A modern slot machine is simple to play. Players insert currency, decide on their bet amount, press spin, and hope for the best. There are many varieties of slot machines in casinos today, from machines with physical spinning reels (industry folks call them “steppers”) to slots that replicated spinning reels on a video screen, but they all play essentially the same way. Video poker is a special variant of video slot in which players can use some skill in holding the most advantageous cards. All other slot machines, whatever their branding, are games of pure chance.
The chance aspect of slot machines is what makes them so appealing to so many people. If you know how to put cash into a slot and push a button, you have just as good a shot at winning a jackpot as someone who’s been playing for twenty years. In the end, it all comes down to luck. And who doesn’t feel lucky, sometimes?
Slot machines appeal to casinos because they are, as long as enough people play them, stable money-makers. To explain why they are so reliable for casinos, I talked to Bob Ambrose, who broke into the industry at the Tropicana Atlantic City in the early 1980s and is today a gaming consultant and casino management instructor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. “It is all,” he says, “about the game math.”
When casinos look at how a slot machine is performing, the most basic number they look at is the drop. That is the money deposited by the player in the machines. Another number you might hear is handle, which Ambrose defines as the total amount bet by a player. How can a player bet more money than she puts in? Well, if she puts in $100, wins a $50 jackpot, and keeps on playing until all her money is gone (including that $50 “win”), she has generated a drop of $100 and handle of $150.
What’s left after the machine pays out its jackpots is the casino win, also known as revenue.
So how do slot machines decide who wins and who loses? “Payouts on slots are statistically calculated,” says Ambrose. Pressing spin activates the random number generator, which is an algorithm that determines whether each spin is a win or a loss, and how big a win is. Each game, Ambrose says, has a set hold percentage and a pay table that details how often and how much games will pay back.