How Do I Pick a Good Slot Machine?

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Slot machines generate more profit for a casino than the other casino games by a wide margin. And what’s good for the casino’s bottom line is NOT what’s good for your bottom line.

I sometimes recommend avoiding slot machines altogether and just sticking with table games, because the amount of money you’re mathematically expected to lose is dramatically lower when playing table games.

But some people love taking a shot at a big jackpot. For players who want to risk a small amount for a potentially life-changing jackpot, I offer the following tips for how to pick a good slot machine.

Try to Find a High-Denomination Slot Machine You Can Afford

Don’t be fooled by the ubiquitous nature of penny slots. Since those games usually require you to bet on multiple lines at one time, you’re often betting far more than just a penny per spin. In fact, it’s impossible to bet a penny per spin on such a game.

Slot Machines

Often, even on a penny slot machine, you’re risking $1.00 or more to spin. On the other hand, if you were just playing a dollar slot machine to begin with, you’d be playing a game with a lower house edge.

If you spend some time looking at the payback percentage surveys for Las Vegas casinos, one thing will become clear quickly…

The lower denomination machines have a much lower payback percentage than the higher dollar machines.

I’m NOT, however, suggesting you gamble a lot per spin. You should bet as little as possible while still keeping the game interesting for yourself.

In the long run, the more you bet per spin combined with how long you play is going to determine how much you’re going to lose—not IF you’re going to lose, but HOW MUCH.

That’s an important thing to remember about all casino gambling games. No matter which ones you choose, you’ll lose more the longer you play.

Think Old School

The newer the slot machine game is, the more bells and whistles it has. And those bells and whistles all have a cost in the form of a lower payback percentage.

Here’s an example:

On an old-school slot machine with three mechanical-looking reels, you win if you line up three symbols across the center line. That’s simple enough.

But on a modern slot machine with five virtual reels and visible lines five above and five below, some of the symbols trigger bonus games.

Those bonus games are fun and generate winnings, but they don’t come up often. When they do, they don’t pay out as much as you’d think.

When you include wild symbols, multiple paylines, and the bonus games, the payback percentage for a game like this is often much lower than it would be on an old-fashioned, “electro-mechanical” slot machine game.

Boring is good. And winning small is always more exciting than not winning at all.

Choose Flat Top Machines Over Progressive Slot Machines

Most people are at least a little bit familiar with the concept of a progressive slot machine jackpot. That’s a game with the ticker that tracks how big the jackpot has gotten. The jackpot grows as players make bets on the machine (or its sister machines).

Progressive Slot Machines

Eventually, if the progressive jackpot gets big enough, the game’s payback percentage will inevitably be above 100%. But the problem here is twofold.

For one thing, the probability of winning a progressive jackpot, especially a big one, is so low that it makes the expected value of that game irrelevant. If you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to win a prize, that prize might as well not exist.

For another, that jackpot keeps growing because the machine (or machines) take a tiny percentage of each bet to “fuel” that jackpot. This comes directly from the payback percentage for the game. Where else could it come from?

A flat top machine, on the other hand, has a flat top prize. It doesn’t change. It’s usually 1,000 for 1 or 2,000 for 1. You’ll win more money more often on a flat top machine than you will on a progressive slot machine.

Play Online Slot Machine Games Carefully

Different casinos have different average payback percentages for their slot machine games. The casinos on the Las Vegas Strip, for example, are more competitive than the slot machines in the local tavern or gas station.

Slots on a Laptop

But the most competitive casinos of all time are the ones targeting an internet audience. They can afford to be competitive, too, because they have a worldwide audience to compete for. Even people who are unable to travel, for whatever reason, can play online slot machines.

The problem with online slot machines, though, is that some online casinos are slower to pay out than others. And some internet casinos, especially if they’re based in another country, might not pay out at all.

Spend a little time on some online gambling forums and notice how many complaints have to do with players who are mad that they can’t get their winnings back from the online casino.

You should stick with online casinos that are recommended by legitimate online gambling portals (like this one).

