You’ve seen me repeatedly refer to terms like “return to player” (RTP) and “hit frequency” in posts about loose slots. It’s hard to write about the loosest slots in Vegas or the loosest slots in Florida without mentioning these statistics. RTP is even a consideration at smaller casinos like Miami Valley Gaming.
But what do they mean?
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In this post, I go into extensive detail explaining what these terms mean to the casinos and what they should mean to the average gambler.
Return to Player (RTP) in Slots Explained
Casinos use the expression “return to player” to describe the expected return for a gambling machine. This includes slot machine, video lottery terminals (VLTs), and video poker machines. Some writers even use the statistic to describe lottery games, both in the lotto and with scratch-off tickets.
The expected return is a product of the probability of winning each prize and the amount of each prize. In other words, if one of the winning combinations shows up 1/4 of the time, and it pays off at 100 units, the expected return for that prize is 1/4 X 100, or 25%. When you add the expected returns for all the possible outcomes, you get the expected return for the game.
Most slot machine games have a return to player percentage of over 75%. This varies by jurisdiction. In major gambling destinations, the return to player is usually over 90% at the big casinos. At gas stations and airports, though, the RTP drops precipitously.
You should remember that return to player is a long-term prediction. It’s something that predicts how well the slot machine will pay out over time. In the short run, the slot machine might pay out anything (or nothing).
The opposite of the return to player percentage is the house edge. The house edge represents the amount of money the casino expects to win from each bet over the long run.
Hit Frequency in Slots Explained
Hit frequency, on the other hand, describes how often you can expect any winning combination on a gambling machine. Most slot machines have hit frequencies in the 20% to 40% range, although it can vary widely by machine and by casino.
For example, if you’re playing a slot machine game with a 25% hit frequency, you’ll probably see some kind of winning combination on average 1 out of every 4 spins.
Related: The Best RTP Slots in Aruba
Keep in mind, too, that most modern slots allow multiple wins on multiple paylines. If you’re betting on 25 paylines, for example, on a game with a 20% hit frequency, you can expect that the average number of lines to hit a win will be 5.
Hit frequency is what motivates slot machine players to keep gambling. If you’re playing a game with multiple paylines, your brain gets the same shot of serotonin when you hit multiple winning lines for a net loss as it does if you get a net win.
The hit frequency for any gambling machines — slots, VLTs, or video poker — vary greatly. You can find really tight slots with a hit frequency of 5%, but players don’t play such machines long. Most video poker games, on the other hand, usually have a hit frequency well over 40%.
The hit frequency isn’t a reliable indicator of how loose a gambling machine is. If you just win your original bet back 30% of the time, you feel like you’re winning a lot, even though you’re not.
How to Calculate Return to Player (RTP) Statistics
The return to player is just another expression for “expected value,” and the formula for that is known. It’s just the sum of all possible wins weighted according to the probability of each return.
Here’s an example of what that formula might look like:
RTP = (10%)($40) + (15%)($20) + (35%)($5) + (35%)($1) = 91%.
Remember, this is a long-term expectation. In the short run, you wouldn’t expect to see these probabilities hold true. As you get closer to an infinite number of bets, though, the numbers should start to mirror the expectation.
After 100 spins, you should be closer to the expected results than you would be after 10 spins. And, after 1000 spins, you’re even likelier to see the mathematically predicted results.
Why Are These Statistics Important?
These kinds of statistics are important because they’re the reason the casinos always win in the long run. Think about it. The casinos don’t have to worry about paying off winners because the losers are making up for their wins and more. They get into the long run faster than a gambler ever could hope to. Imagine having 1000 slot machines with players in front of them, each making 500 bets per hour.
That’s 50,000 bets per hour. In an 8 hour shift, that’s 400,000 bets per hour.
You can bet that the actual results are going to start looking like the mathematically expected results in that amount of time.
These statistics are also important because of how loyalty programs work. You’ve probably seen one piece of advice repeatedly on gambling blogs. Always join the slots club.
The average slots club pays back 0.2% of the money wagered as rebates or comps. Take that example slot machine from the section about how to calculate RTP above. With a 91% RTP, the casino can easily afford to pay the player another 0.2% in “rewards.”
They can also easily afford to offer double and triple rewards. Not only does it not affect their profitability, it improves it.
That’s because these rewards are used as bait to convince gamblers to come to the casino and play more. The net effect is that, even though the casino is reducing its edge, it’s making up for it with more volume.
