A slot machine is a gambling machine at a casino or online casino – our friends in the rest of the world call them slots, but over here in Australia, they’ll always be pokies! Your typical slot machine uses a series of three or more cylinders which spin when the machine is played, and stop to reveal a row of symbols. The spin is generated either by the pulling of a lever at the side of the machine (your old-fashioned option, and the origin of the ‘one-armed bandit’ nickname) or, more often these days, by the push of a button. Once the reels have stopped spinning, a player wins or loses depending on the combination of symbols displayed across the reels. Simple – but great fun and popular the world over!
In fact, slot machines are the most popular way of gambling in casinos right around the world, and they generate around three-quarters of the average casino’s total revenue. To see the banks of them flashing and beeping at a casino like Crown Melbourne or The Star – or even more so in Vegas or the epic casinos in Macau – is to understand that these are arguably the best-loved attraction at the casino resorts we all love.
Back in the 19th century, it was German-born car engineer Charles Fey, at that time living in San Francisco, who’s the man credited with inventing the world’s first mechanical slot machine. In his basement.
Whilst obviously very basic by modern standards, Fey’s design would still be instantly recognisable if you saw it today. That’s testament, we suppose, to the simplicity of the idea, and very much a part of the slot machine’s enduring appeal. It had three reels and five symbols on each reel, including the iconic image of the cracked Liberty Bell that gave the machine its name – prizes were paid out for a number of winning symbol combinations. You’ll still see the same winning combinations on today’s slot machines (especially the ones that aim to give you that nostalgic experience!), though of course there are many, many more these days, as well.
Slot machines quickly became very popular in the States, with more than a few punters drawn in by the fun of the machine, and the prizes on offer, too. There was a real panic about a gambling epidemic that saw the slot machines banned by the Government in the early 20th century, but that did little to stop the export of the machines to the rest of the world, and they survived in the U.S. by essentially become fun vending machines. That’s the era that gave us the easily-recognisable, brightly-coloured fruit symbols that you still see on slot machines today – those symbols featured on the slot machines that thrived whilst they were banned, so that when they eventually became legal again, they were ready to assume their take their place in the hearts of gamblers everywhere in America, but especially in Las Vegas.
In the Vegas casinos, the slot machines were originally provided as a little bit of light entertainment to stop the wives and girlfriends of the casino guests from getting bored. A patronising notion, of course, but a little bit of a stroke of genius – the slot machines quickly outstripped the other games on offer in terms of both popularity and revenue for the casino. So, obviously, they got more and more floor space, to the point where today they’re the first thing you see when you walk into a Las Vegas casino, and in the enormous casino of the Macau casino hub, they dominate floor-space you could play a game of Aussie rules on!
In the mid-1960s, Bally Gaming took slot machines to the next level of their development, developing the first electronic slot machines. Where everything had been mechanical moving parts, modern electronics started to take over, and the slot machines started to look like they do today, with the flashing lights and the sounds that we remember from our childhood days (we’re not young any more, mind you...). With electronics came more developments, too, of course. The reels could stop in more positions, meaning that there were more combinations possible – more combinations meant higher odds of striking the jackpot, of course, but that in turn meant that the jackpot could be much bigger. Microchips in modern pokies have taken the concept further, and we’ve see some truly enormous jackpots in recent years – it’s not unusual to see a million dollars on offer at a Vegas casino, cars being won in Macau, and the online casinos feature progressive pokies with genuine life-changing money in prizes.
With the guts of the slot machines effectively looking the same for the past few years, the big developments have been in software, and in the presentation of the games. We’re into the era of incredible-looking video slot machines, which are an immersive playing experience that still offers you the chance of a massive prize. The glossy beauty of a brand new slot machine is a thing to behold, and we’re more than a little bit excited to see where they’re going in the future – in an industry that’s rightly well-regarded for its constant and impressive innovation, the slot machines are right at the bleeding edge. We’re ready to be surprised by the newest slot machines hitting the market!
The technology that powers your slot machine might have changed a little since the 19th century, but the basic premise remains the same. Spin the reel, match the winning numbers. Simple.
There’s a huge amount of variation in modern slot machines in the number of symbols on a reel, and the number of reels in the slot machine, and in the amount you’re allowed to wager, but you’ll still win more for the less likely combinations. Lots of machines will have the same sort of jackpot combination that made the Liberty Bell machine famous – one combination that pays out the machine’s biggest prize, and the one you’re looking for, especially on a massive online progressive slot game!
