Whether you play the machines or the table games, all casino games fall into three basic categories: games of pure chance; games that combine chance and skill; and games that combine chance and knowledge.
Blackjack, Caribbean Stud, Let It Ride, Pai Gow Poker and video poker are examples of games that combine chance and skill. You make the right decisions on the play of your hands and, in the long run, you can cut the house edge to the minimum, whatever that minimum might be. In some cases, if you play your cards right÷and select the right games to play÷you can even get a small edge over the casino, as many blackjack card counters and professional video poker players have been doing for years.
Of course, in all these “skill” games chance plays a role as well. For example, which cards are in what order is solely determined by the shuffling of the decks. Probability theory can inform us of what our long-term likelihood of winning is if we make this or that play, given these particular cards and owing to the composition of the remaining deck, but chance tells us right now what card has been selected and whether we slap our hands together in joy or smack the table or screen in frustration. And, in the short run, chance can play tricks on us, no matter how much skill we possess. Even with an edge, an expert blackjack or video poker expert can lose today, tomorrow, and the next day, too. That’s why Lady Luck has historically been viewed as a woman of less than stellar virtue and quite, quite fickle.
Craps, on the other hand, is a game that combines chance with knowledge. In craps, there are many awful bets with exceedingly high house edges and some good bets where the house has an edge of a few cents per hundred dollars wagered over the player. Make the good wagers and you can play a tight game with the house despite the fact that chance rules the long-term results. Make the bad wagers and you tighten an economic noose around your own neck.
Keno is a game of pure chance. You select your numbers and wait for the results. The only knowledge you need is how to find your way the keno lounge and even that isn’t necessary, as keno runners will gladly take your bets just about anywhere in the casino. (Yes, keno purists might say that there are slightly better and worse wagers at keno but as Shakespeare said: “There’s small choice in rotten apples!”)
Sadly, slot machines have always been considered games of pure chance and have been given short shrift by gaming writers for years. Traditional slot thinking has you ambling into a casino, bumbling your way over to a machine, dumping in some coins, watching the wheels spin, guffawing or grumbling, and wandering away richer or poorer and that’s that. Rarely did we think of slot machines in the same way as we thought of craps, as games where knowledge can give us some power over our fates. Certainly, in the long run, no one can overcome the programming of any slot machine without a hammer and a good escape route. Yet to think of slots as strictly games of chance negates years of accumulated slot wisdom and study.
In fact, you should never just wander into a casino and dump coins in the first machine that catches your fancy. Write this next sentence on the tablet of your hearts: There are better and worse machines to play and better and worse ways to play them!
The A-B-Cs of slot play
Smart slot play boils down to a big A, a big B, and a little “c”:
Select the best machines to suit your temperament.
Use good money management principles to stretch your playing time or reduce your risk.
Look to get the maximum in comp value for your play.
The big A
We might say that the big A stands for “aptitude” and “attitude.”
What is your gaming attitude? What are your goals when you enter the casino? Do you want to win a mega fortune on one lucky spin? Then head over to Megabucks and other multi-casino-linked progressive jackpot machines and play like there’s no tomorrow. Unfortunately, there probably won’t be much of a tomorrow for your bankroll, as most, of these types of machines÷regardless of denomination÷pay back paltry percentages somewhere in the 85 percent range. Make progressive-jackpot machines a steady slot diet and your bankroll will be anorexic in no time. Of course, there’s always that one person every year or two who does hit the big one. If you think out of the millions of people who play mega-progressives that you will be the chosen one, then go ahead and enjoy yourself. Just be sure to play max-coin.
For the rest of us, not deluded by dreams of life-changing grandeur, our attitude is probably more like: “I’d like to go home with a win tonight. Short of that, I’d like to have a great day or evening of entertainment that doesn’t cost me too dearly.”
If this is your sentiment, and it certainly is mine, then your slot aptitude must come into play. Which machines are the best machines to play to accomplish that goal of winning something today or tonight?
We know from the exhaustive statistics in Strictly Slots that only two types of machines give us the best possible payouts: high end denominations such as $5 or more, and “certified” or “guaranteed” payback machines, usually of the dollar variety, that return 97, 98 and, sometimes, 99 percent, depending on the casino. Since most players can’t afford to play $10 or more, let’s stick with $1 and $5 slots for the rest of this discussion.
Which machines should you play?
Whenever possible, play those “certified” or “guaranteed” machines. Make sure, however, that each and every machine in the group so labeled is individually certified. Do not fall for the “machines in this bank are returning up to 98 percent” lure. “Up to” means that just one machine has to be returning that amount. Unless you’re lucky enough to pick that particular machine, the rest of the machines in that group might be picking your pocket.
And what about all those newfangled machines that come with pirate battling, pigs puffing up and exploding (a truly disgusting image), double-or-nothing modes, spins til you win? Or those machines with video-people fishing for your jackpot? And, now, machines that exercise you? Soon there will be machines that give you foot massages! Are any of them worth playing?
