Learning Slot Machines: The 5-Step Tutorial You Didn't Know You Needed

10 Best Video Poker Games and How to Play Them

All slot machines are gambling machines, but not all gambling machines are slot machines.

That's the first thing you need to understand if you're learning about slot machines. This tutorial covers some of the differences between slots and other gambling machines like video poker. It also explains the differences between the various types of slots games.

Like any other gambling activity, playing slot machines is more fun if you understand what's going on with the game and what you're doing when you're playing.

After reading this post, you should have a good understanding of all these factors.


How Slot Machines Work

A slot machine is a gambling game with 3 or more spinning reels. These reels have symbols on them. When the symbols line up, you get winnings.

100 years ago, the first slot machines were simple affairs that operated using springs and mechanical parts. The reels were large metal strips that were housed inside the machinery. Slots stayed this way for decades.

But we live in a modern world. Technology has advanced to the point where slot machines are now mostly computerized, even if they LOOK like mechanical games.

In fact, most of the slot machine games you'll find in any casino are video games. The "reels" are nothing more than animation on a computer monitor.

The odds of winning are determined by a computer program called a random number generator.

The probability of winning was easily calculated when slots were still mechanical. Each symbol had an equal chance of appearing on each reel. If you knew how many symbols were on the reel, you could assume that the probability of that symbol coming up was 1 divided by the total number of symbols.

Here's an example:

A slot machine game has 10 symbols, and one of them is a cherry symbol. The probability of getting a cherry on the first reel is 1/10. There are 10 total possibilities, each of which has an equal chance of being the outcome.

But only one of those outcomes is the one we're solving for.

To calculate the probability of getting 3 cherries in a row, you multiply the probability for each reel. The equation looks like this: 1/10 X 1/10 X 1/10 = 1/1000.

The probability of getting 3 cherries in a row is 1 in 1000.

This might sound like long odds, but when you consider that most slot machine players are spinning the reels at least 500 times per hour, you're going to see this winning combination show up at least once every couple of hours.

And that's not the only winning combination. The other combinations also have a 1/1000 chance of showing up.

On the new electronic computer-driven slot machines, the reels are virtual, but the principles are about the same. What's changed is the number of possible symbols on each reel.

You see, with mechanical metal reels, the reels can only be so big and accommodate so many symbols. You're really going to max out at about 20 symbols per reel on a mechanical slot machines. (And such a slot machine would be big.)

A computer-driven slot machine could easily have 30, 40, or 100 different symbols on each reel. That's unlikely, because the games need to look familiar to the player and maintain a consistent theme.

But it changes the possibilities of larger jackpots.

The other big difference is that a computer can set different probabilities for each symbol to come up. Instead of all the symbols having a 1/10 or 1/20 chance of appearing, some symbols might be programmed to turn up 1/5 of the time, 1/50 of the time, or 1/150 of the time-or any other probability the programmers want to design into the game's parameters.

A modern slot machine game's parameters are determined by something called a PAR sheet, which is just an outline of the game's exact mathematical specifications.

The casino gets its edge at a slot machine game by paying out jackpots for winning combinations that are smaller than the probability of winning them.

Here's an example:

You might have a 1/100 chance of getting 3 bar symbols on a slot machine, but that combination might only pay out 2 coins for the one coin you inserted.

Clearly, over 100 spins, the house has a big advantage over the player based on that low payout.

The house has different payouts for different symbols, but when you add all the probabilities up and compare them with the payouts, the house maintains that mathematical edge.

Which brings me to another topic-the payback percentage. This is the percentage of each bet the casino expects you to win back ON AVERAGE. This number is always less than 100%.

In fact, the difference between the 100% and the payback percentage is the house edge. If a given slot has a 95% payback percentage, then the game also has a house edge of 5%.

One of the issues related to payback percentages and slot machines is that of transparency-or lack of it. When you play a video poker game, craps, roulette, or blackjack, you have all the information you need to calculate the house edge.

