by John Robison
Do the slot machines on the ends of aisles pay better than the machines in the middle? How about the machines near the table games? They’retight, right? And are the machines near the coin redemption booths loose? Join us on our journey for finding loose slot machines.
The loose slot machine is the slot player’s Holy Grail. Much as King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table searched Britain for the Holy Grail of myth, slot players search casinos for loosemachines. Slot players have formulated many theories about where casinos place their loose machines to aid them in their quest.
Before we can figure out where the loose machines are, we have to figure out what they are. There is no U.S.D.A. system for grading the looseness of machines and no national orinternational standard that determines whether a machine is tight or loose.
So, what is a loose slot machine?
Say we have two 94% payback machines. Are they loose? I bet some people say yes and some say no. Why isn’t there agreement? Let me add a little more information to thescenario to see if it gives you an idea of why one person calls a 94% payback machine loose and another calls it tight. What if I told you that one machine was a nickel machine and theother a dollar machine? For most people who play nickel machines, a 94% machine is among the best-paying machines in their area. For most people who play dollar machines, on theother hand, a 94% machine is among the worst-paying machines in their area. The person who called 94% loose probably plays lower-denomination machines, while the person who called 94%tight probably plays higher-denomination machines.
Let me add one more piece of information. The dollar machine is a video poker machine. Dollar video poker players would rather have root canals onall their teeth with no anesthesia while their fingernails and toenails are ripped off than play a 94% payback machine. They have many adjectives for a 94% payback machine, but loose isnot one of them.
You see, loose isn’t an absolute. Looseness depends on your frame of reference. Looseness is actually a comparison. We shouldn’t say “loose.” We should really say“looser”. We should really be asking where the looser machines are. But let’s bow to common usage and continue using the term loose machine.
So, what is a loose machine?
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Quite simply, a loose machine is a machine that has a higher long-term payback percentage than another machine. The loose machines in acasino are those machines that have the highest paybacks. These are the machines that will take the smallest bites out of your bankroll in the long run. No wonder slot players areconstantly searching for them.
Over the years, players have developed a number of theories about finding loose slot machines. Casinos place loose machines near the entrances, for example, so passersby can see playerswinning and are enticed to enter the casino and try their luck. The loose machines are also at the ends of the aisles to draw players into the aisle, where the tight machinesare.
And, of course, a loose machine is always surrounded by tight machines. You never have two loose machines side by side. That’s done for players who like to play more than onemachine at a time. If they should happen to stumble upon one of the loose machines, they’ll be pumping their winnings from it into the tight machines around it.
More theories. The machines near the table games are tight because table games players don’t want to hear a lot of bells and buzzers going off and happy slot players whooping it up aftera big win. Another reason the machines near the table games are tight is because table games players will occasionally drop a few coins into a slot machine and they don’t expect to winanything, so why give them a high payback.
Similarly, the machines near the buffet and show lines are tight. People waiting in line are just killing time and getting rid of their spare change. They’re not going to play for along time or develop a relationship with those machines, so the machines can be like piggy banks – for the casino! Money goes in and rarely comes back out.
The machines near the coin redemption booths, on the other hand, are loose. Players waiting in line for coin redemption are slot players and the casino wants them to see other playerswinning. Seeing all those players winning will make them anxious to get back on the slot floor to try their luck again.
Finally, finding loose machines in highly visible locations is most likely. Again, casinos want players to see players winning and be enticed into trying to get a piece of the casino’sbankroll themselves.
These are the theories I can think of off the top of my head. Maybe you know of some others. Most of the theories have a basis in psychology. When we see others winning, we’llwant to play too because 1) we’re greedy, 2) we’re envious, or 3) we see that at least some machines really do pay off and if we keep trying we might find one too.
Based on my own discussions with slot directors, interviews with slot directors, and seminars I’ve attended, I don’t think these theories are relevant in today’s slot world. To see why,we have to look at how slot machines and slot floors have changed.
Picture a slot floor of 10-20 years ago. Even if you don’t go back that far, I’m sure you’ve seen pictures on TV or in books. The slot machines on a casino floor in that era arearranged in long rows, much like products out for sale in a supermarket aisle. There’s no imagination used in placing the machines on the floor. The machines are placed using cold,mechanical precision.
On page 193 in Slot Machines: A Pictorial History of the First 100 Years by Marshall Fey, there’s a great picture of Bally’s casino floor in Atlantic City that illustrates my point. Thepicture shows hundreds of slot machines all lined up in perfect rows like little soldiers. The caption reads, “Like a Nebraska cornfield, rows upon rows of Bally slots extend as far asthe eye can see.”
