When Should You Play Progressive Jackpot Games?

Large Jackpot Payout Screen With Slot Machine Background

Slot machine games have been used since the late 1880s when Charles Fey built the first slot machine game, the Liberty Bell, in his workshop. Progressive slots came along about 100 years later in 1986 when IGT (International Gaming Technologies) released Megabucks, the first progressive game.

Until Megabucks all slot machine games paid a fixed maximum jackpot prize. The progressive technology IGT developed allowed games to gradually increase their jackpots over time.

I think it’s fair to say that progressive games have become common and popular across the world. Players love the big jackpots.

But are they worth playing for?

I’ve put a few dollars into those million dollar machines just to see what would happen. I didn’t win the progressive prizes but I didn’t like the results of my game play either.

Who Pays for Progressive Jackpots?

Whether it’s a slot machine or any other kind of gambling game, a progressive jackpot is paid the same way as a traditional prize. The money comes from players’ wagers.

The only time a casino risks its own money on a game is when it first introduces the game. The very first player could win a prize and the casino must cover it. Industry experts say it takes only a few weeks for a casino to earn a cash reserve on each game that covers all future payouts.

And that means all those progressive jackpots are covered by players’ wagers.

To cover these big jackpots the games’ payouts and win rates must be adjusted so the casinos still make a profit.

There’s too much debate and disagreement about how much the casinos make on progressive games to go into the details. The important thing to know is that a progressive jackpot is rarely paid out of the casino’s net worth.

How Progressive Games Work

The idea behind the progressive jackpot is simple. It starts out at a minimum level and as more wagers are played a little bit of each is allocated toward the jackpot.

The jackpot will only be rewarded on a random basis when an extremely rare combination of factors occurs. In slot games this is a combination of winning symbols. In other games it’s a combination of cards or die rolls depending on the game.

Most progressive games require that you make a maximum wager to win the progressive jackpot. So if you make anything less than the max bet and the winning symbols come up you’re only awarded a fixed prize.

The progressive jackpot may be increased by less than maximum wagers.

I know some people believe progressive games are designed to pay only after certain intervals but that can’t be true for all of them. I doubt it’s true for any of them. I say that because I’ve seen two people win progressive jackpots on the same machine within an hour of each other.

Closeup of a Progressive Jackpot Payout Counter

That poor second winner had to settle for slightly more than the minimum prize. But she was happy just the same.

A friend showed me an online slot game that had 4 or 5 progressive jackpots. It was a dizzying display of numbers increasing gradually over time. He asked me what I thought about all those jackpots.

I asked him if he was winning any money without the jackpots and he shrugged.

The slot game still pays smaller prizes. Progressive games can pay big or small prizes just like non-progressives. The idea is that the progressive prize retains a small, small percentage of every wager to cover the next jackpot.

The more progressive prizes the game pays the less likely it’s going to pay larger non-progressive prizes. But that’s just my opinion.

When a random number generator decides the action anything can happen even if that means the casino loses money on the game for a while.

Should You Play Progressive Games with Higher Jackpots?

The working theory among many players is that you should wait for a progressive game’s jackpot to climb to a ridiculously high value.

This expectation is based on the classic Gambler’s Fallacy, and just as with lottery games whose jackpots go unwon for several weeks or months, the amount of the jackpot doesn’t matter.

Every play has the same chance of paying the jackpot regardless of what it’s value is. Remember what I said above: I’ve seen the same machine pay a progressive jackpot to two people within an hour.

That was a “local” progressive jackpot. There were about 6 games networked together. They were very popular with the casino’s regular slot players.

I’ve never heard of a national progressive game paying jackpots close together but it could happen. The more machines you network together the less money overall each machine need to contribute to the jackpot.

Of course, if the gaming company wants to offer a really big jackpot then it needs to siphon off more money from the wagers. They can do this by offering progressives only on higher wager machines or by increasing contributions from each wager.

Either way, you’re risking more money to win the biggest progressive jackpots than when you play for the smaller ones.

Is Winning a Progressive Jackpot Worth the Trouble?

If a slot machine game offers a fixed top prize of $10,000 why would you not be satisfied with that?

Your chances of winning a $10,000 jackpot are much better than your chances of winning a $1,000,000 jackpot – all other things being equal.

The percentages on these two hypothetical games could be different. You might have a higher RTP on a $25 progressive slot machine game than a $1 non-progressive slot game.

You could also have a higher variance on the non-progressive game – where the big prizes are paid less often but they are larger than the big (non-progressive) prizes on the progressive game.

I don’t know of a simple way to decide between two slot machine games. You should study the help screens. You may need to look up their PAR sheets and see if you can calculate the odds based on their published specifications.

My rule of thumb is that the larger the prize on the table the less likely I’m going to win the prize. It doesn’t matter what the game is.

How Much Do Other People Win from Non-Progressive Prizes?

When you’re learning about a game for the first time look at how it’s paying other players. The frequency of payouts should have nothing to do with the progressive jackpot. That jackpot is being covered by a percentage of each wager just like the other prizes.

Instead, what you want to know is how enjoyable the game is. Everyone enjoys winning so how often that seems to happen is an important clue.

Row of Digital Slot Machines

Other people’s results don’t guarantee you’ll win just as much or more than they do. All you want to do is get an idea for how many wagers you must make before you can bring your balance back up to where you started.

Some games pay partial wins. These are called losing prizes. If you wager $5 and the game pays $4 you lost on that prize. You just didn’t lose your entire wager.

I don’t play slot machines very often but I avoid games that pay losing prizes. It takes too much effort to calculate how likely they are to let you get ahead. But I’ve never walked away from playing a game like that with more money than I put in.


Playing a progressive jackpot game is a personal decision. I think you should play the game because you enjoy the experience.

I don’t make extra wagers in blackjack so I never play for the progressive prize. I’ve only once seen anyone win a progressive prize in blackjack but I don’t think it’s a common game.

Even in slot machine games you have a choice. You can choose to play non-progressive or progressive games. You can choose to make qualifying wagers or not.

As long as you’re not forced to pay extra for the prize do what you feel is more entertaining. After all, you just might be the next winner.