I always thought it would be interesting to look at when to bet big on a game that’s as close to the opposite of blackjack as I could think of. When should you bet big on slot machines?
Quite frankly, I have several opinions and lines of thinking related to how much you should risk when playing slot machines. And the conclusions I’ve come to are about as different as the conclusions I came to when discussing blackjack as you could ever imagine.
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You Should NEVER Bet Big on Slot Machines
Compared to other casino games, real money slots have the ability drain your bankroll fast. Not only do slot machine games have the highest house edge in the casino, but they also practically force you to put more money into action per hour than any other game.
Betting big on slot machines basically guarantees that you’ll lose a lot of money.
The average slot machine in a competitive casino destination probably has a house edge of around 7%. It could be higher than that depending on the machine. You’re not able to determine how big the house edge, is though.
That’s because the payback percentage is based on the probability of winning multiplied by the amount you stand to win. You do this for all the possible combinations, and you have the payback percentage for the game. Subtract that from 100%, and you have the house edge for the game.
How the Payback Percentage for Slot Machines Works
Let’s look at a simplified slot machine game, slots probabilities, and how the payback percentage for the game is calculated. Let’s suppose the pay table looks like this:
- Three fruit symbols result in a 200 for 1 payout.
- Any two fruit symbols plus any other one symbol results in a 25 for 1 payout.
- Any one fruit symbol plus any other two symbols results in a 5 for 1 payout.
- Any combination without a fruit symbol but with a bar symbol results in a 1 for 1 payout.
Now, let’s say that there are 2,500 possible combinations, and you can achieve the following combinations in the following number of ways:
- You have eight ways to get three fruit symbols.
- You have 16 ways to get two fruit symbols plus any other symbol.
- You have 32 ways to get any one fruit symbol plus any other two symbols.
- You have 128 ways to get a bar without any fruit symbols.
- Every other possible combination results in no payout.
What are the probabilities of achieving each result?
You determine that by dividing the number of ways of getting that result by the total number of possible results:
- Getting three fruit symbols is a probability of 8/2500, or 0.0032.
- Getting two fruit symbols plus any other symbol is a probability of 16/2500, or 0.0064.
- Getting one fruit symbol plus any other two symbols is a probability of 32/2500, or 0.0128.
- And the probability of getting a bar with no fruit symbols is 128/2500, or 0.0512.
To get the expected value for each combination, you just multiply the probability by the payout:
- Three fruit symbols is worth 0.0032 X 200, or 0.64.
- Two fruit symbols play any other symbol is worth 0.0064 X 25, or 0.16.
- Getting one fruit symbol plus any other two symbols is worth 0.0128 X 5, or 0.064.
- Getting a bar with no fruit symbols is worth 0.0512 X 1, or 0.0512.
Add all those together, and you get an overall expected return of 0.9152, or 91.52%.
This means the hypothetical slot machine I described has a house edge of 100%, 91.52%, or 8.48%.
But What Does the Casino House Edge Really Mean?
The casino house edge is a statistical prediction of how much you’re going to lose on the action that you place. For example, if you bet $100 on a game with a house edge of 8.48%, you’re expected to lose an average of $8.48.
But this is a statistical average. As you can see in the example above, you can’t lose $8.48 on a $100 bet on this machine. You can lose $100. Or you can win an amount of between $100 and $20,000.
It’s a long-term expected average per bet, what you can expect after thousands of repetitions. This is what the Law of Large Numbers is all about. In the short term, with anything that’s random, you never know what’s going to happen. You might win a lot or lose a lot. On a single spin, you’re looking at the ultimate example of the short term.
But the closer you get to an infinite number of repetitions, the closer your average results will get to the statistical expectation.
At 10 slot machine spins, you’ll almost certainly get closer to that 8.48% expected loss rate. At 100 slot machine spins, the probability of getting close to the statistical expectation goes up even more. And so on at 1,000 spins and 10,000 spins.
How Long Does It Take to Get Into the Long Run With a Slot Machine?
The average slot machine player makes 500 spins per hour. That’s the same thing as 500 bets. Contrast this with the average number of bets per hour at various casino games:
- Blackjack might result in 60 bets per hour depending on the number of players at the table.
