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Slot machines are pretty simple. In a three-reel game, a random number generator (RNG) picks three random numbers, each of which corresponds to a stop on each reel, then machine spins the reels so that they stop on the spots selected by the RNG. The principle is the same for five-line video slots: five random numbers, one for each reel.

Note that by the time the reels are spinning, the game is already over. The RNG has already selected the stops, and the reels spin sort of as a courtesy to the player. Slot machines don't even need reels -- you could just put your money in and the machine could tell you whether you won or lost. The presence of the reels makes no difference in the game.

The reels are weighted so that some symbols are more likely to hit than others. For example, the slot may pick a random number from 1-127, which might correspond to the symbols as in this hypothetical example:

Selected Number

Symbol Picked


Blank (positions between reels)


Single Bar


Double Bar

... (etc.)

... (etc.)


Jackpot Symbol

Jackpot Symbol

Say the computer picks #53. That's a blank, and it instructs the reel to stop on a blank. If it picks #82, then it tells the reel to top on a double bar. Most of the numbers are for the lower-paying symbols, so that's what's more likely to get chosen.

This is not the actual table for any slot I know of, just an example of the concept. If there are 22 stops on the wheel (11 symbols and 11 blanks between the symbols), you don't have a 1 in 22 chance of hitting the jackpot symbol on a given reel. It's more like 1 in 64. Obviously, this is really deceptive. If casinos were honest, they'd have a disclaimer on each machine saying "Odds of hitting a jackpot symbol on any reel are 1 in 64," or something like that.

Here's another way to think about it: Let's say there are three items in a bag: a piece of coal, a piece of fruit, and a piece of gold. Your chances of picking the gold from one draw are one in three, assuming you can't feel any difference between them.

But that's not how a slot machine works. If our bag worked like a slot machine then there would be more like forty pieces of coal, twenty pieces of fruit, and only one piece of gold. Just because there are three kinds of items in the bag doesn't mean you have a 1 in 3 chance of picking the gold; you're much more likely to get coal or fruit. And of those two, you're much more likely to get coal.

By the way, each reel is typically weighted differently. That's why you're more likely to get jackpot symbols on the first and second reels (building the suspense) while failing to hit the symbol on the third reel.

The RNG is always working, even when you're not playing, picking thousands of 3-number combinations per second. The moment you press the button or pull the lever, the RNG picks its 3 numbers for your play. So if someone hits a jackpot on a machine you were just playing, relax, you wouldn't have gotten it had you kept playing, because you would have hit SPIN at a slightly different time than they did. Every millisecond you delay in hitting the SPIN button results in a different combination.

The odds of hitting the jackpot in one spin on a typical slot are about 262,144 to 1. That's a 1/64 chance of getting the jackpot symbol on the first reel, times a 1/64 chance of getting the jackpot symbol on the second reel, times a 1/64 chance of getting it on the third reel. The odds of hitting the jackpot are the same on every spin. It doesn't matter if the machine has been played for months or years without hitting the jackpot, the odds of hitting the jackpot on the next spin are always the same. No slot is ever "due" to hit a jackpot. The universe doesn't work like that.

If you don't believe me, try this experiment: Flip a coin until you've flipped three Heads in a row. At this point Tails should be "due", right? It's not. Flip again and write down the result. Repeat the whole process, flipping until you've had three Heads in a row, then flipping again and recording the result. Do this until you have 100 results. You'll see that you're no more likely to get Tails after three Heads than you are to get a fourth Head. Likewise, a machine that's been played for a year without hitting a jackpot is no more likely to hit the jackpot soon than one that just hit yesterday.

Who has the best slot paybacks

It's usually not easy to find out the payback on a particular machine, because casinos don't like to tell you. Exceptions, as noted earlier, include Fitzgeralds, Stratosphere, and Riviera in Vegas, all of which advertise a 98% payback on specific slots.

Non-Indian casinos are required to file reports on their slot returns to the government, and since this is public information, Casino Player magazine publishes the results every month. Unfortunately, this isn't ideal for a number of reasons. (1) While you can see the returns for individual casinos like Tropicana and Showboat in Atlantic City, the Nevada returns lump all the casinos in an area together. (2) The returns listed are actual returns for one month, and an unusual number of jackpots (or lack thereof) can skew the results. (3) Video poker machines are mixed in with the slots, so you can't see how much is from slots and how much is from video poker. (4) Most Native American casinos don't have to report their returns, so they don't.

What's most useful about the return tables is seeing what geographic regions have the best slot payouts. For example, Atlantic City, surprisingly, seems to have some of the worst slot returns in the whole country. Nevada has the best, and within Nevada, the best returns are usually in North Las Vegas and Reno, followed next by Downtown Vegas. Not surprisingly, the Vegas Strip has the worst returns in Nevada, but even so, they're still way better than most of the rest of the country

Irrelevant Stuff

The outcome is NOT affected by:

How long it's been since the last jackpot.
Pressing the button vs. pulling the lever, or vice-versa.
Whether your slot card is inserted.
The day of the week or time of day. (Casinos don't constantly change returns.)
Whether there's a convention in town.
Whether the coins are hot.
Anything else you could think of. The RNG selects the combination, and THAT'S IT!
One casino patron asserted to me that a bank of machines was all "on the same circuit" and that if you got some friends to play them all simultaneously, you'd win. This has got to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard. What does it even mean, that the machines are "on the same circuit"? The same electrical circuit? Big deal. If I put all the lamps in my house on the same circuit and turn them on simultaneously I'm not going to win money or summon the Tooth Fairy. The RNG selects the symbols, same as always.

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