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Compare that image with the slot floor layout at a casino that was designed in the last five or so years. Studies have shown that players feel very uncomfortable playing in longaisles. They feel trapped when they’re playing in the middle of a long aisle, particularly if the casino is crowded. As a result, modern casinos have shorter aisles and when a long aislecan’t be avoided, it will be wider than others so players won’t feel like they can’t get out.
One of the finding loose machines theories has casinos placing loose machines at the ends of aisles to draw people into the aisles. Having shorter aisles means having more machinesat the ends of those aisles. Can all of these machines be loose?
In addition to being uncomfortable in long aisles, players are also uncomfortable being put out on display for the other players. Perhaps they feel like they might become a target iftheir good luck is too visible.
One slot director I heard speak said that he tried to create “comfortable niches” for his players. Instead of being in a fish bowl, visible to most of the slot floor, players in hisniches can be easily seen by only the other players in that niche.
Another theory about loose machine placement is that casinos place them in highly visible areas. Modern casinos still have highly visible areas, but the areas are visible to a smallernumber of players. A loose machine in this area will influence fewer players than before.
The last change in the slot floor that I want to mention is perhaps the biggest change of all. Casinos used to have hundreds of slot machines. Now they have thousands. Oneslot director in Las Vegas said in an interview a few years ago that with so many machines on his floor, he didn’t have time to micro-manage them. He and his management decided the holdpercentage they wanted for each denomination and he ordered payback programs close to that percentage for his machines. Furthermore, he said this was the common practice in LasVegas.
As much as the slot floor has changed, the changes on the floor are dwarfed by the changes in the slot machines themselves. One thing that struck me about that picture of Bally’s is howall the machines look alike. They really do look like soldiers being inspecting, all standing at attention and in identical uniforms, or like rows of indistinguishable corn plants. In fact, it looks like there are only three different games in the 10 machines in the first row in the picture. Granted, the majority of the machines in Bally’s casino were Ballymachines. Still I’m surprised by the lack of variety in the machines in the front row in the picture.
I heard that one theory why Americans have gotten heavier is that we have access to a wider variety of foods today than we had before. When meals consisted of the same thing time aftertime, it was easy to pass up second helpings of gruel and eat just enough to no longer be hungry. But now we have Chinese one night, Mexican the next, followed by Thai, burgers, pizza,and pasta -- it’s easy to overeat on our culinary trip around the world.
Just as variety in food creates desire, so does variety in slot machines. “Hey, I used to watch The Munsters all the time. I’ll try that machine.” “I never miss TheApprentice. I’ll give that machine a go.” “I played Monopoly all the time as a kid.” “I have a cat and a dog and a chainsaw and a toaster.”
Not only is there more variety in themes on machines, there’s also more variety in paytables. Back in the 1920s, a revolutionary change in slot machine design was paying an extra coin fora certain combination. Adding a hopper to the machine in the electro-mechanical era made it possible for the machine to pay larger jackpots itself instead of requiring a handpay from ajackpot girl. Adding a computer to the slot machine made it possible for today’s machines to pay modest jackpots of a few thousand coins all the way up to life-changing jackpots ofmillions of dollars.
The computer also makes it possible to add more gimmicks to machines. Gimmicks like “spin-til-you win,” symbols that nudge up or down to the payline, haywire repeat-pays, and double spinall add more variety and interest to the games.
Today’s machines are immeasurably more interesting and fun to play than those of even just a decade ago. Each new generation of machines has crisper graphics and better sound than theprior generation. Slot designers are working overtime to devise compelling bonus rounds that will keep players playing for just one more crack at the round. How many people playingWheel of Fortune are trying to win the jackpot? Not many. Most people keep playing to get one more spin of the wheel.
Slot directors today don’t need to pepper their slot floors with loose machines to stimulate play. Today’s machines themselves generate more desire to play than seeing a player doingwell.
Now I'll finish our discussion of where slot directors place loose machines with some additional thoughts, with a few anecdotes I've heard at slot seminars, and with what I think will be thefinal nail in the coffin of loose machine placement philosophies.
One of the placement theories says that tight machines should be placed near the table games because the table games players don’t like a lot of noise while they’re playing. Have the peopleputting forth this theory ever been near a craps table? A craps table with a shooter on a hot roll has to be one of the loudest places -- if not the loudest place -- in the casino. Crapsplayers can be a boisterous lot even when the table isn’t hot. Okay, I can see players needing peace and quiet at blackjack tables (It’s difficult to count cards even in a quiet casino.), butnot at craps, roulette, Let It Ride, and other tables. In any case, the casino can adjust the volume level on a machine. The slot director can put a very quiet, loose machine near the tablesand not disturb a single table games player.
