How Do Slot Machines Work? (Odds and Payouts)

Slot machines were initially a diversion for the wives of the “real gamblers” in the casinos. But now, slot machines have become the most popular game in the casino, accounting for as much as 80% of all revenues in some casinos. The appeal of being able to win a big life-changing jackpot combined with the lack of skill needed to play have propelled slot machines to their new place as the king of the casino game.

Today’s slot machines look like the same game that people have been playing for years, but the mechanisms behind all of the gambling action are completely different than they were in your father’s day. Mechanical reels and stops have been replaced with video screens and random number generators.




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The random number generator generates several million numbers a second. The number that’s been generated the instant you press the spin button or pull the slot machine lever determine the payout. Hit the right set of random numbers, and you win a potentially large jackpot. Hit the wrong set of numbers and you lose, but you can spin again, often for as little as a penny or a nickel per spin.

Early mechanical slot machines had actual physical reels with multiple symbols and stops. The number of symbols usually corresponded with the number of stops. Often this number was as low as 10 or 12. So calculating the odds of matching three symbols was simple: you multiplied the odds of hitting one symbol by the three opportunities to hit that symbol. So on a machine with 10 symbols, the chance of hitting a particular jackpot was 1/10 X 1/10 X 1/10, or 1/1000.

But the random number generator powered slot machines of today can have an unlimited number of symbols. They can also be programmed to hit those symbols with different probabilities. Just because a machine only has 10 symbols doesn’t necessarily mean that each symbol has a 1/10 chance of coming up anymore. It might be 1/20 for some symbols and 1/5 for others.

How To Play Slot Machines

The first step is to decide what kind of slot machine you want to play:

  • Regular three reel slot machines

  • Progressive slot machines

  • Video slot machines

  • Online slot machines

Three reel slot machines

The traditional slot machine game has a smaller jackpot but often has bigger payouts. The symbols consist of fruit and bars and 7’s, and gameplay couldn’t be easier. Spin the reels and see what kind of match you get across the payline. Some newer three reel slot machines might have multiple paylines, but just as often they have a single payline across the center line.

Traditional three reel slot machines can still be found in casinos as varied as the Luxor, the Wynn, and the Showboat in Atlantic City.

Progressive slot machines

Progressive slot machines are distinguished from other slot machine games by the huge jackpot available for the big winner. Multiple slot machines are networked together via a computer, and a tiny percentage of each wager contributes to the jackpot for all of the machines. Some progressive slots have three reels while others are new video slots with five reels and many paylines.

Video slot machines

Video slot machines make no attempt to conceal that they’re computer driven. They often have five reels and as many as fifteen or twenty five paylines. They also often have multiple bonus video games when certain combinations are hit, and some of the symbols are wild symbols.

Online slot machines

All online slot machines are video slots by default, but online slots can duplicate the action of any of the other kinds of slots. Online slots come in all of the standard configurations; progressive jackpots, multiple reels, all kinds of bonus games, and all kinds of wild symbols. But they’re also available in virtual versions of traditional three reel single line slots too.

How to play any of these slot machines is easy. Put your money in, spin the reels, and cross your fingers.