Do Three-Reel Slot Machines Tease Jackpots More Often?

The majority of slot play today is on video slots, but traditional slots with three mechanical reels still command a loyal following.  One reader wrote to me recently with a question that could only come from a three-reel player.

“I’ve noticed that the big-paying symbols are off the line a lot more than they’re on the line,” he wrote. “Is that intentional? Are the games programmed to tease players to thinking they’re close to a jackpot?

The near-miss effect is much more common and noticeable on three-reel slots with one payline than on video slots where 30 or more lines are common. Near misses are a natural outgrowth of the odds of the game and the way slots with mechanical reels are programmed.

Mechanical reels have to be small enough to fit inside machine casings. So In order to generate enough possible reel combinations to yield the odds that make large payoffs possible, stepper slots are programmed with virtual reels. Virtual reels make the reels behave as if they have more symbols and spaces than they really do.

That’s done by assigning fewer random numbers to big paying symbols than to others. Let’s say a programmer assigns one random number to a jackpot symbol. If he then assigns five numbers to the blank space just above and five more to the blank space just below the jackpot symbol, then the jackpot symbol will appear just above or just below the payline 10 times as often as it lands on the line.

Other blank spaces and low-paying symbols also are assigned more numbers than the jackpot symbol.  That’s all done to create odds that will make combinations come up in the proper portions to yield a desired payback percentage and jackpot frequency.

A natural consequence of giving other symbols more random numbers is that the highest paying symbols will appear in the slot window but not on the payline a lot more often than they land on the payline. Programmers don’t have to build an intentional tease into the game. That all just happens because of the odds of the game.

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