How to Play Slot Machines

by Charles Bogart

This article covers the basics of how to play slot machines.


Slot machines are the most popular casino game. Since their invention in 1894 by a San Francisco inventor who had tried many coin-operated devices and failed, the concept of a dealer-free casino game which required no skill to win has fascinated the public. Modern slot machines are practically impossible to cheat against, offer players a multitude of gaming experiences, and unlike games which require dealers these machines require little overhead to operate and can entertain players 24 hours a day.

The Basics of Playing Slot Machines

The basic mechanics of slot machine gaming haven't changed. Electronic or analog display, all machines share a few features. Generally, three reels present numbers or symbols (usually 20 numbers of symbols per reel) which must be lined up in different combinations to win.

The "lining up" takes place after a player inserts a certain amount of money and initiates the spinning of the reels. Depending on how much money the player inserted before the spin, and also depending on what combination of numbers or symbols are displayed, a certain amount of money is then won or lost.

How to Play Slot Machines - Play SlotsThe classic slot machine design works on a set of gears, toggles, and levers. The main feature of the machine is a metal shaft which supports the machine's reels. This shaft is connected to a lever or "arm" that starts the machine's process.

A braking system stops the spinning reels and sensors notify the positions of the reels to the machine's payout program. In an electrical machine, these reels are spun by motors and other mechanical means. The game basically still plays out as it would with an analog machine. Electrical machines a have more sophisticated money-handling system, like the one in any standard vending machine, and these modern machines also feature flashing light and sound effects.

The slot machine will display a payout table, letting the player know beforehand what combinations of symbols will pay based on a specific amount of money inserted. Traditional analog machines usually feature an "arm" on the side of the machine which the player pulls down to start the reels spinning. Some digital machines have kept this "arm" feature out of a sense of nostalgia - people who play slots want to see, feel, and hear that slot machine arm going up and down. But modern machines are beginning to move towards a fully push-button interface.

Slot Machine Payouts

How to Play Slots - Play Slot GamesThe payback percentage on slots ranges anywhere from 80% to as high as 98%, depending on minimum bet size and the amount of local competition. Generally, out of all bricks-and-mortar casinos, the loosest slots can be found in Las Vegas, naturally because there is the most slot competition in Sin City. The national average slot machine payout percentage is estimated by most experts at around 90%. Another way of looking at that number is to say that the casino has a 10% advantage on every bet.

Online casinos do not have to pay for expensive real estate and staff, therefore they can afford more liberal payouts on their slot games. Just be sure, when playing a slot online, that you know the site is verified and legitimate. Online slots should be backed up by a random number generator and should list an auditor that checks the randomness of said generator.

Once you realize that payout percentages are calculated over the long term, it is easy to understand slot machine "jargon". If a slot machine advertises 95% payout, that means it is programmed to pay back 95%. This machine will pay out $950,000 out of every million dollars it takes in - but these payouts will come in fluctuating and wild random amounts.

A few players will collect huge jackpots, while others players might just barely squeak out a profit. Most players will lose money over time.

How to Play Slot Machines - Know The Rules

The rule of thumb on slot machines is to know the rules. Read the machine's pay table and all the instructions posted on the slot machines. If you don't understand a rule or have a question, feel free to ask an attendant or contact the casino's customer service center. It is the player's responsibility to know the rules about the number of coins to insert at the beginning of the game or how many lines need to be activated in order to collect prizes. It has happened before, and will happen again: should a player line up the jackpot symbols without meeting the game's requirements, you will not have won.

How to Identify a Slot Machine by Color

Play Slot GamesThe lights on the top of the slot machines are called candles in the casino industry. The light on the bottom of the "candle" is colored and that color is a standard indication of how much money can be bet: a red light indicates a nickel machine, yellow for a quarter machine, and blue for dollar machines or higher.

Playing Progressive Slot Machines vs. Straight Slot Machines

There are two types of slot machines in casinos today, and these are known as progressive and straight machines.

Progressive machines are more sophisticated machines which pay a jackpot that grows by a specific percentage each time the player feeds money into the machine. Commonly, a number of these machines in any one casino feed into a joint jackpot which any of the machines in the group can payout - this fact makes that jackpot vastly bigger than any other slot jackpot. These progressive machines can be connected across state lines or within the boundaries of a specific casino floor.

The common slot machine operates with 3 reels of symbols but some do feature 4 or 5 reels of play. In slot machine play the odds of winning are determined by the number of reels and the number of symbols present on each reel. The more reels and symbols there are, the less likely you are to win - however, the prize is considerably bigger for these machines.

Most slot machines are programmed to pay out between 83% and 98% of the cash they have stored in them from previous play. Most slot machines have a single pay line, while others have up to 3 pay lines which require a coin to be inserted in each line in order to win, which is of course proportionate to the number of coins needed to operate it. In other words, bigger investments pay off in bigger amounts.

When winning small jackpots the prize money is delivered by the machine. However, when dealing with a large jackpot win, the prize money is paid out by the casino itself. You know you hit it big when the casino employees start walking your way.

Play the progressive machines only with the maximum number of coins that you can play. You won't collect the valuable jackpots and take full advantage of the machine you're playing if you don't play the required number of coins. When selecting a progressive machine, you should be sure to look around for the better jackpot value.

One bank of 25-cent slots in one area might boast of a progressive jackpot of $2,654 while not too far away from you, perhaps in a less desirable "area" of the casino, the top prize is well over three grand. Always look for the best opportunity when picking progressives.

How to Play Slot Machines - Minimum or Maximum Bet?

The answer to the question "Should I play all max bets?" has more to do with the machine's progressive or straight status than any other factor. In general, if a machine is not clearly labeled as a "progressive machine", the smart play is to bet the minimum. Why bet a larger amount if the payoff is not fully dependant on the size of your bet? Save the money you would spend on betting the maximum to make more small bets, with the goal of hitting a small jackpot along the way.

How to Play Slot Machines and Get Free Stuff - Comps

There is another way to make a profit off of slot play - any land-based casinos worth its salt will give away millions and millions of dollars in so-called "comps": free meals, free rooms, show tickets, invitations to slot tournaments, gifts, cash, or anything given to a player as "compensation" for that player's business. You deserve your share of the casino's comp program for the time and money's you've invest on their slot machines. How much of a comp you get (and how often you get them!) is generally based on the number of coins you cycle through the machines.

The key is to join any and all slot club or comp club the casino offers - not doing so is like throwing money right in the toilet. Make sure you know the casino's comp system well, as not all comp programs are alike. As with any benefit, you should compare programs at different casinos to find out what their requirements are versus their gifts and choose the one program that offers you the best deal for your level of play. You should certainly treat comps and programs and clubs as a kind of profit offered by slot play, but don't fall into the old casino trap - don't play slots just to win comps. Always play to win that jackpot.

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This page offers information about how to play slots and how to play slot games. I welcome thoughtful feedback about the content here, so if you think I've left something out, feel free to contact me with more information about how to play slot machines.