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Best of Alan Krigman
Use the Payout Tables when Choosing Slot Machines11 January 1999
A big trouble with slot machines is there's no way to know when one of the little bandits is about to unleash that elusive avalanche of cash. Even the devils who make the devices and the casinos who operate and maintain them can't ascertain this.
Still, which slot you decide to play is by no means irrelevant. Data staring you in the face can help inform your choice.
The denomination of the machine is vital. But assume you've resolved this issue and your bankroll is adequate to bet the requisite amounts without going broke during a normal downswing.
The other information accessible to you is the list of returns on the front of each machine. This gives the payouts for various winning combinations of symbols. Values for hypothetical machines A, B, and C are shown below. Casinos have figures for both odds and return. Solid citizens know only the returns.
With the odds and returns presented, "house advantage" or "edge" is the same (10 percent) and overall "hit rates" are equal (31.72 percent) on all three machines. You can't determine these figures for actual slots because you don't know the chances at each payout level. However, machines at any denomination in a particular casino typically fall within narrow ranges, so you can assume that edges and hit rates are roughly comparable.
Here's how to use the returns listed on the front of the machine to help decide where to try your luck.
Most obvious is to check whether the top payout will satisfy you. Say you come to a casino envisioning a paid-off old mortgage or a free-and-clear new Jeep Cherokee. Don't play a machine unless the giant jackpot will finance your fantasy and the next few lower levels will at least get you to cash out and take a breather.
The second criterion involves volatility. Casinos earn their money on the basis of long-term averages. Individual players go above and below the average owing to short-term fluctuations. But volatility works both ways. Large swings can yield high profits as well as significant losses. Conversely, small fluctuations limit losses while curtailing potential gains.
For the machines hypothesized, fluctuations are lowest in A and highest in C. Statistics derived from the odds and returns indicate that after 100 plays on each machine, chances of being ahead are 46 percent on A, 47 percent on B, and 48 percent on C. The downside is that these are also the probabilities of being more than $20 behind. The differences escalate with extended play. After 10,000 tries, the chances of being ahead are 19 percent on A, 25 percent on B, and 30 percent on C. Conversely, these are also the chances of being over $2,000 in the hole.
You can't really be sure whether a slot machine will subject you to large or small fluctuations from the list of returns alone. However, lacking other information, you can assume that higher jackpots and larger gaps between payout levels will increase the volatility you'll experience during a session.
So, here's the bottom line with respect to payoff tables. If you want to minimize your chances of a loss and will be happy to quit with a modest profit, look for nominal jackpots and relatively small gaps between returns at various levels. If you're dreaming of a win that will change your lifestyle, and are willing to spend your day's gambling budget -- pumping back those intermediate payouts -- trying for it, look for big jackpots and large gaps between returns at each level.
The muse of the machines, Sumner A Ingmark, said it like this:
Information that's available,
Makes the slots less unassailable.
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