- Craps might result in 100 rolls per hour, but depending on your betting strategy, you might not be placing a new bet on every roll. If you base it on decisions per hour, you might be looking at just 30 bets per hour.
- Roulette might result in 60 spins per hour, and if you’re only placing one bet per spin, you’re only looking at 60 bets per hour.
If you notice, the number of bets per hour at a slot machine is greater than the number of bets per hour on any table game by a huge margin. The fastest of these table games is craps, but you’d need to be placing a new bet on every roll of the dice just to make 1/5 of the number of bets you’d make on a slot machine.
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What Does This Mean to the Amount of Money You’re Expected to Lose on Slot Machines?
The casinos calculate a game’s predicted win for the casino by multiplying the average hourly action by the game’s house edge. The hourly action is just the product of the average bet size multiplied by the average number of bets you make per hour.
But suppose you’re betting $3 per spin on a slot machine. That means you’re putting $1500 into action per hour. And if you assume a 6% house edge, you’re looking at a predicted $90 per hour loss rate.
That’s a huge difference.
What Happens to Your Average Hourly Loss Rate on Slot Machines When You Start Making “Big” Bets?
Okay, so suppose you decide to cash out your 401k and play the high roller slots at your local casino. Let’s say these games have a max bet of $100. How much money are you expected to lose for an hour of this kind of action?
$100 X 500 spins is $50,000 in action.
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With a 6% house edge, your expected loss in an hour of play at this rate is $3000. That’s a lot of money to lose on just an hour of entertainment. Sure, you could get lucky and have a big winning session. But the longer you play, the more likely you are to lose, and the more money you stand to lose during that losing session.
It’s Okay to “Take a Shot”
One of my professional poker mentors explained to me that it’s okay to occasionally ignore strict bankroll management requirements in poker if you want to “take a shot.” The idea is that you’re willing to risk a relatively large amount of money on a big gamble.
This doesn’t mean buying into the World Series of Poker every week for $10,000, if that were even possible. It does mean that it’s okay to save $1,000 a month for a year to be able to take a shot at the final table next year.
It’s okay to place a single big bet on a slot machine on the outside chance you might get a win.
Most people, though, treat slot machines like Lay’s potato chips. They can’t eat just one potato chip, and they can’t just make one slot machine spin.
When should you bet big on a slot machine game? The short answer is, almost never. The house edge is too high, and the number of bets you’ll make per hour multiply that amount exponentially. And the more bets you make, the likelier you are to see the statistically expected results.
If you want to bet big on a slot machine, limit yourself to a single big bet. If you’re really aggressive, set some arbitrary number of spins as your target.
I once played a game for $100 per spin for just 10 spins. I won $6,000 that session, so it went okay.
Had I stayed at the machine for a couple of hours, though, I would have almost certainly have given all that back to the casino and then some.
I recently read an article where someone asked for advice on changing your bet size while playing slots. The idea was, when you get ahead, you raise your bets to try to hit a bigger win.
Over the years, I’ve also seen questions about betting more when you’re losing to try to make up for past losses when you hit a win.
These look like two different questions, but they’re actually the same question. And the answer should be the same to both questions.
In the article I just read, the answer was decent, but it didn’t cover the real reasons in enough depth. Anyone asking either of these questions doesn’t understand how slot machines work. They also don’t really understand how expected value and long term expectation works.
Slots and Expected Value
Every slot machine in existence, whether located in a casino or online, has a built in house edge. The house edge is how the casinos make money, and it’s impossible to legally overcome the house edge on a slot machine in total. What I mean by “in total” is that slot machines make money collectively.
A few players win more than they lose in the short term, and a few lucky players win a big enough progressive jackpot to come out ahead. But overall, the slot machine industry is wildly profitable.
Expected value is a term often used in gambling that is a way to express the value of a betting decision. It’s used most often in poker to determine the best way to play a hand in a certain situation. You can also use it in games like blackjack to determine the best way to play a hand.
In games like poker and blackjack, you can make strategy decisions based on expected value. Bets on slot machines also have an expected value, but they’re all negative. A negative expected value means that, on average, you’re going to lose money.
Here’s an example of expected value on a slot machine.
