One day, you can't seem to stop hitting the big wins and bonus rounds. The next you can't seem to get ahead one pence no matter what you do. What's up with that?
Hot and cold streaks at the slots are the stuff of casino legends, and they inspire all sorts of fascinating folk practices. For some people, it's as simple as wearing the same item of clothing or some lucky charm every time they spin. Some offer prayers to the game, or do a special dance for it. Some insist on pressing buttons in a certain order, or making their bets in a certain pattern. And some just need a nice bald head or round belly to rub for good luck before they play.
Some players base their play on what a particular game has been doing lately. Some believe that hot machines will continue to be hot and look only for those, while others believe cold machines are due to start running hot again.
These beliefs and rituals even extends to which entrance and exit players use at brick-and-mortar casinos. The MGM Grand in Las Vegas famously had to remove the iconic lion's mouth design at the main entrance, as so many gamblers felt that walking into the jaws of a beast was bad luck!
The truth is that hot and cold streaks are all down to random chance, but some of these rituals and habits are fun for players. We think that everyone should play games in the way that brings them most enjoyment - it's YOUR money, after all! But if you'd like to know exactly what is behind those seeming extended runs of good and bad luck, that's the topic we'll be tackling in today's post.
The Math Behind Streaks: Variance and RTP
The best tool for estimating how favourable a slot machine will be to players is the "return to player" (RTP) percentage. Once a closely guarded industry secret, these numbers are often now published openly by game developers and some online casinos even maintain a list of them for player convenience. The percentage number, say 97% for example, tells you how much money the machine is expected to return to players over time.
Though players can glean some useful information from RTP numbers, it was actually developed as a tool for casino owners. It's more useful to the casino because it tells you how much money a game is expected to return over the course of its entire life, not to any one given player or during one specific slice of time. That's why a player can put £100 into a slot with a 99% RTP, spin at £1 100 times, and end up losing £50.
That randomness between different sessions and different players is called "variance." In terms of statistics, it's an expected feature. Over a huge amount of spins and players that RTP will average out to 97%. But from player to player and session to session, it can swing wildly.
So a cold streak is simply a bad run of variance, while a hot streak is a good one. There's nothing that goes into that but random chance.
Volatility: The Main Factor in Streaks
There's another mathematical detail that matters even more than RTP in how "streaky" a particular game will be. We call that "volatility."
Based on the structure and rules of the game, we can get a general idea of how likely a player is to encounter hot and cold runs of variance. This often requires a detailed analysis of the game's payout rates, bonus features and so on.
There is one general rule of thumb that applies to slots and their expected volatility that will help you to understand the concept: if most of the payouts come from the bonus game, and the bonus game is hard to get to, then you're dealing with a very volatile slot.
As we mentioned, RTP numbers are meant more for the use of the casino rather than the player. A slot may have a 98% RTP, but it may get that because it guarantees huge payouts in the bonus round. Well, if you have to exhaust most of your budget before making a bonus round, that 98% isn't helping you at all!
A game such as that would be considered volatile because you can expect to have long stretches of not doing well, punctuated by the occasional bonus where you bring in a big haul of money.
Hot and Cold
While all the slot rituals and routines are fun, and can help players feel more satisfied and comfortable with their experience, the hard fact is that they don't influence the game one bit. A ritual that appears to work is simply a matter of lucking into a statistically normal streak of hot variance while you were happening to do the ritual. The next hot streak will come whenever it feels like coming, no matter what you rub or how much you dance.
Interested in learning more about the detailed inner workings of slots and how to improve your odds? Check out our online slots guide to learn about the difference between game types, how all the wilds and bonuses work, betting strategies and more!
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