in play you haven’t lost anything.  Your losses become real when you pull out of the machine or it takes your last bit of money as a non-winning wager.  Hard limits keep you from going broke.  They don’t prevent you from winning.  Just because the next person to play the slot game after you wins a jackpot does not mean you would have won.  It doesn’t work that way.

What Can You Expect from a Slot Machine Game?

The basic slot machine game is designed to create a random, unpredictable experience.  The game makes a profit by limiting the frequency of sufficiently large payouts.  When you look at the pay table on a game and you see that five of a kind pays 10,000 times bet per line, you know you are looking at a higher variance game than one where the maximum five of a kind payout is 200 times bet per line.

The chances of winning five of a kind on the first game are extremely small compared to the chances of winning it on the second game.

The game design computes an estimated frequency for how often each symbol will appear on a given reel.  You multiply that estimated frequency (a probability) by the estimated frequencies for the same symbol on all the other reels.  Treat Wild symbols as part of your frequency.

So if your highest value symbol is only likely to show up 1 in 200 times on a reel, in a 5-reel slot game that means you have 0.5% times 0.5% times 0.5% times 0.5% times 0.5% chance of getting five of a kind.  That is 0.03125% total chance of getting the five of a kind.

That works out to an average of about 1 in every 3200 spins.  Of course, that doesn’t mean you’ll see this five of a kind show up if you spin the reels 3200 times.  But if you spin the reels 320,000 times you might see five of a kind somewhere in the neighborhood of 95 to 105 times.

In this hypothetical scenario you would probably want to spin the reels about 10,000 times to get your five of a kind pay off.  And how much will those 10,000 spins cost you?   If you’re betting $20 per spin that will be $200,000 in wagers.

Of course, you don’t have to deposit $200,000 to play 10,000 spins.  If your game has a theoretical return to player of 95% you might be able to play $5,000 (at $20 per spin) on the game to get to your five of a kind.  The math becomes weaker if you change up your bets.  Just playing at the same betting level gives you a slight measure of predictability, or let’s call it expectation.

Your expected return probably will not match your real return.  You might win $40,000 on some accumulation of lesser prizes and decide to quit while you’re ahead.  Or you could lose your $5,000 and wonder what you’re going to tell your kids.

And the five of a kind might come up on your first spin.  See that screen capture above?  That’s from a real slot game I played.  I won 600,000 coins on a bonus game within 1 minute of starting the game.  The game locked up and voided out the win so I walked away with nothing but for a brief second I was a 600,000 coin winner.  It’s not every day you win 55,000 Euros within 1 minute.  I wasn’t expecting either the win or the malfunction.

The bottom line here is that, if you want to win at slots, you need to play from a tightly budgeted strategy.  Make your money last as long as possible and only bet money that you can afford to lose.

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