You’re Playing Slot Machines Wrong (And How to Play Them Right)

Helpful Tips Slots

A lot of gambling writers mean well when they write about playing various games. Sometimes their advice is better than others. When people tell you how to play slot machines, though, they usually give you a lot of bad advice.

Slot machines are easily the biggest moneymaker for the casino. If you’re going to participate in such games, you should learn how to play slot machines right (not wrong).

The first thing to understand about slot machines is that they have a guaranteed mathematical advantage for the casino. Everything you need to know about slot machines stems from that mathematical fact.

Below, I’ve listed 7 pieces of advice you’ll see from multiple gambling writers about slot machines. I’ll explain the pros and cons of following each of those pieces of advice, too.

1. You Don’t Play Slots at All.

  • Smart Gamblers Stick with Games Which Cost Less Money.

Here’s the premise behind this nugget of advice:

Slot machines have a higher house edge than other casino games. You also place more bets per hour playing slots than almost any other game. As a result, statistically, you’re expected to lose more money playing slots than you would playing other games.

Here’s how the math behind this advice works:

You project how much you expect to lose while playing slots by multiplying your hourly action by the casino’s edge. (And your hourly action is the product of the size of your bets and the number of bets you make per hour.)

Here’s an example:

You’re an average slot machine player who makes 600 spins per hour. You play a dollar slot machine with a 3-coin max, so you’re betting $3 every time you spin the reels. That’s $1800 in hourly action.

You have no way of knowing the specific edge for a specific slot machine. But you can assume it’s something like 6%. It might even be higher if you’re playing at one of those awful airport slot machines or a slots game in a local bar.

Your projected loss per hour is 6% X $1800, or $108.

At first glance, it seems like this is great advice. Just don’t play slot machines at all.

What this advice doesn’t account for is that ALL casino games have a house edge. It doesn’t matter how high or low that edge is. It doesn’t matter how much money you’re putting into action per hour.

If you play a game with a house edge for long enough, you’ll eventually lose all your money.

That’s just how casino gambling works.

I love the movie Havana. It’s a loose remake of Casablanca, and Robert Redford stars in it. One of my favorite scenes is when Lena Olin’s character is playing roulette on a cruise ship.

Robert Redford, helping her out, moves her bet on a single number to a bet on red. (It might have been black; I don’t know for sure.)

She asks Redford, whose character is a professional poker player, if that will help her win. He replies, “No, you’ll still lose. It will just take longer.”

That’s the kind of logic that should be applied when playing casino games.

Maybe you’re intimidated by table games. Maybe you hate making decisions. Slot machines might be the perfect game for you.

Here’s the final nail in the coffin to this argument:

Those projections are long-term predictions based on the math behind the game. They don’t hold true in the short run anyway.

For most casino gamblers, the long term doesn’t happen on a single casino vacation. It happens over multiple casino vacations—possibly even a lifetime of gambling.

Most casino gamblers I know aren’t worried about how much their net win or net loss over their last dozen trips to the casino amounted to. They’re also not worried about how much their net win or loss over their next dozen trips to the casino will amount to.

They only care about this trip. In fact, they only care about the result of the next spin.

If you’re going to gamble in the casino, accepting that the house has an edge is the first step to managing your expectations. You should play the games that help you achieve your goals, whatever they might be.

2. You Always Play for the Lowest Stakes Possible.

This is another attempt to minimize the projected dollar loss per hour. If you’re playing for pennies, you’ll lose a lot less money than you would if you were playing for nickels or quarters. The math for this is straightforward enough, but let’s go through it just to make sure you’re educated on the subject:

My wife is playing slots at a penny machine. She’s only betting 50 cents per spin. (She’s betting 5 pennies per line on 10 different pay lines, so she’s putting 50 cents into action per spin. She could bet a single penny per spin, if she wanted to.)

Over the course of an hour, she makes 600 spins, putting $300 into action. If you assume a 6% house edge, she’s going to lose an average of $18 per hour.

On the other hand, I’m a little looser with my money. I’m betting $3 per hand, like in the example above. I’m losing $108 per hour.

Those are just mathematical expectations, though.

In the short run, it’s entirely possible that I’ll win a jackpot of 2000 bets. That’s a $6000 win.

My wife might win a jackpot of 2000 coins, too. But she’s only looking at a win of $1000.

Which one of us do you think had more money during that gambling session?

Here’s another way to look at it:

Gambling only has meaning based on how much risk and how much reward there is. If the amount of money that you’re risking is meaningless, you’ll be bored. And if the amount is so low that the potential win is also meaningless, you’ll be even more bored.

John Vorhaus wrote a great book about home poker games called Thursday Night Poker. In it, he explains how you should choose what stakes to play for. He points out that if you’re literally playing for pennies, the game will be meaningless.

He suggests that you set a buy-in that’s significant enough that you’d have an emotional reaction if it were in your wallet and you lost that amount of money. He suggests that it should be enough money that you’d swallow hard if you lost it.

