A Newbie’s Guide to How Slot Machines Work

We’ve all seen it in the movies: the main character pulls the lever, wins the cash like a boss, then coolly and calmly moves on to the next exciting adventure. Of course, in the reel world (pardon the pun), slot machines are much more nuanced than that. Remember this rule: slot machines are easy to understand but impossible to master.

Whether you play slot machines in a brick-and-mortar casino or online, the core principles remain the same. We’ll show you the basics you need to understand so that you can make informed decisions while playing slots.

Getting Started

Before you start playing, let’s go through the essential features of this game so you can familiarize yourself with how slot machines work. Each slot game is composed of reels, rows, a spin button, paylines, and symbols.

Reels and Rows

Reels are the vertical columns where the symbols spin. The number of reels can differ from one slot game to another, with the most typical having three, five, or seven reels. Rows are also important – they’re the horizontal lines where the tiles (hopefully) line up. As a general rule, the more lines there are, the better the chances of tiles lining up.


Paylines represent specific sequences of symbols that form a winning combination. The simplest form of payline – the one you will have seen at the movies – is when symbols line up horizontally, from left to right. However, some slot machines will pay out for much more complicated patterns than just a straight line. 

A slot machine could have one payline, or it could have 50 of them. Each one of those paylines represents one way to win; a game with 15 paylines will have 15 different ways to emerge victorious.

Spin Button

The spin button starts the game and instantly triggers the game’s random number generator (RNG) to determine the outcome. Some slot machines allow you to hit the spin button again to stop the reels from spinning early. However, the RNG locks in the result from the moment you pull the lever or press the button. You should always remember that stopping the reels earlier won’t affect the outcome; it’ll only speed up the spinning process.


Symbols are the images that spin on the reels of a slot machine. Each symbol holds a different value, meaning the amount you win could vary depending on which symbol comes up. The design of symbols is usually connected to the theme of the slot game. 

Specific symbols may also have special properties. These include scatter symbols, which activate bonus rounds and deliver payouts when you have at least three such symbols on the reels. Wild symbols act as a substitute for another symbol. In contrast, bonus symbols activate bonus rounds when specific combinations or pattern requirements are fulfilled. Finally, free spin symbols give players a certain number of free spins when two or three of them show up in one turn.

Pay Table

The pay table informs the player what rewards each combination of symbols will yield in the form of bonus rounds, free spins, or simply winning money. The table also tells you the amount you’ll win depending on the size of your bet and the combination of symbols.

Taking the First Spin

Playing this game is very simple. First, you need to make a deposit at the banking or accounting section of the gambling site or casino you’re visiting. The only exception to this is if you’re playing at an online casino that offers a no-deposit free spins bonus, which is rare.

Next, select how many paylines you’ll play. Some slot machines – especially online slots – have a fixed number of paylines, while others allow you to select the number of active paylines per spin.

The next step is to choose the coin value, which usually starts at $0.01. If you select a coin value of $0.02 and the number of active paylines is 25, you’d be betting $0.50 per spin.

After deciding on the coin value, you might need to choose your bet level. The higher your bet level, the more you’ll have to spend on your bet, but the bigger the potential winnings. For example, if you choose the fourth level with $0.50 needed per spin, your bet value will jump four times to $2. Keep in mind that not all video slot games have the best level function available.

Once you settle your bet, press the spin button. Everything after that is automated; if the RNG gives you a winning combination, you’ll receive a payout. The payout amount will depend on your bet size, how many symbols you’ve got, and the value of those symbols.

Understanding Your Chances and Your Limits 

Here are a few additional tips and tricks to help you maximize your enjoyment of playing slot games and minimize any potential damage.

  • Before playing, select an amount you’re willing to lose and stick to it. Track how much money you’re losing and only go over the set bankroll if you’re playing with money you’ve already won during that session.
  • Research online casino games by playing them in demo mode before betting any real money. Most gambling venues have a “play for fun” gameplay mode where you can test out the game without investing any money. This will give you a good idea of what to expect and let you know whether this game is for you.
  • Find out the house edge for a specific slot game before playing it. You can determine the house advantage by finding the game’s return to player (RTP). An RTP is measured as a percentage of the entire wagered amount the slot machine will pay back to a player over time. For example, if a slot game has an RTP of 92, the house will on average win $8 for every $100 the player bets, with the player getting $92 back. If you’re playing online, check on Google for the slots with the highest RTP. Anything above 96% is considered very good in this industry.
  • Check what the slot’s potential bonuses are and always play the game with the higher multiplier. These bonuses are arguably the best way to get bang for your buck when playing slot machines
  • Look for the game’s volatility, which tells you the frequency of any kind of payout. Slot games where you don’t win for a long time but receive substantial payouts when you do win are called high-volatility slots. Low-volatility slots pay more frequently but in smaller amounts. Both high- and low-volatility slots are legit; you simply need to decide what kind of thrill you’re looking for.
  • There’s no way to cheat or twist the odds your way, so leave that thought behind as soon as you sit down at the slot machine.

Pass on the Knowledge

With this information, we hope you’ve learned how to play slot machines sensibly without taking too many risks. While these games appear very simple on the surface, the complex calculations behind the scenes mean that there’s a lot to take into consideration before you pull the lever or press the button. There’s no magic formula for winning on the slots, but the more you understand about how they work, the better your chances of having fun and minimizing your losses.