But without access to the PAR sheet, you have no way of knowing what the payback percentage or house edge is for a slot machine. In fact, two games can be identical on the surface and have completely different numbers "under the hood".

That Wheel of Fortune slot machine you're sitting at might have a payback percentage of 88%, while the identical machine next to it might have a payback percentage of 94%. You have no way to distinguish between the two.


Classic Slots versus Video Slots

Classic slots have 3 reels and usually few bells and whistles. Video slots, on the other hand, usually have 5 reels and lots of bells and whistles.

What are some examples of bells and whistles?

Wild symbols are an example. If you've ever played cards, you're probably familiar with the concept. A wild symbol, like a wild card, substitutes for whatever symbol you need to complete a winning combination.

Scatter symbols are another example. To understand scatter symbols, you probably need a better understanding of what a pay line is. When you're playing slots, several lines of symbols are available. The one in the middle is the traditional payline, but you could also have paylines above and below that, or zig zag paylines.

In fact, on video slot machines, it's customary to have all kinds of pay lines of different shapes. Think of a slot machine game resembling a bingo game used for different kinds of games, and you'll have a sense of it.

But with a scatter symbol, you don't need it to be on any given payline for it to pay off. If it appears on the screen, and if enough of the scatter symbols appear, you get your payoff. Usually on a 5 reel game, you need 3 scatters to get a win.

Bonus games are another example of the bells and whistles of which we speak. These are triggered by certain combinations of symbols in the game. These bonus games can be as simple as allowing you to double your money if you guess the color of the next card. They can be as complicated as a skill-based video game where you're the pilot of a starship shooting at aliens.

The most famous version of a bonus game is spinning the wheel on a Wheel of Fortune slot machine.

What do all these special features have in common?

They all cost the casino money.

Guess who pays for them, though?

You do-in the form of a lower payback percentage.

To be able to afford these extra features, the game must pay less on the various bets. Think of these extra features as additional possibilities for winning money. It's like having extra symbols on each reel, only in a much different form.

The result is that your overall payback percentage on these games is lower than they would be on a simple game with 3 reels and a single payline.

You're trading a certain amount of entertainment value for money with every slot machine game you play. The average cost for this entertainment is easily calculated. You multiply the number of spins per hour by how much you're betting on each spin. You then multiply that by the payback percentage to see how much money you'll get back. The difference is your average hourly loss.

Here's an example:

You've found a 3 reel slot machine game with a single payline and a 96% payback percentage. It costs $1 to spin the reels, and you're an average player who spins the reels 600 times per hour. That's $600/hour in action, of which you'll get an average of $576 back in winnings. The difference is $24, which is your cost per hour for that entertainment.

You're bored, though, so you decide to try the Wheel of Fortune game on the other side of the aisle. It's only a quarter machine, but it has 5 paylines instead of just one. So you're wagering a total of $1.25 per spin.

And this game has a 90% payback percentage.

Now you're wagering $750 per hour (600 spins times $1.25 per spin). You're going to win back $675 per spin, so your average hourly loss is $75 instead of $24.

But you get to spin the wheel occasionally, which adds to the fun and excitement of the game.

Of course, you don't have any real way of knowing what the payback percentage of each game is. In fact, my assertion that one pays back more than the other is a generalization.

Payback percentages vary from game to game and from casino to casino.


Progressive Jackpots versus Flat Top Machines

Another difference in games is the type of top jackpot it offers. A "flat top" machine has a fixed jackpot amount for the top prize. For example, if the most you can win on a spin is 2000 coins, you're playing a flat top machine.

A progressive jackpot, on the other hand, has a jackpot ticker. As you make bets, the jackpot goes up a tiny amount. Most of these games are networked with other progressive slot machines, either in the same casino or in multiple casinos. In these networked games, every wager from every player in the network increases the overall jackpot.