If a slot machine has a house edge of 5% and you bet $1 on every spin, the expected value is -.05 per spin. On an individual spin, you might lose your entire $1 or win something, but the expected value is the amount you expect to lose on average over thousands of spins.
Expanding this example, if you make 500 bets in an hour, you’re expected value is -$25. In other words, you can expect to lose $25 an hour playing this slot machine. Once again, this is an average, so in any single hour, you can lose more or win.
The house edge is the same whether you bet $1 or $100 per spin. It’s also the same if you lost the last three spins or won the last three spins. The house edge doesn’t change, so changing your bet sizes doesn’t help you win more often.
Slots Long Term Expectation
This is going to sound similar to what you learned in the last section because it’s closely related. The mistake many slots players make, like the ones asking the two questions in the opening section, is thinking past results in some way change future results.
But, if nothing you can do changes the house edge, how can you believe that you should raise your bets after a losing streak or after a winning streak?
The belief is that because the long term results must come very close to equaling the expected results that there must be a correction one way or another after a winning or losing streak. But the problem with this is that the house edge and expectation are based on a large number of outcomes.
Instead of it being based on 10 or 100 spins like many players act, it’s based on hundreds of thousands or millions of spins. Even if you win 10 spins in a row, it doesn’t change the odds of what’s going to happen on the next spin because the machines are based on such a large number of spins.
I’m trying to show you why without getting into complicated mathematical principles, but you can run the math on the effect of short streaks in large pools of results to prove what I’m saying is true.
The belief many players have about short term streaks is made worse when they guess correctly about the next result after a streak. This reinforces what they want to believe, even though the math shows it isn’t true.
If you win 10 spins in a row, what do you think is most likely to happen on the next spin? Some players say a loss, because the machine is due for a loss. Other players say a win, because the machine is hot. How can both opinions be true?
The fact is that neither opinion is true based on why they think they’re correct. The true chance of a win or loss is 100% based on how often the machine is programmed to produce a winning spin.
Is It Ever Correct to Alter Your Slots’ Bet Size?
When I play slots, I operate in what I call the “jackpot or bust” mode. I set aside a bankroll to chase a jackpot and keep playing until I either hit a jackpot or run out of money. Most of the time, I run out of money, but every once in a while, I get lucky and hit a small jackpot.
I know that, in the long run, I’m going to lose unless I hit a big slots jackpot. I’m okay with this, just like I’m okay with buying a lottery ticket chasing a big prize. The odds of winning are low, but I’m willing to risk a set amount for the chase.
I always bet the minimum amount on my chosen slot machine that allows me to qualify for a jackpot. I tend to look for machines that have a low bet threshold to unlock the jackpot, because I want to take as many spins as possible.
If you buy a lottery ticket, do you ever spend more money than the ticket costs? Do you give the store clerk $5 for a $3 ticket and not expect to get your $2 in change?
This is how I feel about betting more than I need to while playing slots. This is why I never bet more than the minimum to qualify for a jackpot while playing slots.
The question of changing your bet size while playing slots has two answers. The first answer is if you’re betting more than the minimum, then you should bet less. The second answer is that it doesn’t matter if you change the size of your bet for any other reason. As long as you understand that the more you bet the more you lose, you can do whatever you want. It’s your money, and you can play any way you like.
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You’re welcome to change the size of your bet while playing slots any time you like. It doesn’t matter if you’re winning or losing, changing the size of your bet isn’t going to alter your chances to win. The only thing that matters is the house edge you’re working against and the average bet size of your wagers.
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When you bet more after a win, you’re just going to lose more in the long run. When you bet more when you lose, you’re just going to lose more in the long run. The only way to lose less money playing slots in the long run is to bet less.
The best way to lose less playing slots is to stop playing. But that’s not much fun, and you’re never going to hit a jackpot if you don’t play. I don’t recommend that you stop playing. But use smart money management so your bankroll lasts as long as possible and you have the best chance to hit a jackpot before you run out of money.
The only way you can possibly come out ahead in the long run playing slots is to win a jackpot big enough to cover all of your previous losses. This doesn’t happen often. The best chance to do this is to make the minimum bet that unlocks the chance at the jackpot and hope for the best. Changing your bet size isn’t going to help in the long run.