Another problem with following a loose machine placement philosophy is that it limits the flexibility slot directors have in moving their machines around on the slot floor. If the directors aregoing to give up a little bit in payback on some machines, they certainly will want to get their money’s worth and ensure that these machines are in locations where they’ll be played, be seenbeing played, and entice other players to play. Slot floors have only a limited number of high visibility areas. Slot directors won’t want to waste any of their high-paying machines in the morenumerous less visible areas, where the machines won’t be encouraging other players.
Now I’d like to share some anecdotes I’ve heard at panel discussions during the big gaming show (first the World Gaming Congress, then the Global Gaming Expo) that’s held in Las Vegas eachyear.
First, one slot director described an experiment he conducted in his casino. He had a carousel of 5 Times Pay machines that all had the same long-term payback. He ordered new chips to lower thepayback percentages on a couple of the machines to see if anyone would notice. The machines with the lower long-term paybacks received just as much play as the higher-paying machines. Noplayer, furthermore, ever complained that some of the machines in the carousel were tighter than others.
In another seminar, a slot director shared the philosophy he used to place some machines that he had inherited from another property. These machines, he said, had lower long-term paybacks thanthe payback he usually ordered for machines on his slot floor. He said, 'I read the same books that the players read. I put these lower payback machines in the spots that the books said shouldhave the high payback machines.'
My last anecdote is about a decision made by the slot director at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas many years ago. He was ordering 10 Times Pay machines for his slot floor and he was concerned aboutthe low hit frequencies available for those machines. (Machines with multiplying symbols tend to have low hit frequencies, and usually the higher the multiplier, the lower the hit frequency.)The slot director was afraid that his players would think the machines were very tight because they hit so infrequently. He said that he ordered higher paybacks than he usually does for thosemachines in an attempt to offset the low hit frequency. The machines would still have a low hit frequency, but at least the average value of a hit would be a little higher than if he hadordered a payback percentage nearer the percentage he usually ordered. He hoped that would be enough to keep his players from thinking these were tighter than the other machines on his slotfloor.
Although I think these anecdotes are the exceptions that prove the rule that some casinos at least order the same long-term paybacks for machines of a particular denomination, there is evidencethat some casinos may not. In the first edition of Casino Operations Management, for example, Kilby and Fox list a number of “general philosophies that influence specific slot placement”including: “low hold (loose) machines should be placed in busy walkways to create an atmosphere of activity” and “loose machines are normally placed at the beginning and end of trafficpatterns.”
They then say that “high hit frequency machines located around the casino pit area will create an atmosphere of slot activity.” I’m not sure whether they’re saying high hit frequencyshould or shouldn’t be placed near the pit. In any case, note that one philosophy said that loose machines create an atmosphere of activity and another said that high hit frequency machinesalso create an atmosphere of activity. This is the perfect segue into what I think puts the final nail in the coffin about loose machine placement theories.
There is no correlation between long-term payback and hit frequency. A low hit frequency machine can have a high long-term payback. High hit frequency machines, in addition, can have lowlong-term paybacks. Larry Mak, author of Secrets of Modern Slot Playing, recently queried the Nevada Gaming Control Board to find out the payback reported on penny machines. The Board said itwas 90.167%. Most of the penny video slots have very high hit frequencies, yet the overall average long-term payback is very low.
The usual reasoning behind putting loose machines in highly visible areas is so slot players can see other players winning. Maybe we should be more precise here and say that players will seeother players hitting and assume that they are winning because they are playing loose machines. But because there’s no correlation between hit frequency and long-term payback, these players canactually be playing machines with low long-term paybacks.
I don’t put much stock in loose machine placement theories, but I do believe slot directors may follow a hit frequency placement philosophy. Slot directors may try to place high hit frequencymachines in visible areas to encourage play. This philosophy says and implies nothing about the long-term payback of the machines.
John Robison is the author of 'The Slot Expert's Guide
to Playing Slots.' His website iswww.slotexpert.com
Slot machines often get a bad rap from gambling writers. But the truth is, slot machines are the perfect gambling activity for certain types of people. They’re easy to understand, they’re easy to play, and they offer the possibility of big winnings.
The unicorns that most gamblers are looking for in the casino, though, are the loosest slot machines. What does that mean?
