Ask The Wizard #6

Which are the best slots to play and is it better to play three coins all the time or rotate from 2-3 coins.

Gary from Geulph, Canada

Most slot machines usually offer an incentive to play the maximum coins. For example two coins may pay 2,000 on the jackpot but three coins will pay 5,000. So if there an economy of scale incentive, then the return is higher with a max-coin bet. However, I should mention that most casinos tend to increase the theoretical return on their slots as they go up in denomination. So, you may be better off betting one coin on a $1 machine than four coins on a quarter machine.

My advice on slot selection is to play a simple smaller game. Nothing with fancy signage or a huge screen. Ultimately, it is the players that pay for that in the form of a lower return.

Are you saying that in the long run you will lose at every casino game no matter what you do?

Joe from Harrisburg, US

With the exception of rare positive expectation opportunities in blackjack and video poker, yes, that is what I'm saying.

What is the minimum blackjack bet at most online casinos? Are there a time limits in which to make your decisions at the blackjack tables? If so, what are they?

Reg A. from Vancouver, British Columbia

The minimum varies from place to place. At Unified Gaming casinos it is $1, Microgaming is $2, Starnet and Cryptologic are $5. If you are playing by yourself, then you can take a long time. I've had phone calls in middle of a hand, came back 15 minutes later and resumed the hand without having been logged out. You will get logged out for inactivity eventually but it takes quite a while. However, if you are playing at a group table there is a time limit per decision of about 30 seconds. At the Sands of the Caribbean you can see your clock ticking down.

I recently went to the Couer d' Alene Tribal Casino in Worley, Idaho. It was late at night and they were retrieving money from the video slot machines. When they shut down the machines, a screen pops up with all kinds of information regarding coins in, coins paid, etc. I noticed that the "hit rate" was set to 37% on the bank of machines that I was playing. This seems really low! Not knowing exactly what I was seeing, I thought best to ask the Wizard!

Dirks from Spokane, Washington

Interesting question. I'm sure that didn't refer to the payback percentage, 37% would be way too low. The "hit frequency" is the probability that the player wins anything.

I play a machine in Atlantic city Called "Reel Detectives". I have read your informative article on how slot machines work and I have a good understanding of the programming behind them. what I don't understand is how on some days these machines will pay almost an exclusive combination of seven wins with no jackpots all day and yet other days it will pay jackpots all day with little to no seven wins.

If the machine is truly picking random combinations wouldn't the prize distribution be more random. It's as if IGT programmed the machine to have "Planned Cycles" to make the game more interesting to play. I know your going to say that these are just random events, but it is extremely unlikely that a machine will only pay mid and lower tier prizes all day and omit the jackpot and vice-versa and do this over and over again. HOW are these WEIGHTED cycles explained? Also if you could point me to any books you recommend on the programming of slot machines I would appreciate it.

James from Cherry Hill, U.S.

These are just random events. The laws of probability dictate that some days will be dry with a few big winners and others will have a lot of lower payouts. Most days will have a balanced mix and these days are always the first forgotten by the player. There is no switch the casino is throwing to alter the mood of their machines. I tend to think you're just remember what you want to in order to substantiate your theory.

Please clear this up for the non-gamblers of consequence. If I purchase a lottery ticket or place a quarter on a cake wheel and win, I don't get my money back. What happens to my original bet on a roulette wheel or the race track when I win? Why?

Paul from Baltimore, Maryland

Whether or not you get your original bet back depends on what you are betting on. In most casino table games you do get your original bet back if you win something. However with the lottery, horse races, slot machines, and cake wheels you do not get your money back if you win. The rule of thumb is that if you need to activate a machine to make the bet then the bet itself is gone. The cake wheel is obviously an exception to this rule but that game is for the benefit of fun and charity (I won a cake at a fair in Fresno years ago by the way).

Losing the original bet is not necessarily bad. If they returned it they would just depress the paybacks to recoup the money. If the odds are expressed as "to one," then you get your original bet back if you win. If they are expressed as "for one," then you don't.

In a live casino, if you could find a blackjack table that uses Unified Gaming rules, including a single deck, but deals reasonably deep into the deck before shuffling, would the house edge be different than -0.14%?


Yes, however the edge would actually be less for the basic strategy player in a live casino. This is because in a live casino the dealer will generally deal until a certain point is reached, finish that hand, and then reshuffle. If the deck is rich in small cards (good for the dealer) when the cut card or shuffle point is reached then more cards are likely to be dealt than if the deck were rich in big cards at the shuffle point (good for the player). The effect over thousands of hands is that a disproportionately high number of small cards are dealt which is directly related to a lower player return on investment. The effect is not huge but it is mathematically better to play with the same rules at an online casino as opposed to a physical casino.

For more on this topic, please see my blackjack appendix 10 on the cut-card effect.