You can win money playing slots and it's really fun

September 27, 2011 3:03 AM

"Playing slot machines is like throwing your money away." How many times have you heard players, bloggers, writers and armchair critics say these words? The sentiments that slot machines are such a universally horrible bet you may as well light fire to your bankroll seem to be widespread, perhaps even more so with the recent proliferation of penny slots and the lagging economy.

The fact of the matter is playing slots is nothing like throwing money away. First of all, throwing money away is not fun. It carries absolutely no entertainment value for most of us. Just think back to the last time you lost your wallet or purse. How fun was that?

Slots do have entertainment value though. Many people find them quite a pleasant way to spend some time. One of the reasons we find slots fun is also another reason playing slots is nothing like tossing money down the drain – because you can win money playing slots. If someone was lucky enough to find their lost wallet, I can guarantee there wasn’t more money in it than there was when it was lost.

Every slot machine in every casino has the possibility of making a player a winner. They must, by law, be able to hit any and all jackpots and awards listed on the paytable. It might be a one-in-a-billion chance (or slimmer) of hitting some of the top awards, but it’s still a chance. Throwing money away – no chance.

So with that said, why do so many intelligent people tell us playing slots under any circumstances is such a terrible idea? Believe it or not, it’s mostly because they literally don’t know what they’re talking about. In fact, neither do I.

You see, with video poker, video keno and even table games, it’s relatively easy to determine two of the most important factors when it comes to making a gaming decision – the payback percentage (or, conversely, the casino’s hold percentage) and the volatility of the game. With slots, it’s impossible for the player to tell either one.

As it pertains to video poker and keno, even if we don’t know the actual payback percentage of a 4-6-8 Jacks or Better or an 810 five-out-of-five keno game, we can still compare the paytables to those on other Jacks or Better or keno machines. We know the poker cards and keno balls must always be random and have an equal chance of being dealt or drawn. This leaves only the paytables for the casinos to adjust in order to set the desired payback of these machines, and since the paytables are always clearly posted, comparing the relative paybacks between machines is easy.

The same cannot be said for slots. While we could theoretically compare the paytables of two identical slot machines, they are usually so long and complex it makes the task unrealistically daunting. Besides, the frequency of certain winning combinations can be used to adjust slots, too. This means even slot machines with identical paytables could be set to different payback percentages. There’s no way to differentiate between the probabilities of any particular symbol (or combination of symbols) showing up on a slot no matter how long one studies the paytable, so making an informed comparison is impossible.

The same can be said for volatility. Someone wanting to make their money last a while can play Jacks or Better with the knowledge their chances for big, quick wins and losses are slim. On the other hand, someone wanting to either hit it big or go home can play a bonus multiplier version of video keno and bet eight or more spots to likely either win huge or lose quickly, at least in comparison to the Jacks or Better player.

When casinos are looking to place a slot machine on their floor, the manufacturers often disclose the relative volatility level of the game as low, medium or high. I’ve never seen a casino post this information on their slot machines for the players though. Also, the probability of hitting certain winning combinations does not always follow the paybacks on those combinations. In other words, it might be easier to hit for 80 credits than it is to hit the 20-credit winning combination. This makes it completely impossible for anyone to determine the relative volatility of any slot.

So, like I said, none of us can actually know what we’re talking about when it comes to slot machines. Nobody but the people running the casino can really know how tight, loose or volatile any slot machine is set, so the safest bet for players is to stay away from them all together. This I cannot dispute.

But I can certainly dispute the fact that playing slots is anything like throwing away money. Just because slot machines can be set tighter than a string bikini on a fat woman without anyone knowing doesn’t mean all of them are set that tight. Besides, none of us knows the outcome of any gambling decision we make, including the decision to play slots or not. We might win, lose or draw no matter what we play. Isn’t that why it’s called gambling in the first place?