Here, my information is contradictory. Some of my casino moles say that most new machines are somewhat tight to make up for the dead time that the entertainment feature creates. Some say that the new machines are loose to win over converts. Still others say they are programmed in the same ranges as all other slots, which just means they can be loose or tight depending on which program the individual casino ordered from the manufacturer. Except for extremely rare occasions where the special feature (such as a puffy pig or a bulging safe combination) gets into a positive-expectation mode, there’s no telling how these machines are behaving short of invading the office of the slot manager and stealing his spread sheets.
So, I tend to avoid any long-term play on new machines as a matter of survival. I will, it is true, occasionally put a few bucks in them, just to see how they operate. (On some of the Australian machines, I still haven’t figured out how I won what I won!) But as a rule, I’ll take my chances with the tried and true: machines that stand alone; machines that don’t reward me for putting in full coin, so I can play one coin and stretch my time but not my risk; and machines I’m quite confident will give me the best chance to take a little something home tonight (the aforementioned “certified” and $5 machines).
The Big B
Think of “B” as “bucks”÷as in, how many dollars your common sense tells you that you can afford to risk in a given session of play.
How you manage your money once you have selected your machine is the single most important aspect of slot play. You can’t affect how the reels will spin once those coins are in. The RNG takes care of that. But before and after that money goes in or comes out is your time. No one compels you to put some, any, or all of your wins back into the machine once they have come out. That’s your choice. And no one tells you to play full coin if playing full coin isn’t really worth the risk.
Strictly in terms of dollars and cents over finite time, playing full coin is decidedly not always the best policy. On a machine that does not reward you for full coin, you will note that all the lines are merely multiples of the first line. Say the jackpot for one coin is $400, for two, it’s $800, and for three, it’s $1,200. If the machine is a 98-percenter, why would you want to put in three times as much money for that 2 percent casino edge to work its mathematical magic on? You wouldn’t. You get no benefit from playing full coin, other than some slot-club points which really won’t make up for triple your losses. In real economic terms, if you play one coin, you will be able to play three times as long on the same bankroll as you would if you played three coins÷and all for the same risk.
Even on machines that do reward you for full-coin in, you might find it financially worth your while to still play one coin. Take a machine that returns $300 for one coin, $600 for two, and $1,200 for three coins on its best payout line. How much is that extra $300 on the full-coin really worth? Probably a percent. So a 98 percent return machine will return 97 percent on the one and two coins and 98 on all three coins. Now, is that extra percentage return really worth tripling your bet?
If you were planning to play for four hours at 10 spins a minute, 600 spins per hour, you would put $7,200 through the machine at full coin, with an expected loss of $144. However, if you merely played one coin, you would put through $2,400 in four hours with an expected loss of $72÷half as much! The only way playing full coin would make sense is if you said to yourself beforehand: “I am determined to put $10,000 through that machine with the best possible return.” In that case, full coin would be the way to go, since 2 percent working on $10,000 is better than 3 percent working on it. But if it’s time you’re thinking of÷and most slot players play for a certain length of time before calling it a session÷then a single coin is better.
So how much should you have as a session bankroll to play the machines the way that I’m recommending? Have three times the jackpot line. That’s a useful rule of thumb. If you are playing one coin and the jackpot is $400, then $1,200 would give you plenty of playing time. Even if you just put your $1,200 through the machine once, you would get 1,200 spins, or two hours of play at 10 spins a minute. If you could reduce your speed a little, say to five spins a minute (one decision every 12 seconds), you would have enough to play for four hours, at the end of which time, you take what you won, or what is left over of your stake, and call it a session.
Of course, how much you bring to a casino, whether you put through some, much or all of your wins a second or third time through the machine is a personal decision. I prefer to know ahead of time that I have exactly enough to last for the amount of time I want to play. I hate to have a short bankroll and have to rely on the “I hope I win a few good payouts so I can play for awhile” philosophy. If I know I want to play “X” amount of time then I’m going to bring “X” number of dollars to guarantee I can actually do it!
The little “c”
Comps are a wonderful casino perk if you take advantage of them. They are an evil if they take advantage of you. No sandwich, no buffet, no gourmet room is worth playing hard-earned money for÷especially if you lose that money. I know individuals who have literally lost thousands of dollars to get a “free” meal worth a hundred bucks. In short, never let comps determine your playing style or your game plan. Play the machines as your game plan calls for and take whatever the casino gives you as icing on the cake. Don’t say to yourself: “Hooray! If I play 10 hours I can get the buffet!” if playing for 10 hours means your expected loss is far, far greater than the cost of the buffet. If you have planned to play 10 hours because that is how you scheduled your play, and the casino gives you a buffet when you’re finished, well, that’s nice. Eat up and enjoy.
The A-B-Cs of slot play are simple. Better yet, they are satisfying slot strategies that can go a long way towards giving you a good shot at taking home some money tonight. After all, as Scarlet O’Hara said, “tomorrow is another day.”