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You’re walking through a casino and you see a bank of your favorite slot machines. Which one of the open machines do you decide to play?

They have identical pay tables, so they must have identical paybacks? Or maybe one pays more for some outcome so you decide to play that one as it must have a higher payback, right?

If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, it’s time for you to learn how slot machines work.

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If you are playing a slot machine with 5 reels with 20 symbols on each reel, in theory there would be 3.2 million different combinations that could show up. But, of course, each of these combinations does not really have a 1 in 3.2 million chance of happening. After all, why would 5 in a row of one symbol pay far less than 5 in a row of a different symbol.

The reality is what you see is not what you get when it comes to slots. The vast majority of those 3.2 million combinations will never happen. Slot design works completely opposite to table game or video poker design. With slots, the first thing that happens is the different possible combinations are laid out into a spreadsheet. First come the paying combinations. Then come the non-winning combinations.

Think about what I just wrote. Why would the non-winning combinations have to be listed one at a time? After all, aren’t all non-winning combinations the same?

In video poker do you really care if at the end of the draw you have a 4-Card Royal or a Queen High hand? From a mathematical perspective, it is meaningless. From an emotional one, it is quite impactful. In video poker, these close calls are the results of the randomness of a deck of cards. In slot machines, they are purposefully created by the designers.

When you lose, you won’t do it often with a complete mixed bag of fruit (or bars, bells, pandas, etc.). You’ll get 3 or 5 important symbols strategically placed so that it will look like you were ‘so close’ to winning while not actually winning anything.

Or perhaps you’ll get back a few coins while seemingly missing a big win. If you were to look at the symbols on the reels, the probability of these outcomes would be far smaller than the rate at which they actually show up. This is because these near misses are specifically programmed into the random number generator to happen at a certain frequency.

Now we go back to my first two questions. The payback of any wager is the probability of each winning outcome multiplied by the payout of that outcome. We sum up the values for all the winning outcomes. Unlike video poker, the probability of each winning outcome is completely determined by the machine’s programming.

So, two machines might pay the same thing for a particular outcome, but one of those machines may be programmed so that the outcome occurs more frequently or less frequently.

The math tells us that this means they will not have identical paybacks. By itself, this might not be a problem. The problem is that as a player you have no way of knowing which machine has the higher payback or for that matter what the payback of the machine is.

Now, if we take this to the extreme, it is very possible to find two identical style slot machines where one appears to pay more than the other. All of the paylines of one machine may be equal to or greater than the other and this does not mean that the machine has a higher payback than the one next to it.

Can you imagine finding out that a 9/6 jacks or better video poker machines has a lower payback than an otherwise identical 8/5 machine?  Or finding out that somehow a 3 to 2 blackjack table has a payback lower than a 6 to 5 table?

I guess slot machines are a little like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. With chocolates, that might be a nice surprise.  When I’m gambling, it’s not something I look forward to.

Knowledge is the key to having a fighting chance. With slots, you’re playing blind. 

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About the Author

Elliot Frome

Elliot Frome’s roots run deep into gaming theory and analysis. His father, Lenny, was a pioneer in developing video poker strategy in the 1980s and is credited with raising its popularity to dizzying heights. Elliot is a second generation gaming author and analyst with nearly 20 years of programming experience.

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