Slots may not be wise, but are fun to play

May 24, 2011 3:04 AM

Don’t play slots. Anyone familiar with the industry will tell you the general order of games you should be playing to minimize the house advantage would be table games, video poker, video keno and at the end of the list would come slots. They often offer some of the worst payback percentages in the house.

So the advice most "experts" like myself tend to hand out is simple – don’t play slots, ever. To do so is tantamount to bankroll suicide. Just stick to what you enjoy, be it blackjack or pai gow or video keno or whatever – as long as it’s not slots, you’re good.

I don’t necessarily think this is bad advice, but I do think it’s unrealistic. Personally I don’t particularly enjoy playing slot machines, but for many people slots are some of the most entertaining games in the casino. To ask them to stop playing slots and learn proper video poker or blackjack strategy would be like asking B. B. King to stop playing the blues and start studying proper yodeling techniques. It’s just not going to happen.

And why should it? Slots are easy, fun, no strategy is needed and you can often win tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on as little as a 75¢ bet. Some slots can even make you an instant millionaire.

The same can’t be said for video poker, blackjack, craps or many other games in the casino. Virtually none of them can match the potentially huge jackpots many slot machines offer, and most of them require proper strategy to be played in order to realize the best payback percentage. Poor strategy can actually turn them into a worse bet than slots in most cases.

Even if you’re not drawn to the many lures of slot machines, what happens when the tourist friends come to town and want to play slots? Will you scoff and leave them in the dust as you run from the slot floor in search of a roulette table or video keno machine? That’s hardly the way to treat visitors.

So if we admit we will give into our temptation to pull a slot handle or two from time to time, how can we minimize the house edge, or at least maximize our playing experience and chances of winning? While there’s no one good answer to this, there are things you can do to make sure you have both a good time and a chance to win.

The first thing you should do is common sense – look at the buttons and denominations. This will tell you how many lines and how much you can bet per line, which will combine with the denomination to tell you how much you can expect to bet per spin on any given machine. Many lower denomination machines also have betting tiers, which keep players from betting extremely low or odd amounts.

For example, just because you find a penny machine doesn’t mean you can bet one penny. Casinos figured out early on it’s not profitable to comp drinks to a player betting one penny at a time. As a result, most modern penny machines force the player to bet at least 40 credits or so per spin. The tiers will go up from there to the max, perhaps offering 80¢, $1.20, $1.60 and finally $2.00 bets.

Once you know your betting options and find machines in your price range, it’s important to read a little about the rules and game play before you start pressing buttons or pulling handles. You don’t have to memorize the whole paytable, but you should look at progressive amounts, how to qualify for top prizes and what you need to do, if anything, to get into any bonus features.

On some machines, bonus features are automatic and available at every bet amount. On others you might need to bet max credits to qualify for progressive amounts or bonus features. Since even penny machine max bets can range from under $1 to over $4 per spin, it’s very important to read at least some of the fine print.

Still other machines might offer a side bet – say 10 credits per spin – that you need to make along with your regular bet. If you don’t press the correct button to activate the side bet feature, you might not be able to enter the bonus round or qualify for the top award no matter how many credits you’re betting on the main game.

Just a few moments spent familiarizing yourself with a slot machine can save you some money by making sure you don’t bet beyond your means. Perhaps more importantly, it can keep you from making an error that could cost you a bonus round and/or a big jackpot. After all, getting the symbols to line up only to then realize you didn’t bet properly to qualify for the jackpot or feature they would have triggered is definitely not fun and fun is what slots are all about.

(Editor’s Note: Brad Fredella is general manager of Stetson’s Saloon and Casino in Henderson, Nev.)