Slot Machines vs. Video Poker Machines

What looks like a slot machine, sounds like a slot machine, but isn’t a slot machine?

Video poker.

Even though they look and sound alike, the two games have significant differences that any serious gambler will want to be aware of. If you’re new to gambling machines, this page offers explanations of the various differences between slots and video poker.


Pay Tables

Both video poker and slot machines have pay tables describing the payouts for various combinations. The big difference is that the combinations on video poker are based on a deck of 52 (or 53) cards, while the combinations on a slot machine game aren’t based on anything specific.

Here’s an example. In Jacks or Better video poker, a pair of Jacks, Queens, or Kings results in a payout of 1 to 1. We know, mathematically, that the probability of being dealt this hand is 21.46%. We can do that calculation for every possible hand in the game, so we can determine two things:

  1. The payback percentage for the game.
  2. The correct strategy for playing the game.

On the other hand, slot machines are programmed with an arbitrary set of symbol combinations with probabilities which are determined by the desired payback percentage for the machine. We might know that three cherries pay off at 5 to 1, but we have no way of knowing what the probability of getting that combination is.

That’s because modern slot machines use a random number generator to determine how often a particular symbol comes up. This RNG can be programmed so that the symbol comes up once out of every ten spins, but it could also be set up so that the symbols comes up once out of every twenty spins.

To add to the obfuscation, different symbols might have different probabilities of showing up. Cherries might come up once every ten spins, but oranges might come up once every twenty spins. And there might be as many as 20, 30, 50 (or more) symbols on the reels.

Since you can’t ascertain the probability of each symbol coming up, there’s no way to determine the payout percentage for a slot machine game. To use a bad metaphor, choosing a slot machine is a…wait for it…a crap shoot.


Payout Percentages

Not only is the ability to actually calculate the potential payout percentage for a video poker game an advantage over slot machine games, the payout percentages on even the worst video poker games are almost always higher than on the average slot machine.

According to a survey by Strictly Slots magazine, of some of the loosest slot machines in major gambling destinations, you could find some of the following payout percentages:

  • In Atlantic City, the best payout percentage overall was for the Borgata Casino, which offered 92.63%.
  • In Colorado, the best payout percentage overall was for Cripple Creek Casino, which offered a whopping 94.17%.
  • The entire city of Reno, Nevada had an overall payout percentage of 94.88%.

By way of comparison and contract, a 9/6 (or full-pay) Jacks or Better video poker game offers a payback percentage of 99.5%. Even if you can’t find a full pay machine, the next step down, the 8/5 Jacks or Better game, offers a 97.3% payback percentage. Both of those are clearly superior to what you’d find on the average slots in any of the destinations above.

How big is the difference? Assume that you’re playing $1.25 per wager, and that you’re playing 600 spins (or hands) per hour. You’re putting $750 per hour into action. Your expected loss per hour with those payout percentages look like this:

  • Full pay Jacks or Better video poker results in an expected loss per hour of only $3.75.
  • 8/5 Jacks or Better video poker offers you an expected loss per hour of $20.25. That seems huge compared to the full pay machines, but wait until you see the expected hourly losses on the slots games.
  • Slot machines in Reno, Nevada, on average, offer you an expected hourly loss of $38.40. And that’s the best of the slot machine bunch!

Even if you don’t bother to learn how to play video poker according to proper strategy, you’re only giving up another 2% or so back to the casino. (Common sense is assumed.) 8/5 Jacks or Better is STILL a better bet than a slot, albeit barely, since your hourly loss without using correct strategy goes up to $35.25.


Jackpot Sizes

For the most part, slot machines often offer bigger jackpots than video poker games. For example, the best possible payout on a 9/6 Jacks or Better game where you’re wagering $1.25 per spin is $5000. You can easily find a slot machine game with two or three times that amount as the top jackpot.

So if you enjoy going after huge, potentially life-changing jackpots, and you don’t mind the greater hourly loss and volatility found on slots with large jackpots, then slots might work out well for you.


Decisions and Strategies

Another pro that slot machines offer over video poker is the lack of decision making required, and even that is only a pro to a specific set of gamblers. Some gamblers don’t like to make decisions while they’re playing—and they certainly don’t want to make decisions that might actually affect their outcome.

Other gamblers enjoy the challenge of making strategic decisions that actually affect their outcomes. These are the same types of gamblers who enjoy blackjack, sports betting, and poker games. No amount of strategy or good decision making will make a negative expectation video poker game into a positive expectation game, but you can get pretty close.

So the question becomes this: What kind of gambler are you?

If you want some control over your fate and enjoy the challenge of making decisions which might or might not be correct, then video poker is probably the game for you.

On the other hand, if you just want to soak up the casino ambience and hope to get lucky, then slot machines might be a viable alternative.