This progressive jackpot is "fueled" by a tiny percentage of each wager made by each player. In some games, hundreds or even thousands of players are playing a game within the network. These jackpots can easily grow into the millions of dollars.

Once you start getting into jackpots of that size, you're playing a game with a top prize that has the possibility of changing your lifestyle dramatically. It would be like winning the lottery. In fact, you even have the option of taking an annuity or a cash payment, just like you do when you win the lottery.

But this can also be considered one of those bells and whistles. Since a tiny percentage of each of your bets is fueling that jackpot, the payback percentage is correspondingly lower.

If you're looking to reduce the house edge as low as possible when playing slots, stick with the flat top machines with 3 reels and a single pay line.

But here's my opinion:

Trying to get the best odds on a slot machine game is a fool's errand, because you never really have any way of knowing what the payback percentage is for any game. You might make all the right decisions and still wind up playing a low entertainment value game with a lower payback percentage than a high entertainment value game.

My advice?

Play whatever game seems like the most fun. Keep how much it's costing you in mind, but don't try to be the smartest slot machine player in the world.

Here's why:

The smartest slot machine player in the world has an almost 100% chance of going broke if he plays long enough. The dumbest slot machine player in the world does too. The only difference is how long it takes.

YYour temperament matters, too. You might enjoy fantasizing about what you would do if you had a $10 million jackpot at your exposure. That fantasy might be worth a higher expected loss per hour.


Online Slots versus Brick and Mortar Games

Online slot machines, by their nature, are always video slots. But some of them look and feel exactly like traditional 3 reel games. The same general advice holds true with online games. The more basic the game, the more likely it is to offer a better payback percentage.

One of the advantages to playing slots online is the flipside of one of the disadvantages. When you're at an online casino, you'll usually play games you're unfamiliar with. These games often have original themes and icons in use.

This is a perk because it adds variety. You might even find that you prefer some of these online games to what you might find in a casino on the Strip in Las Vegas.

On the other hand, people love familiarity and comfort. The main reason Wheel of Fortune slots is so popular is because most of the players associate the TV show with hanging out at their grandmother's house. (That's a fact-IGT, the manufacturer of Wheel of Fortune slots, did a survey.)

Online casinos also have fewer expenses and lower overhead than traditional brick and mortar casinos. This results in online casinos usually offering payback percentages considerably higher than their brick and mortar cousins. Some of the most competitive casinos on the Strip in Vegas might offer comparable payouts, but you can almost be certain that you'll get a better payback percentage on a slot machine at Bovada than you will at the airport in Reno.

Playing slot machines at online casinos carries with it additional perks and concerns. One fun thing about online casinos is the bonus money these properties are so eager to give new players. Most of the time, when you deposit money at an Internet casino, the company rewards you by putting additional funds in your account.

These casino bonuses usually take the form of a certain percentage of your deposit that gets matched. 100% up to a certain dollar amount is a typical form for this offer to take. For example, you might play at a casino that offers a 100% matching bonus on your first $5000 deposit.

You deposit $5000. You get $5000 in bonus money. Your bankroll is $10,000.

At most casinos online, these funds must be wagered a certain number of times before you're allowed to cash out. The reasons for this are probably obvious. You wouldn't want to run a business where a player puts $5000 into an account, gets $5000 in bonus money, makes a single spin on a $5 slot machine, then cashes out $9995. You'd go out of business fast if you did.

Most casinos require you to wager your bonus plus deposit at least 15 times before withdrawing. Since you'll be winning some of the time, this money might last a while, but your mathematical expectation is to lose money. No casino in its right mind is going to set things up so that you can mathematically expect to win.

Of course, you also have to deal with figuring out how to get money to and from the casino. In many countries, this is as easy as using a PayPal or other online wallet account. In the United States, where online casino gambling is of questionable legality, it's not as simple as this. You might even run into problems trying to use a credit card to make a deposit.