When a gambler describes a slot machine as “loose” or “tight,” she’s usually referring to the payback percentage for the game. Slots with a higher payback percentage than average are loose, while slots with a lower payback percentage than average are tight. Loose slots usually have a higher hit ratio than tight slots, too.
You’ll find plenty of inaccurate information about how to find the loosest slot machines in the casino. I try to avoid most of those inaccuracies in this post, but I do want to begin with a warning:
The probabilities involved with slot machines are “opaque.” That means you don’t have any way of knowing what the payback percentage for any particular slot machine game is. The random number generator that determines the outcomes is programmed to have each symbol come up with a certain probability, but there’s no way of knowing if that number has been set to 1/6 or 1/60. Even observing a large number of spins only provides limited insight into these probabilities.
You do know what the payouts are for the various combinations. But since that’s only half the equation, you can’t really know whether a game is loose or tight except anecdotally. I’m going to assume that anecdotal evidence has some value, but in terms of math, science, and statistics, anecdotal has no value at all.
1- Look for the Loose Slot Machines in the Locations Where Loose Slot Machines Are Found
Casino mapping is a real thing, but it’s not as simple as some gamblers would have you believe. If finding the loose slot machines were as easy as just playing the games located nearest the walkways, everyone would play those games to the exclusion of the other games.
That being said, it might be worth giving those games a try if they look like fun. They’re not more likely to be tighter than the other machines than any other game on the casino floor.
I’ve read that some areas in the casino have lower payout machines than others, and it might be wise to avoid games in those areas. These might include:
- The main slot machine floor. These games probably see the most action, so it would make sense for them to have lower payback percentages.
- Near the table games. These games see more than their fair share of action, too. The same reasoning would apply.
- Near the poker room. I’ve seen some gamblers swear that these are the worst machines in the casino. You have to wonder about a poker player who spends a lot of time playing slots, though.
Of course, there are other locations where the loosest machines might be located. Depending on whom you believe, these might include:
- Anywhere that gets more traffic than usual. For example, if a slot machine is located near the elevators, it might have higher payouts to attract play from someone who might not otherwise play.
- Anywhere that another gambler recommends. This is, of course, the classic mistake—relying on anecdotal evidence. It’s possible, though, that you might find a slot machine player who’s been paying close attention and knows where the loose machines are.
In fact, that leads me to my next point…
2- Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
The obvious person to ask about the location in the casino of the loosest slot machines is someone who works there. This isn’t a guarantee that she’ll be able to direct you to a loose machine, but she might have some insight based on her observations. Depending on how long she’s worked at the casino, she’s probably seen tens of thousands of even hundreds of thousands of gamblers over her career there. She might have noticed that a lot of them seem to be winning on slot machines in a certain location.
If you’re dealing with a cocktail waitress, it’s a good idea to tip generously. For that matter, no matter what they do at the casino, if they try to help you find a loose gambling machine, tip them. At some casinos, employees are forbidden from suggesting specific games. Sometimes you’ll find casino employees who just don’t want to be bothered with such concerns, too. Don’t be a jerk if that’s the case.
3- Don’t Play Slot Machines That AREN’T in Casinos
In towns like Las Vegas, slot machines are everywhere, in all kinds of businesses. Every bar in the city seems to have some slot machines. The airport is full of slot machines, too. You can even find slot machines in the gas stations and convenience stores.
We know one thing for certain about slot machine games in these non-casino locations:
Casinos, on the other hand, are competing with other casinos for the mindshare and hard-earned dollars of the casino gamblers. Since they’re in competition with the other casinos, they must offer payback percentages that are as good as their competitors’ or better.
This is one ironclad rule for finding the loosest slot machines in the casino: Online casinos that take prepaid cards.
ONLY play slot machines in a casino, not the slot machines in other businesses. That’s as good a starting point as any. The difference could be as significant as the difference between a 94% payback percentage and a 74% payback percentage.
Assuming you’re a conservative, low-stakes player, here’s the difference in predicted hourly loss between those 2 examples:
- Assume 400 spins per hour at $1.25 per spin, for $500 per hour in action.
- A game with a 94% payback percentage will see predicted losses of $30/hour.
- A game with a 74% payback percentage, though, will see predicted losses of $130/hour.
If that difference doesn’t seem significant to you, what are you doing playing penny slots anyway?
4- Look for the Plainest, Most Boring Games with the Fewest Paylines
Generally, the slot machines with lots of paylines have lower payout percentages. They’re able to compensate for this psychologically by having a high hit frequency. With 25 paylines, you might win something on almost every spin, even if it’s an amount lower than the amount you wagered in total.
