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Playing maximum coin isn’t always the best advice for slot players

What do the following statements have in common?

  • No one will run a four-minute mile.
  • Nobody will beat Mike Tyson.
  • Man is the measure of all things.
  • Santa Claus brings presents at Christmas.
  • Always play full coin in a slot machine.

When all these statements were first expressed, they seemed absolutely true. No one in history had ever run a mile in under four minutes—it was unthinkable. But someone did. When Mike Tyson was young and invincible, it seemed inconceivable that anyone could stand up to his ferocity in the ring. But Buster Douglas, a second tier heavyweight of no real standing, knocked Tyson silly.

Because man had reason and beasts didn’t, we felt we could judge everything based on ourselves, as the measure of all things. But now Koko, a gorilla who has mastered American sign language, has held “chat sessions” on the Internet (so what if she has the IQ of a dull child—she still knows a thousand words).

As a child, Santa Claus did bring me presents at Christmas. I saw him in his red suit and black boots. It wasn’t until I was somewhat older that I realized that good old Saint Nick was actually good old Uncle Rocco.

And so it goes with the “always play full coin in a slot machine” dictum.

It has been a standard article of faith among savvy slot players (and a standard piece of advice from gaming writers) that to get the maximum benefit from a slot machine, it is always best to play full coin. But there are exceptions, and for many of today’s slot players, a new appraisal of the “full coin” philosophy is long overdue. It all depends on the kinds of machines you play, how you play them, and what your goals in the casino are.

Equal distribution or straight multiplier machines

If we take an equal distribution or straight multiplier two-coin machine such as a Double Diamond, where the rewards for one coin in are simply doubled when you put two coins in, you might actually be foolish to play full coin. Assume for a moment that you wish to play 1,000 spins on a dollar Double Diamond machine. Let’s also assume that the machine is guaranteed to pay back a whopping 98 percent return. Is it smarter to play one coin or full coin on such a machine?

Well, this is a situation where the “always play full coin” mantra breaks down. At two dollars a pop, you’re risking $2,000. In the long run, those 1,000 spins will cost you $40 in expected losses ($2,000 X .02 = $40). In this case, it’s better to simply play one coin for the 1,000 spins, risking half as much and cutting your expected loss in half as well. Thus, instead of a $40 hit on your bankroll, playing one coin results in a $20 expected loss ($1,000 X .02 = $20). You’ve still gotten your 1,000 spins and the adrenaline rush that accompanies them, but you’ve cut your monetary risk in half by having that 98 percent machine working on only $1,000 instead of $2,000.

Remember, in an equal distribution machine like this one, the likelihood of hitting any given symbol does not change based on how many coins you have in. The RNG doesn’t say to itself, “Hey, that rotten cheapskate only put in one coin—no Diamonds for him!” If the odds of hitting the jackpot are 30,000-to-one for two coins, then the odds are still 30,000-to-one for one coin.

Jackpot rewards for full coin

The main reason for playing full coin is the fact that you become eligible for the enhanced jackpot on the last coin. For example, on a three reel machine, one coin might pay 300 on the jackpot line, two coins pay 600 and three coins pay 1,000 (or 1,200 or more). That third coin “buys” you an extra hundred coins if you hit the jackpot. If this machine is said to pay back 98 percent, the extra 100 coins is figured into the 98 percent return. That means the one-coin and two-coin lines are not quite paying back at 98 percent.

An extra 100, 200 or even 500 coins on the long shot of the jackpot pay line will usually result in no more than a single percentage difference between playing one or full coin. Thus, if the full coin line is paying 98 percent and the one-coin line is paying 97 percent, the slot player is still better off playing the one-coin line. On 1,000 spins at 97 percent of one coin, the slot player faces an expected loss of $30. However, when three coins are played, the slot player will face an expected loss of $60. Despite the fact that the enhanced jackpot payment is the feature that bumps up the percentage return of the machine to its highest level, it still is no bargain in economic terms if we talk in terms of total number of spins.

There is, of course, a flip side to this. Instead of playing 1,000 spins, what if you wanted to play $1,000 through a machine with the best possible expectation? On an equal distribution machine such as a Double Diamond, it is irrelevant whether you play one coin or two, as that 98 percent will work on the $1,000 however you play it. Naturally, the fewer the spins, the greater the volatility. That volatility is a fancy way of saying that the ups could be higher than usual, and the downs could be lower than usual, over the short haul. Over the long haul, the average payouts tend to erase short-term volatility. Therefore, I would still play the one coin for my $1,000 on an equal distribution machine, as I would prefer to avoid the downers more than I dream about riding the uppers of the short run. But in terms of sheer mathematics, there is no earthly difference in the long run on such a machine. Ninety-eight percent of $1,000 is 98 percent, period.