My best advice for the new slots player on the Internet is to talk about your deposit with the casino customer service department beforehand. They're eager to have you as a player. They'll do their best to make sure you get your deposit made.

You also run into issues of trustworthiness and reliability when you're dealing with online casinos. Most Internet casinos run fair games. (Although some might question how "fair" any slot machine is.)

But players sometimes run into problems getting their winnings withdrawn when they decide to cash out.

MMy best advice regarding this is to stick with casinos which have been vetted thoroughly by some source. This site is an example of a place that recommends casinos based on how well they treat their customers. You should have no problems with any of the sites recommended here.


Slot Machines versus Video Poker Games

Finally, I always like to suggest to gamblers that if they like slot machines, try video poker games, too. Video poker games offer certain advantages over slot machine games. For one thing, the payback percentages on their games are generally much higher.

Most video poker games have at least a 94% payback percentage. Many have even higher payback percentages, over 99% in some cases.

But slot machines top out at about 95%.

The brilliant thing about video poker games is the transparency, though. Since video poker uses a deck of cards and its associated probabilities, you can calculate the probability of winding up with a certain combination. If you know that, you can calculate the payback percentage for the machine.

With any gambling activity, you can calculate the house edge by comparing the odds of winning with the odds that pay out. The house always gets its edge by offering payout odds that are lower than the odds of winning.

But with a slot machine, you have no way of knowing if a given combination might have odds of 50 to 1, 25 to 1, or 250 to 1.

With a video poker machine, you do have the odds.

And you don't have to do the math yourself. Any legitimate video poker site will provide you with the payback percentage for a given pay table and game. This payback percentage assumes that you're making the mathematically optimal decisions on every hand, though.

Which brings me to the other big reason for playing video poker-it's a game where you have a certain amount of influence over your own destiny. When you play a slot machine, you choose a game, put your money into it, then spin the reels and wait to see if you won.

When you play video poker, you're dealt a 5 card poker hand. You then get to choose which cards to keep and which cards to throw away. This decision affects your overall mathematical average.

If you make the right decisions every time, you achieve the highest possible payback percentage. The worse you play, the lower your payback percentage becomes.

But even if you play video poker badly, you still have better odds than you would if you were playing slots.

Not everyone enjoys making decisions that affect their outcome. For those people, a mindless game like slots is fine.

But if you like to think about what you're doing, you might find that video poker is a great option.

Let me give you an example of what it costs to play video poker compared to slot machines. Remember how we looked at a couple of examples earlier, where you were expecting to lose between $20 and $75 per hand on relatively low stakes games?

Compare those numbers with these numbers:

The payback percentage for a Jacks or Better video poker game with the best possible pay table is 99.54%. If you find such a game where you can play for $1.25 per hand, you're looking at placing $750 into action per hour.

You expect to get $746.55 back in winnings per hour. Your expected hourly cost to play is only $3.45.

TThat's a dramatically lower number when you compare it to the $20 or so you're expecting to lose on that slot machine game.


Slot machines are gambling machines with spinning reels with symbols on them. When those symbols line up, you win money. Classic slot machines only have 3 reels, but most players opt for the newer video slot machine games. These usually have at least 5 reels. They also offer gameplay features not available on a classic 3-reel slot machine.

Another way to categorize slots is based on the size of the jackpot. Progressive jackpots are huge and grow constantly as they're played. Flat top slots have a single jackpot of a single size. The flat top games offer smaller top prizes, but the overall payout percentage for these games is better.

Online slot machines are, by default, video slot machines, but many of them are programmed to emulate a classic 3-reel mechanical slot machine game. Many online casinos offer slot machines with higher payback percentages than you'll find in land-based casinos. But they often don't feature the most famous titles that you're most familiar with.

Every time I write about slot machines, I explain the difference between slots and video poker. I recommend to everyone who's thinking about playing slots that they give video poker at least a try. The payback percentage is so much better that it's almost-but not quite-foolish to ever opt for the slot machine game over the video poker machine.