In the big casino resorts that still feature the biggest and best collection of slot machines in the world, those machines are beginning to look different to the machines we remember when we were little. These days, the ‘one-arm bandit’ levers on the sides of the machines are necessary to get the mechanism moving any more, but they still appear on the more nostalgic machines, especially in Vegas. Elsewhere, it’s all flashing lights and high-quality sounds, and even the buttons are starting to disappear, replaced by shiny new touch-screens.
The gameplay hasn’t really changed that much, mind you. There’s the odd cut-scene to enjoy, and bonus rounds to win you extra dollars, but the core game is still in the reels. On modern slot machines, you can expect a payout ratio that’s anywhere from 80% to right up to 98%. The physical machines in casino resorts will be at the lower end, and you’ll really only find those 98% payout ratios at online casinos – it’s reasonable to take about 90% as an average for slot machines to pay out, which can be looked at as a 10% house edge. That means that you’ll want to be the one who wins that big jackpot, not the guy playing the game for a long time. Those payout rates are calculated over the very long term, so if you’re betting $100, you’re losing $10 on average, so you play these slot machines for the one-off jackpots, not for the long haul.
It’s worth being familiar with a particular slot machine’s payout table if you’re going to play it. Luckily, they will be published either on the machine or near it, and at online casinos just a short click away. Don’t get caught out. These games are simple and intuitive, and you shouldn’t have any problems, but if you’re in doubt, it’s far better to ask a helpful attendant or send an email than to miss out on a big win on a technicality. Make sure you know what you’re paying for, and what you stand to win – this will be easier on the simple slot machines, but it’s worth with the very popular progressive slot machines (especially online) making sure you’ve opted in to play for the huge jackpot and paid the right stake.
It’s worth being aware, too, of the prizes and the rewards on offer in games related to the slot machines. These will include league tables for winning players that have extra prizes attached, rewards for loyal players, and complimentary gifts for keen slot machine players, too. Again, we think it’s worth the time to work out if you stand to win a free drink, a dinner for two, theatre tickets or even a car just for playing the slot machines you’ve had your eye anyway!
Before the advent of video and online slot machines, spinning mechanical cylinders were used to display and determine any wins due to the player. Older machines used five reels, but the use of three soon became the norm, because of their greater reliability and ease of use – a machine that breaks down isn’t making money, after all!
Three-reel machines were, however, limited, as only 1000 possible combinations of symbols existed – even the toughest combination to land came around every 1000 plays. Those kind of odds meant that large payouts of jackpot prizes were not possible if the machine was going to make money.
The solution was to increase the number of symbols on each reel, and by doing so multiply the number of possible combinations. Outcomes and jackpot sizes were still very limited, though, but we were on our way towards the million-dollar prizes. The next step was to increase the number of combinations further, and manufacturers used weights to make some symbols more likely on each reel than others – reducing the odds of a big win and at the same time allowing that win to be that much bigger.
Then, in 1984, a zippily-named patent was filed – for a device called ‘the Electronic Gaming Device Utilizing a Random Number Generator for Selecting the Reel Stop Positions’. Aside from being a man who knows how to give a patent a great name, Norwegian mathematician Inge Telnaes had made his contribution to today’s slot machines because he saw that it was “important to make a machine that is perceived to present greater chances of payoff than it actually has within the legal limitations that games of chance must operate.” Immediately popular (though you’d say more so with the manufacturers than the punters), the patent was bought by the International Gaming Technology (IGT), and now all slot machines using the device must licence the patent from IGT. There’s no need to go into the maths of the thing (which we’re not backing ourselves to understand), but the result of all these developments have been huge jackpots prizes – and the slot machines have never been more popular...
With money at stake, it’s no surprise that over the years people have come up with a number of ways to cheat slot machines. The old style mechanical slot machines were particularly susceptible to gambling cheats, and tricksters came up with a number of ways to swindle a win. One common method was to attach a piece of plastic wire to a coin and then spin the coin as it was inserted into the machine. The machine would award the player their credits, but the wire made the coin spin in such a way that it was re-directed into the paying out tray – thus earning the cheat a free play. Dishonest, of course, but quite cunning, too – and like every other scam, it had a life-span that came to an end when the manufacturers changed their designs to stop it.
In fact, cheating became much more difficult once computerised slot machines became the standard. With old-school sleight-of-hand trickery ruled out, and sophisticated anti-fraud software coming as standard, slot machines have never been safer from the manufacturer’s point of view. And players benefit from those increased security measures, too, of course. With increased legitimacy comes genuine confidence for you as you’re enjoying your favourite slot machines – especially online, where you need to know you money and your details are safe. The rule is simple: if you’re playing at a recognised, legitimate casino you can’t go too far wrong!