For example, you might be playing a penny game with a max bet of 5 coins and 25 paylines. You’re betting $1.25 every time you spin the reels. Many times, 1 or 2 paylines might win, but the payout on those bets might only be 50 cents. That’s a lot compared to the nickel you bet on that individual payline, but you bet on 25 paylines, remember?
Since such games have no bonus features or bells and whistles, the casino can afford to have them pay out more than the big fancy games. I had a lot of fun on The Big Lebowski slot machines recently, but I can’t even imagine what such a big impressive game like that must cost a casino. The cost of the machine alone must be outrageous.
5- Stick with the Flat Top Slot Machines
Slot machines can be broadly lumped into 2 different categories:
- Flat tops
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A flat top slot machine is a game with a jackpot (top prize) of a fixed amount. This amount is usually 1000 times the size of your bet, give or take.
For that matter, you probably won’t get rich playing progressive slots, either. The odds of winning the jackpot are just terrible, comparable to playing the lottery. Sure, some people win the lottery. But I can’t imagine playing a game with a house edge that large repeatedly, hundreds of times per hour.
6- Play the Highest Denomination Game You Can Afford
You’d probably be surprised to know that penny slots are often as expensive to play (or even more expensive) than dollar slots. Here’s why:
Most penny slots require you to wager 5 credits or more per spin. It’s also hard to resist betting on multiple paylines. It’s easy to find a game with 5 coin bets on each line and with 25 paylines. Before you know it, you’re betting $1.25 on every spin.
But you could switch to a dollar slot machine and probably do a lot better. For one thing, you could just bet a dollar per spin on a single payline. Now you’re betting less per spin than you were on the quarter machine. But what’s really impressive is the difference in payback percentage.
Suppose you play 600 spins per hour on that penny machine. You’re putting $750 in action each hour–$1.25 per spin multiplied by the 600 spins per hour. With an 88.49% payback percentage, in the long run, you’ll average $663.68 back per hour. That’s an average loss per hour of $86.33.
No play those same 600 spins on a dollar machine, betting only a dollar on each spin. That’s $600 in action multiplied by 92.63% to get an average payback amount of $44.22. You’ll lose HALF the money on the dollar slot as you would the penny slot! That’s a significant difference, and one you should take note of.
Just be careful and read the pay tables. Slot machines vary a lot from one machine to another, and you should always play enough coins to activate the biggest jackpot. If the ratios change based on playing for fewer coins, you want to avoid that game or bet max coin. You might be surprised at how many slot machines DON’T require you to place a max coin bet, too, though.
7- Try Online Slot Machines
Since online casinos don’t have all the brick and mortar expenses of land-based casinos, their games sometimes offer higher payback percentages. You must balance this with the trustworthiness of the casino, though. Some internet casinos are notoriously hard to cash out of.
Of course, if you stick with the casinos recommended on this site, you probably won’t have to worry about that. Our team of casino reviewers and researchers has thoroughly vetted the properties we list here on our site.
And if you take how competitive they are as a measure for how loose their games must be to attract customers, you’ll find that the casinos on the web are even more competitive than the casinos in Las Vegas.
8- Track Your Results and Make Some Assumptions
I recently visited a casino and tracked my results carefully on a machine. Of course, there’s nothing especially scientific about 200 spins on a machine, but you’re still operating from more data than most players if you do this.
It’s not hard to project a payback percentage, either. Start by writing down how much money you put in the machine. Then count how many spins you make on that machine. When you cash out of the machine, take a note of how much you’ve lost. You multiply the number of spins you made by how much you were betting per spin. You divide the total amount of money you lost by how many spins you made. Then you know the average loss per spin and can convert it into a payback percentage.
In my case, I was betting $1.25 per spin, so I put $250 in to action over 200 spins. I lost $50, which amounts to 25 cents per spin. 25 cents divided by $1.25 is 20%, which is the house edge. The payback percentage is the amount you get to keep—in this case, 80%. (You just subtract it from 100%.) Your goal is to find a payback percentage that’s better than average. Tracking your results this way also makes playing slot machines more interesting, because you have something to pay attention to.
Loosest Slot Machines In Las VegasThere’s no scientific way to find the slot machines with the best payback percentage—the loosest slot machines. We have some ideas that are something more than guesswork, but they’re also a far cry from anything scientific.You can follow every piece of advice in this post and still lose more money at slot machines than you ever thought possible. My suggestion is to keep a careful budget for your gambling, and only play with money you can afford to lose.
Gambling at a casino—especially on slot machines—should be considered an entertainment expense. Budget for it accordingly, and if you occasionally win, great. But don’t count on it.
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