Everyone loves slots. They’re loud, they’re fun, they’re colorful, and they pay out tons of money—if you win. Slots can be played at whatever pace suits the player and there is no in depth knowledge of rules or statistical probability required to play. Just press the button and win…or lose. Slot machines are the ultimate test of luck. This is true for both traditional slots, as well as the kings of online gambling—video slots.

Part of the draw in playing slots is how simple they are to use. All you need to do is put in your credit (coin, chip, or online credit) and press a button. You might be a winner or you might be a loser. And indeed these machines do pay out. In casinos, it’s the iconic clinking sound of coins rushing out of a machine, and online, it’s the visual fanfare. Either way, most people who gamble have seen a slot machine win.

Winning on a slot machine is determined by the combination of symbols on what is called the payline. All you need is the correct combination along the payline and you’ve won. There is pretty much nothing you can do to affect the outcome all you need to do is hope for the big win. The interesting thing about slot machines is that they’re programmed to pay out different amounts of money for different combinations. Some pay more and some pay less, and one specific combination gives up the jackpot, which is usually a staggering amount of money.

video slots

The payouts are based on the odds of achieving the given combinations of symbols. One look at the actual symbols reveals that they could represent anything at all. Classic machines have fruits or playing card suits, while other machines might have licensed characters from popular franchises such as the Marvel Universe, the Lord of the Rings, or television characters. The symbols could represent anything, and indeed they’re made flashy in order to keep the machines entertaining. Although every machine might look different from the outside, on the inside they are all doing exactly the same thing. And that is rolling and matching symbols.

The more reels a machine has, the more symbols it carries. More symbols means more combinations. More combinations means that it’s more difficult to win the jackpot. The math is simple. Imagine a machine with three reels. All you need to do is line up three specific symbols (let’s pretend you need to line up three monkeys) and you win the big prize. Let’s pretend this machine is of the old style and only has five symbols per reel (this means that each reel has one monkey and four more symbols). The odds of lining up the three monkeys on this machine can be calculated as 1/5x/15×1/5, which comes out to 1/125. Not bad. The odds are less than one out of a hundred.

Modern machines don’t have three reels with five symbols on each. They often have five reels with over 100 symbols on each. But let’s go back to the monkey machine, from before. Five symbols, but five wheels instead of three. The odds this time are 1/3125. As you can see, with the addition of each reel on the machine, the odds of winning decrease exponentially.

Odds are sometimes difficult to grasp. I mentioned that the number of symbols on a reel can go from as low as five to as high as a hundred. Imagine, if you will a three reel machine with the full 100 symbols on each reel. A quick calculation shows that your odds of winning, calculated as 1/100×1/100×1/100 = 1 out of 1,000,000. That’s a million to one odds. Pretty horrible. You might think it’s wise to stay away from large reels with 100 symbols on them.

So you see a shiny new machine with only 20 symbols per reel. And it has five reels. Intuitively, you’ll think that this machine is easier to win. It can’t possibly be any worse than that three reel, hundred symbol machine you’d have to play a million times before winning. So you do your due diligence and crunch the numbers. 1/20×1/20×1/20×1/20×1/20. Did you do the calculation? You’ve just discovered your odds on this particular machine are 1/3,200,000. One out of three million. This is actually worse than the 100 symbol three reel machine by a factor of three. Of course, when talking of odds in the millions, it doesn’t much matter if the odds are one out of a million or one out of twelve million. In real world terms, your odds are statistically pretty much the same—very, very low.

Slot machines are what allows the casinos to run. The vast majority of casino revenues come from slot machines, making them the most profitable game in the casino. This allows the casino owners to reduce their house advantage on the table games, which is where player skill comes into play. But don’t be discouraged. People do win the slot machine jackpots. Even the gigantic multi-million dollar jackpots. As low as the odds of winning are, there are enough players out there, pushing the slot machine buttons, that the big payouts do indeed happen. You see, you don’t have to play the slot machine a million times before winning. There are a million people playing the slot machine as well, so at any given moment it is someone’s turn to win. The foil is that one can never know when that moment might come. Good luck.