He calls that your “gulp limit.”

I contend that this is true of slot machines and other forms of gambling, too. It’s easy to say that you’ll lose less money if you play for lower stakes.


But you won’t care about what you’re doing, and where’s the fun in that?

Yes, gambling in a casino is a form of entertainment. And yes, in the long run, the house always wins.

But if you play for such low stakes that the game isn’t entertaining anymore, aren’t you just wasting your time?

It’s like my friend who sits around playing free slot machine games on the internet. He’s just playing for Monopoly money, and he’s hooked.

But I can’t imagine a less stimulating way to spend my time.

Put some money into action on the game, though, and my attitude changes immediately.

3. You Stick with the Slot Machine Games Which Have the Smallest Jackpots.

The reasoning behind this gem is that the slot machine games with the smallest jackpots have the highest payback percentage and the lowest house edge. (One is a function of the other, by the way.)

Of course, the games with the smallest jackpots are also the games with the fewest bells and whistles. In fact, they’re often the dullest games in the casino.

Did you really come to the casino to preserve your money and be bored by your gambling?

If so, then yeah, this might be the right way to play slot machines.

But I don’t think most slots players want to minimize their hourly losses. I think they want to take a shot at a jackpot that’s big enough that it matters. It doesn’t have to be a life-changing jackpot. Most slot machine players don’t have such a “lottery mindset,” although some do.

But if the jackpot is so small that you don’t care about it, what’s the point in playing in the first place?

Remember, the house edge doesn’t really matter much. If it’s over 0%, you’re going to lose all your money eventually anyway.

Why not take a shot at a big jackpot along the way?

The same logic applies to slot machine games with progressive jackpots. The machine takes a small percentage of each bet to “fuel” that ever-increasing jackpot. The logic is that you face better odds at a game that doesn’t do that.

But what if you enjoy thinking about what you’d do with that huge progressive jackpot?

Do you think any of the people who have won $10 million or more regretted playing Mega Millions?

Here’s what you want to remember about slot machines:

No risk. No reward.

4. You Always Avoid the Games with Video Reels and Only Play the Games with Mechanical Reels.

At one time, you could count on mechanical slot machine games to act like mechanical slot machine games. Such games would naturally have a higher payback percentage and a lower house edge.

That’s no longer true, though.

Even the slot machines that look like they’re powered by mechanical reels are powered by a computer program called a random number generator (RNG).

The mechanical reels are just for show.

There’s no guarantee that the payback percentage on that traditional-looking slot machine is better than the payback percentage on the huge flashy video slot game with all the bonus features.

Here’s how that random number generator works, by the way:

Suppose you took a simple mechanical slot machine with 3 reels and 10 symbols on each reel.

The probability of getting any specific combination of reels would be 1/10 X 1/10 X 1/10, or 1/1000.

You have 1000 total possible combinations.

A slot machine designer can easily create a slot machine that duplicates those odds. They just create a random number generator program that comes up with a number between 1 and 1000 for every spin. Each of those numbers corresponds to one of the possible combinations.

The random number generator is constantly working “under the hood” on these slot machine games, running between 1 and 1000 several times per second. When you hit the spin button or push the lever on the game, the computer program stops on whatever number it was at. It sends a signal to the reels about where they’re supposed to stop.

The outcome is determined by the machine before the reels ever stop spinning, in fact.

With all this in mind, I don’t see much point in second-guessing whether this slot machine that looks mechanical offers a better payback percentage than this other slot machine with video reels.

Maybe it does.

Maybe it doesn’t.

The only people who know for sure are the technicians who manage the game’s PAR sheets. Those are the specs for the game.

Also, the slot machine designers specifically design the games to offer payouts that are lower than your actual odds of winning. If you have a 999-to-1 chance of hitting a particular jackpot that pays off at 800 to 1, it’s easy to see how the casino makes its profits.

That’s how every slot machine in every casino works. It offers payouts that don’t correspond to the odds of winning.

The actual criteria you should use for choosing a slot machine game is how much fun you’re having while you’re playing. The minute it stops being entertaining, you should move on to a game that is entertaining.

Having fun is the name of the game when playing slot machines.

5. You Only Play Slot Machines with Your Slots Club Card Inserted.

I can see both sides of this argument, but the people who argue against using the slots club card have their facts wrong.

Most slot machine experts explain that inserting the slots club card has no effect on the game’s payout percentage. It just tracks the amount of money you put into action so that the casino can reward you appropriately with rebates and other perks.

The bogus slot machine “experts” who claim you’re less likely to win with the card inserted are space cadets. That’s just myth and superstition. It’s always backed up with lots of anecdotal evidence, though.

There’s nothing wrong with playing slots with your players club card inserted, either. The choice is yours.

What most writers miss, though, is the one legitimate reason for avoiding using your players club card:

The casino uses the players club card to gather data about your gambling habits. They also use your personal data to advertise to you.

