Are Real Money Slot Machines Worth It?

Thinking Man on Left Row of Slot Machines on Right

Slots are the most popular casino game in the world by a large margin. Other games, like craps and blackjack, have a veneer of sophistication and cost a lot more to play per round. But slots, even the lowliest penny slot paying out prizes in nickels and dimes, are the foundation of the modern casino industry.

Are slot machines worth it? It’s cliché to say this, but the answer really is different for every player. Do you play slot machines mainly for entertainment purposes?

If so, slot machines are worth your investment, mostly because they’re a lot of fun to play and you can play at a lot of different price ranges. Are you a gambler looking for a strategic track to a big jackpot?

Slot machines may not be as worth it to the advantage gambling crowd, since slots are highly volatile, and the outcomes are entirely based on luck.

I wrote this post to look at the good and bad sides of slot machine play, as a means of helping people decide for themselves if slot machines are worth it.

Slot Machines Are Entertaining

The easiest mark in the “pro” column for slot machines is entertainment value.

Slot machines are fun to play – they’re designed for high replay value. The basic gameplay of a slot machine – spinning reels and hoping for combinations – has an addictive quality, appealing to the pattern-seeking and dopamine-flushing reward systems of the human brain.

Most of us crave variety, and slot machines offer that in spades. You can sit at a licensed slot machine-like Wheel of Fortune for a few minutes, get bored of it, slide over a couple of seats to a fruit machine-style slot for a little while, and then scoot over to a totally different kind of machine a few feet away.

Slot machine features like free spins and bonus rounds really make you feel like you’re getting something special – they’re the shiny jewel in the pan of sand that keeps you coming back for more.

Slots are fun for the same reasons video games are fun – they’re a multi-sensory escape from reality, but in the case of slots, they sometimes put money in your pocket.

Slot Machines Have a Fast Play Rate

Let’s compare the play rate of a typical slot machine to other casino games.

A busy blackjack table may see 30-40 decisions per hour. That’s about 1/16th of the number of slot decisions you’ll see in a typical hour of slot play.

A busy craps table may only put out 18-20 decisions per hour. That’s even fewer outcomes per hour than blackjack, and it’s about 27 times fewer outcomes than a typical slot machine.

About the only casino contest that’s consistently faster than slots are video poker games. The big difference between those two games is that video poker includes a skill element that affects the casino’s edge, and some video poker pay tables can be played to a positive expectation. You won’t find either of those features in slot machines.

Row of Slot Machines

The beautiful thing about the slot machine play rate is that it’s up to you, the player, to set it.

If you want to play as many spins per hour as you can, you can certainly do that. You can even set the machines to automatically play a certain number of spins, taking your involvement out of the picture entirely.

The opposite is also true – if you want to slow down your slot play, just take some time between spins, or take breaks. If you know that you’re hitting 500 spins an hour, try playing every thirty minutes, then taking a thirty-minute break. That’s a guaranteed way to go from 500 to 250 spins per hour.

I guess it’s a knock on slot machines that you can bet a lot more money into them in a given hour than other casino games, but since players are ultimately in control of how many spins per hour take place, I feel like you can’t really knock slot machines for what’s essentially user error.

Slot Machines Lie to You

There are few games in the world that lie directly to your face.

Slot machines do that.

Here’s an example – have you ever spent $3 on a spin and won a $2 payout? The machine lights up, horns blare, and you briefly feel like a big winner. But when you think about it, the machine just cost you $1 to play you a fun animation and sound effect. The slot lied to you, made you feel like a winner, and took money right out of your pocket.

I understand people who say slot machines aren’t worth it because they’re “one-armed bandits” designed to separate you from your money. However, the difference between those people and me is that I go into the casino understanding the bargain I’m making.

If you don’t think of slots as expensive entertainment devices, it’s easy to understand why you’d think the slot machine was lying to you. In fact, slots do these things to interest players, attract more money, and keep people playing longer.

That’s what they’re designed to do, after all. Like every other game on the casino floor.

Slot Machines Can Be Very Affordable

When I take my family to the cinema for a night out, I know ahead of time that I’m dropping at least $200. The costs of dinner before the show, movie tickets, snacks, and the inevitable post-movie ice cream trip really add up. But I don’t ever think of that $200 expense as a “loss.” That’s part of the memory-making of my family, shared time that can never be taken away from us.

Compared to the cost of a night out to the movies, slots can be very affordable, even profitable from time to time.

If you know what games to look for and how to set and follow a budget, you can get a lot of entertainment for just a little bit of money. If you win a big enough jackpot, you could even walk away with some profit in your wallet.

Obviously, high-limit slots and VIP slot machine games exist, and people who want to drop $100 a spin can absolutely do so. But these aren’t the kinds of slots I’m talking about. Because you can still (usually) find slot machines with a max bet of $1 or less, I think playing slot machines is worth it for budget-minded bettors who want to have as much fun as possible for as little loss as they can manage.

Harrah's Casino Slot Machines

On my last trip to Atlantic City, I found a set of Cleopatra machines programmed to where you could place a max bet at $0.45 a spin. Even if I sat there and dutifully hit 500 spins an hour, my total outlay would be $225. The truth is, I tend to take my time with slot machines, as I prefer fewer decisions per hour. I’ll sometimes even get up and stretch my legs a little, walk away, take a break, and come back to playing in fifteen minutes or so.

Even so, Cleopatra’s biggest payout at the $0.01 credit level is $300. Even if I did spend all $225 chasing that $300 payout, I felt like it’d still be worth it. Obviously, I wouldn’t lose 100% of that amount during just an hour of play, but I did the math in my head, decided what I was comfortable with, and played that machine for almost an entire hour.

You have to do some additional work to identify affordable slots – generally speaking, penny slots require max bets that push your per-spin cost way above $1. You’ll usually have better luck looking at nickel or even quarter slots with low numbers of pay lines to find low-cost slot machines.

Slot Machines and RTP

RTP is return-to-player, a theoretical figure that’s meant to indicate to gamblers how relatively expensive a particular game is to a bankroll.

In land-based casinos, the lower denomination slots have low RTP figures, ranging from 88% to the low 90s. An RTP of 88% is like placing a bet that gives the casino a 12% edge – that’s a wager that most gamblers wouldn’t take, similar to the odds for a Horn Bet in craps, which is an infamous sucker bet.

The RTP on other casino games should make slot machines embarrassed to show their numbers. Blackjack gives players who follow basic strategy an RTP of around 99%. A bet on the don’t pass line in craps has a 98.64% RTP. Single-zero roulette’s RTP is 97.3%.

A lot of this has to do with things like hit frequency – the rate at which players win, and how much they win when they do. The best-odds bets in games like blackjack and craps payout even money or very close to it. Slots players aren’t chasing even-money jackpots, they’re after prizes in the thousands or progressive payouts in the millions.

Because slots have a low hit frequency and have the guts to advertise their relatively small theoretical RTP figures, it’s fair to knock slots as maybe being “not worth it” in terms of their overall odds.

Are Slot Machines Worth It?

It’s tough to answer questions involving value judgments.

Slot machines are “worth it” if you’re not overspending, getting frustrated, or having a bad time.

Slot machines are as worth it as any other entertainment expense. If you lose $500 over a weekend in Vegas, you’ve really only “lost” about $160 a day – less than the cost of taking the family out to the movies.

I hope this post has helped you consider for yourself whether time spent playing slot machines is worth it.