A Beginner’s Guide to Slots

Gambling is making its way through the US as sports betting expands and states allow the construction of new casinos. What was once a tourist attraction for Vegas or Atlantic City visitors is now a popular pastime. 

While sports betting is making the most headway in the US, online casinos and land-based gaming are making more gradual moves to new markets. Illinois recently allowed for the construction of six new casinos while nearby Michigan is gearing up to launch online casinos. 

And where there are casinos, be they land-based or online, there are also slots. The glitzy, ring-dinging contraptions are often a source of confusion for rookie gamblers. But slots are actually fairly easy to understand, and I’ve compiled a beginner’s guide so you know how they work and what to expect when you spin the reels. 

Are Slot Machines Rigged?

This is the first question many slot players have, and it’s a fair one. Slot machines are not “rigged” in the sense that the casino chooses when a jackpot or big win hits. 

Slots are games of chance, just like blackjack, craps, sports betting, or poker. But the mechanics of slot games vary, and the house edge is bigger when you play slots compared to most table games. 

The House Edge

The house edge is the profit a casino (or online casino site) makes on each bet you place. You can still win money; the house edge represents a percentage of all bets placed and what the casino will make on those based on the match of a given game. 

Online slots and slot machines have a house edge ranging from 2% to 15%, though the 5-10% range is most common. By comparison, blackjack usually has a house edge of 0.5% and double zero roulette sits around 5%. 

How To Play

It’s easy enough to sit down at a slot machine, put $20, and spin. But understanding how the actual games work makes the experience much more fun. 

Understanding Denominations

You might find slots that advertise themselves as “penny slots.” Even though the name may make you think they cost a penny per spin, it’s not quite so simple. “Penny slots” mean that each pay line you’re betting on costs a penny. A pay line is a left-to-right pathway that connects symbols on the reels. Some are straight lines and some taking a more winding path, such as in the shape of a “W.” 

When you play a slot, you choose how many lines to bet on, and this varies based on the slot you’re playing. Some have 243 lines, some have 50, and there are plenty of others in between. The more paylines you hit on a given spin, the more you win.

The more you bet, the more pay lines you have access to. So if you’re max betting on a penny slot with 50 pay lines, each individual spin would cost you $.50. 

The cost of each bet changes from one slot to the next, so always check the machine or online slot you’re playing to be sure you know where your money is going. 

Symbols And Paylines

Every unique symbol on a slot machine has a specific value. If the symbol ends up in a pay line with identical symbols, you earn a payout based on the value of each one in the pay line. 

Slots typically make their highest paying symbols images of the main character on which the slot is based or something similar. Perhaps a pot of gold on a leprechaun game. Lower-paying symbols are usually A, K, Q, J, and 10, similar to cards at a table game. 

Spinning The Reels

This, of course, is the ultimate draw of slot machines. The reels blur as they spin into oblivion, then slow to a stop and hopefully get you a winning pay line (or multiple). Depending on how you play, you’ll have a few options for spinning. 

Most slot machines have a button that kicks off the spin, while others have the traditional mechanical lever. Some have both, giving you an option. There’s no difference in outcome with either method, but it’s a unique thrill to pull the physical lever. 

For online slots players, spinning usually comes in the form of a quick tap of the screen. Certain online slot themes let you auto spin, continuously repeating spins and automatically logging any wins. 

Bonuses And Jackpots

If you’ve seen someone win big on a slot game, it’s likely thanks to a bonus or a jackpot. Though you might be inclined to think they’re the same thing, there are crucial differences. 

Bonuses

Bonuses are triggered by events during normal slot play. This often means landing three specific bonus symbols on a single spin. There are countless ways to trigger a bonus, though, and slot makers are always thinking of new mechanics.

Bonuses take many shapes and sizes. Many give you a number of free spins with added flair, like a whole row of wild symbols or a payout multiplier. 

In many cases, bonuses also give you the opportunity to win a jackpot. 

Jackpots

Jackpots are the big wins, the multi-hundred or -thousand dollar hits that you see in movies and on TV. There are two common jackpot types.

Some jackpots can be hit during normal play, and others are triggered by bonuses. 

Local Progressive Jackpots

Every time you spin the reels on a slot, you’re contributing to the larger jackpot pool. Machines usually have a top box component or a special area used to display the current jackpot levels. 

Local jackpots take from either a single machine or a small group of slot machines, such as a bank of five neighboring machines. As a result, these jackpots don’t get quite as high as their wide area progressive counterparts but can still reach multiple thousands of dollars. 

Wide Area Progressive Or Linked Jackpots

Wide area progressive jackpots take from every dollar put into a large number of machines. Because they can pull from a wider pool of players (even across multiple casinos), these jackpots can reach much higher amounts. These are the jackpots that can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars or higher. 

Need Help? Slots Have Guides Built-In

If you’re having trouble figuring out how a slot works, try clicking the “Help” or “?” button. Most video slots and all online slots have this option. It will open a page that tells you the value of each symbol, how to hit the bonuses, and more helpful info. 

If you’re playing on a mechanical slot machine on the casino floor, you can always ask a casino employee for more information.

About the Author

Cole Rush

Cole Rush is a Chicago-based freelance writer in the gambling, media, and entertainment space. His work has been showcased in various gaming industry magazines and online columns. Prior to freelance writing, Cole spent seven years in communications at a gambling and lottery supplier. Cole writes for a number of online and print publications, including The Quill To Live, a book review site.