Here’s an example:

Casinos send periodic direct mail advertisements and email advertisements to members of their players club. That’s why they have the club. Among other things, it’s a tool the casino uses to get access to your personal information.

They’re also hoping to incentivize your play by offering you perks that seem expensive. In fact, these perks might be expensive if you consider their retail value.

But the casino gets most of these perks at wholesale.

Here’s an obvious example:

You spend several hours playing slots at the casino, and they reward you with two free meals to the buffet. It normally costs $20 to eat at the buffet.

But the casino isn’t spending $20 on your meal. The food cost for that meal is probably between $6 and $7.

Here’s another, less obvious example:

You’ve been gambling for days at the casino, and they offer you a free room.

Unless the casino is sold out, that free room costs the property nothing at all. It would have just sat there empty anyway.

Most casinos and hotels only operate at between 65% and 75% occupancy. That means that one out of every 3 or 4 rooms in the hotel are sitting there empty on any given night.

Why not offer those empty rooms to a gambler who puts several hours in at the slot machine games?

I don’t have an opinion about whether you should use the players club card or not. You should decide this based on the facts, though—not some superstitious belief that you’ll lose more often if you play with your card inserted.

It’s okay to play with your card inserted.

It’s also okay to play without your card inserted.

6. You Never Play Slot Machine Games on the Internet.

A lot of people are afraid to play slot machine games on the internet. They’re afraid that the software powering the online casino is rigged in such a way that you can’t win. This logic misses something important about slot machines in general:

They’re ALL rigged in such a way that you can’t win.

Not in the long run, anyway.

Remember when I talked about how the odds of winning and the payout odds aren’t the same?

That’s HOW the games are rigged.

It’s a long-term math thing.

Paranoid, superstitious players think that a game will just flat-out not pay you wins. And yes, some online casinos are cheaters.

But online casinos don’t have to cheat to make a lot of money.

Casino games are already set up in such a way that the online casino owners make plenty of profits.

And the smart online casino operators know that a loyal customer who plays for years is worth more in the long run than a disgruntled player who got swindled by a lousy gamble.

This doesn’t mean ALL online casinos are worth your time. You still need to do some due diligence into the reputation of an online casino before you sign up.

But what you need to worry about is how well their customer service team handles and processes cashouts. The casino cheating you at the slot machine games is the least of your worries.

In fact, most online casinos offer payback percentages that are higher than you’d find at a land-based casino. Their overhead costs are much lower than a traditional casino. They don’t have to pay for real estate, for one thing. They just need servers and software.

They pass those savings along to their customers in the form of higher payback percentages.

Online casinos also love to reward slot machine players by giving them bonus money when they make their first deposit. This is usually calculated as a percentage of your first deposit—100% or 200% up to a certain dollar amount.

An example would be a casino that offers a 100% bonus on your first deposit of $1000.

You put in $1000, and you have $2000 to play with.

Now you’re getting twice as many spins and twice as many chances to win for your money. And all of this on a game which probably offers you a better payback percentage than you’d find at a casino in Las Vegas or Reno.

Online slot machines are like drums with holes in them:

They’re hard to beat.

7. You Do What You’re Told When It Comes to Slot Machines.

Here’s the thing about playing slot machines:

It’s up to you how to play them.

You’ll find plenty of advice about what you SHOULD do when you’re gambling in front of a slot machine.

But at the end of the day, it’s up to you how you gamble your money. I’d prefer to see you decide what you do based on facts rather than myths. But even so, if you want to decide something based on superstition, that’s okay.

It’s your money.

You get to decide how to spend it.

Your most important goal should be to enjoy your gambling hobby. This eliminates becoming a gambling addict, by the way. No one I know who’s addicted to anything enjoys what they’re addicted to.

That’s up to you to determine, too.

If I could find a single two-word sentence, to sum up the best advice about how to play slot machines, it would probably sound like this:

Have fun.


Slot machines are the most popular game in most casinos. Upwards of 75% of the revenue, a casino makes from its players comes from the slot machines. That number keeps growing, too. The slots are here to stay.

Unfortunately, compared to a lot of casino games, there’s not much meaningful to say about playing slots. It’s not like blackjack, where you can discuss the subtleties of how to play each specific hand. As a result, lots of gambling writers share a lot of well-meaning but possibly misguided advice about how to play the slots.

What I’d ask you to remember is that it’s supposed to be fun. You get to decide how to play slot machines so that you’ll gain the most enjoyment from it.

Petko Stoyanov
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About Petko Stoyanov
My name is Petko Stoyanov, and I've been a gambling writer for more than ten years. I guess that was the natural path for me since I've loved soccer and card games for as long as I can remember! I have a long and fairly successful history with English Premier League betting and online poker, but I follow many other sports. I watch all big European soccer leagues, basketball, football, and tennis regularly, and I keep an eye on snooker, volleyball, and major UFC events.