Look for sites that aren’t overtly pushing sales when you’re trying to find a recommendation. Website owners can make a small fortune in a short amount of time referring customers to online casinos. This makes it hard to find an unbiased source of reviews.

The Players Club Card Won’t Affect Your Chances of Winning

The players club card is a card you sign up for at the casino that you insert into the machine while you play. It tracks how much you’re betting over time and pays you loyalty rewards in the form of rebates and comps as a tiny percentage of that.

For example, a players club card set to pay back 0.2% of your action can generate significant amounts of “freebies” during a weekend spent gambling.

Let’s say you spend eight hours playing slots at the casino over a weekend, and you’re betting $3 per spin. If you’re an average gambler, you’ll make 600 spins per hour, which equates to $1,800 in action per hour.

You earn rewards at the rate of 0.2% X $1800, or $3.60 per hour. Over the weekend, you get $28.80 in total casino comps.

The casino, of course, expects to win far more than $28.80 over that amount of action. But even if you’re winning, the casino doesn’t care, because it makes its money on the aggregate action of thousands of players over hundreds of hours.

You’ll see a lot of gambling bloggers offer the standard advice of always using the players club card. This isn’t terrible advice. From a purely mathematical perspective, you might as well get your 0.2%.

But I like to account for more nuance than that. Think about the casinos’ goals in offering that card. Isn’t their goal to get you to gamble more?

When you sign up for the players club card, the casino takes your name, address, phone number, and email address. They use this contact information to market to you.

Players Club Card

Let’s say you lose an average of $300 on a trip to the casino playing slots. Also, let’s assume you go to the casino four times a year, for a total loss of $1,200.

You can get back about $120 in the comps from the card. But if the advertising from the casino convinces you to make one extra trip to the casino a year, the loss for the year jumps to $1,500.

The casino spent $120, but they made $180 profit on it. And advertising is more effective with some people than others.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether the rebates are worth getting the advertising.

Consider the Boulder Strip for Land-Based Slots

The best payback percentages in a Las Vegas casino are on the machines at the Boulder Strip, which average around 96% if you play nickel, quarter, or dollar slots.

Contrast that with the average 90% to 92% return on the casinos on the main Las Vegas Strip, and you’ll see a huge difference.

Let’s take our average gambler who spends eight hours gambling over a weekend. This gambler puts $1800 x 8 hours into action on a weekend, which is $14,400.

If you lose 4% of that, you’re looking at a loss of $576.

On the other hand, if you lose 9% of that, which is what you’d probably lose on the Strip, your losses for the week would look more like $1,296.

Of course, those losses are averages over the long run, but you get averages like that by paying out winners less often and having losing results more often. You also do it by offering smaller prizes on the occasional wins.

Stay Away From Slots Based on Famous Intellectual Properties

You’ll see all kinds of brands used by slot machine manufacturers. These can involve TV shows, celebrities, or other products. Businessmen like to call this kind of thing “synergy.” The brand gets exposure in the casino, and the game gets played more often by fans of the brand.

Some of the newest examples of this include Sex and the City slots (based on the HBO TV show), Adam Levine slots, and Wheel of Fortune slots.

The manufacturer pays a licensing fee to use the intellectual property. For example, someone out there owns the rights to the old TV show Hee Haw. If you want to create a slot machine based on that property, you have to pay the owner. Where do you think they get the money to pay for that license?

If you guessed that it comes almost directly from the payback percentage of the game, give yourself a gold star!

When possible, play slot machines that aren’t tied to an existing intellectual property or celebrity. This means skipping the Dolly Parton and Elvis slots and playing more obscure games like Burning Bar slots or Double Diamond Deluxe slots.

I can’t guarantee a higher payback percentage on such games, but chances are, you’ll do better on the games that don’t involve a licensed property.


What makes a good slot machine “good?”

The main thing, for most of us, is the payback percentage. That’s the mathematically expected return you’ll see from the game over time.

You can’t predict anything remotely close to the actual payback percentage of a slot machine game, but I’ve offered some good rules of thumb for how to find games with a higher payback percentage.

Honestly, though, you’re still mathematically better off playing table games. But these are some great tips to keep in mind when you’re really looking to pick a good slot machine.