However, on the three-coin dollar machine that rewards us with an extra percent for putting in full coin, the player who wishes to play $1,000 will lose $20 by playing full coin as opposed to the player who plays $1,000 through the machine a coin at a time and expects to lose $30. Again, the volatility of playing 333 spins ($1,000 at full coin) will be much greater than playing 1,000 spins ($1,000 at one coin).

Buy-a-Pay machines and full coin

The only machines where it is absolutely essential to play full coin are the so-called “buy-a-pay” slot machines. Buy-a-pays are slot machines where each coin “buys” you extra paying symbols or drastically increases your payouts on certain symbols. In the spring issue of The New Chance and Circumstance magazine, slot columnist and computer programmer John Robison took apart the secret programming of a buy-a-pay machine and discovered some interesting things.

On the first coin of the buy-a-pay slot machine that Robison analyzed, the machine pays if you hit various “bar” symbols. On that first coin, Robison discovered that the payback percentage was 80.32 based on a hit frequency of 11.24 percent. (Hit frequency means the number of times some money is returned to a player. A hit is registered even if you put in a single coin and the machine spits out a single coin in return. You actually didn’t “win” anything but you did “hit.”) If you put in a second coin, the machine paid for the various red, white and blue sevens.

Many astute slot players (and writers) have always assumed that the second group of symbols doubled the number of hits that would occur. Robison found this not to be the case. In fact, the hit frequency of the red, white and blue sevens, even when combined with the bars, was only marginally better than the hit frequency of the bars alone: 12.88 percent as opposed to 11.24 percent. The total percentage payback for two coins rose to a paltry 80.78 percent. In essence, you’re risking twice as much money but you are only getting a little less than a half percent more in return.

However, the third coin increases the payout for the sevens markedly on the top two jackpots, although it does not add any new paying symbols. Robison found that the total hit frequency remained at 12.88 percent but the total payback now soared to 94.99 percent!

Let’s translate this into money. If you played a thousand spins at one dollar coin per spin ($1,000), you would lose $196.80 in the long run; if you played 1,000 spins at two coins ($2,000) you would lose $384.40; but if you played 1,000 spins at full coin ($3,000), you would lose only $153.30 in the long run. Obviously, buy-a-pays actually save you money when you play for more money, whereas equal distribution machines cost you money when you increase the amount you play.

By the way, if the slot club you belong to judges your comp value based on total money put through the machine, then playing full coin in a buy-a-pay gets you more comp value for less risk as well!

Giant linked progressives

On giant multi-casino linked progressive slot machines (such as Megabucks), the return on less-than-full coin is abysmal as these machines are keeping in the vicinity of 85 percent of all the money played. Play $1,000 one-coin-at-a-time through a giant-linked progressive and you can expect to lose $150 in the long run.

When you play full coin on giant progressives, the percent return increases because the mega-jackpot gets figured in. The only reason a slot player plays Megabucks or Quartermania (or any other progressive machine) is in the hopes that the lightning bolt of luck will hit and change his or her life forever. The multi-linked machines are notoriously stingy, and even those life-changing big hits are few and far between. Still, if you’re going to play progressives, you must play full coin or don’t play them at all.

All those new machines

On a recent trip to Las Vegas I saw many new and diverse machines—some of which took up to 250 coins! At first I started to make a list and was about to engage in the time-consuming task of analyzing all of them independently, when a light dawned on me. A slot machine is a slot machine no matter how differently designed, no matter how many pay lines, no matter how many coins it can eat, no matter what special effects it delivers. The purpose of the slot machine is to take your money and make you feel happy about it—or at least quiescent about it. Many of the newer slot machines have been designed to give “entertainment” value that will extend your time at them (without you realizing it), thereby increasing the casino’s hold on your money.

Suffice it to say that today’s savvy slot player has got to make many choices, and they should all be filtered through this philosophical prism: Are the machines I’m playing the best possible machines for achieving my goals? Are the methods and money management systems I employ the best ones to preserve my bankroll and give me the biggest and longest bang for my hard-earned bucks?

Sometimes playing full coin is the way to achieve your goals, and sometimes playing full coin is the worst way to achieve your goals. In slot playing, as in science and in life, everything is relative. If playing for as long as possible is your goal, and you’d prefer not to play max coin if you don’t absolutely have to, here’s a few suggestions to simplify your life. First, on equal distribution machines, stick to one coin at a time. Second, on buy-a-pay and linked super-jackpot progressives, play max coins if you must play at all. Finally, on machines that offer a big bonus on the last coin, take your pick. Without having enough information about the jackpot distribution, it’s impossible to make a definitive recommendation; but when in doubt, lean towards one coin.


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