The Role of Variance in Slot Machine Math
Variance is also called volatility. Math-savvy gamblers look at variance and volatility as a way to measure risk. Casinos also use this as a measure of risk, but in a different way.
Variance is just a mathematical way to describe how likely it is that you’ll get results outside the expected results. If you play a progressive slot machine game with a million dollar jackpot for 4 hours and win, you’ve won an average of $1,000,000 divided by 2000 spins. That’s far outside the ordinary.
Generally, the higher the jackpot is, the more variance it has. It takes more spins, on average, to win the jackpot. This means that the rest of the time, you’ll be losing more money than the expected amount.
Do Traditional Brick and Mortar Casinos Offer a Better RTP? Or Are Online Slots Better?
I’ve been gambling at both online and traditional casinos for decades, and I haven’t seen a noticeable difference in returns. I’m just as likely to lose all my money playing a slot machine online as I am at a traditional casino.
Most gambling information sites won’t tell you that. Most of them earn money from their advertisers, so they try REALLY hard to get you motived to deposit and play. I could do that, too, but I figure you’re an adult. If you want to play slot machines online, I’m not going to stop you by warning you that the returns are worse.
And I’m not going to motivate you to play by claiming that the return to player is an insane 98%, either. That’s just silly.
But you’ll see online casinos claiming big return to player percentages all the time. All I can say is this:
Take such claims with a big grain of salt.
Heck, you shouldn’t be gambling with money you can’t afford to lose, anyway.
And even if the RTP is relatively high, the math always favors the casino. It doesn’t matter if the house edge is 5% or 10%. Play long enough, and you’ll lose all your money.
Some Frequently Asked Questions
I know that this whole RTP/return to player thing might seem hard to follow. Here are answers to some of the more obvious questions on the subject:
What Is RTP? What Is a “Return to Player” Percentage?
RTP (return to player) is a way of thinking about and measuring the long-term odds on a gambling machine. It’s most commonly used to describe slot machines, but it really applies to any gambling machine.
It’s just the percentage of action (amount bet) that will get paid back to the average gambler over the long run. It’s based on the size of the prizes and the probability of winning those prizes.
What Is a Typical Return to Player Percentage?
RTP for a casino is an aggregate number accounting for all the machines there. As such, the number varies from casino to casino. It also varies from one gambling machine to another. Most casinos, online or off, have returns of about 90%. In smaller venues or tribal casinos, those numbers can drop to around 75%. (Don’t play slots at the airport.)
Online casinos claim to have a higher average return, but I take that with a big grain of salt.
Are Return to Player Percentages Public Information?
I saw another website which claimed that all RTP must be advertised to the public by casinos. This is NOT the case. Good luck finding a gambling machine in Las Vegas with a label on it announcing its RTP.
It’s not true at online casinos, and it’s not true at land-based casinos.
Some casinos DO advertise their RTP numbers, but they’re usually advertised in aggregate. These statistics tell you nothing about the specific game you’re about to play.
How Do You Calculate a Game’s Return?
I explained the formula earlier, but here’s another easy formula:
Just subtract the game’s house edge from 100%, and you have the game’s return to player percentage.
Another option would be to carefully track the amount of money you wager over a lot of spins. Then compare what you have afterward to determine how much it paid back as a percentage of your action.
That’s a way to estimate, rather than calculate, a game’s return.
Should I Always Play the Game with the Highest RTP?
No, a higher RTP does NOT give you a better chance of winning. In fact, in the long run, as long as the return is under 100%, your probability of winning is always going to be 0%. You’ll eventually lose all your money when you play a negative expectation game like a slot machine.
Other factors determine whether you should play a game. For example, is it fun? Or is it dull?
Finally, you have no real way of knowing the actual RTP of one game over another. You’re asking about a decision you’re not really able to make.
Conclusion (Return to Player and Hit Frequency Summed Up)
Return to player and hit frequency are both important statistics. But, sadly, they’re not readily available data points for most amblers. A higher return to player means you’ll get to play longer for the same bankroll, generally. You’ll still lose in the long run.
A game with a higher hit frequency might be easier to get a small win from in the short run. But, as with other gambling machines, the RTP on such a game is always under 100%.
This means that neither data point can help you beat the slot machines in the long run.
It’s just about how much value you get from your wagers.