Traditional Slots

Traditional slots are those that accept and dispense coins. These machines have hoppers inside that must be filled (and sometimes emptied) by hand; usually the number of coins they will dispense on any given win is limited, and any wins that require a larger payout must be paid by an attendant. Many casino patrons prefer traditional machines because they like the sound of the coins clattering in the tray when they win.

How Slots Work

Although they are controlled by computers, traditional coin machines operate in much the same way that slot machines have always worked. A coin is dropped into the slot, and the machine records it as a credit. A button or lever is used to activate the reels and make them spin, and a mechanical device is used to brake the reels. Each reel in a machine has a finite number of actual “stops,” or places where the reel comes to rest. Thanks to computers, each of the actual stops also has several “virtual stops,” or places that tell the computer to brake the reel.

The computer system uses a random number generator, or RNG, which continuously generates random whole numbers, whether or not the machine is being played. When the player pulls the lever or pushes the button, the computer records the numbers generated by the RNG at that precise second. Those numbers are plugged into a mathematical formula to match the virtual stops, which then are matched to actual stops on each reel. If the machine has three reels, the computer will record and compute three numbers from the RNG. If the machine has five reels, the computer will record and compute five numbers from the RNG.

This computerized system allows the casino to be extremely precise in setting its payouts; you may see payout rates of 97.7 percent, for example. It also has the advantage of being truly random because of the huge number of possible combinations of actual and virtual stops.

Minimum payout rates on slot machines are usually established by law, but actual payouts tend to be much higher than the law requires, usually in the mid to high 90-percent range. Payouts also tend to be higher in more competitive gambling areas because casinos and slot halls don't want to lose business to their competitors.

But this system also means that winning at slots is purely a matter of luck. Whether you pull the lever slowly or quickly or with extra vigor, or whether you push the button instead, your odds of winning on any given spin are exactly the same each time. There is no skill involved in playing traditional slot machines.

Types of Slot Machines

The best-known slot machine is the three-reel, one-pay-line machine, but it is quickly losing favor to bigger machines with more reels and multiple pay lines. Many of these newer machines also have more complicated betting systems that can be confusing to the novice.

Perhaps the most confusing machine is the pay-for-play slot. On this type of game, one coin pays only on certain symbols — black bars and oranges, for instance. To win on, say, gold bars and cherries, you have to play two coins, and to win on 7s, you have to play three coins. If you play only one coin and the reels come up 7s, you won't win anything.

Three-reel, three-pay-line machines also are becoming more common. This machine gives you additional chances to line up the proper symbols, but the payouts for each hit are usually proportionally smaller. For example, a single-pay-line machine might pay out forty-five coins on a hit, but a three-pay-line machine will pay only fifteen coins per hit.

Another variation on the multiple-pay-line machine is the so-called “five-line” machine, where winning symbol combinations can be racked up diagonally as well as on the three horizontal pay lines. Some machines now have four or even five reels. Although these machines sometimes make small payouts on a wide variety of symbol combinations, it's much harder to hit the big jackpot, because more reels mean more possible combinations of actual and virtual stops.

Your chances of hitting the jackpot dwindle exponentially on machines with more reels. The average odds on a three-reel machine are 8,000 to 1. Those odds jump to about 160,000 to 1 on four-reel machines and to a mind-numbing 3 million to 1 on a five-reel machine.

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