Slot Variance Explained

When you are checking out different slot games online and trying to decide what to play, there are a variety of features you will probably consider. You’ll look at how many reels and paylines there are, and you’ll check into the coin size. You’ll take a glance at the pay table, and you’ll consider features like multipliers and wild symbols.

But you also may want to take variance into account when deciding what to play. While variance is an intuitive concept to many slot players, quite a few newbies struggle to grasp the concept.

Plus, even if you do understand variance, determining the variance of a given game may take some investigating. In this article, I’ll give you an in-depth explanation of slot machine variance, and I’ll help you figure out how to determine variance for games you are thinking of trying out.

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What is Slot Variance?

Slot machine variance refers to whether a game pays out small, frequent wins, or large, infrequent wins.

If a slot pays out small, frequent wins, that is low variance.

If a slot pays out large, infrequent wins, that is high variance.

A slot which is somewhere between the two is medium variance.

Sometimes slot variance is also referred to as “slot volatility.” It should help you to remember the definitions of high and low variance (or volatility) if you think about why the word “variance” or “volatility” is used.

Take a low variance slot machine. Statistically speaking, when you look at the distribution of wins across many spins, there is less variance or volatility in terms of results. The experience is more “even.” You should regularly get small wins, but not huge ups and downs.

With a high variance slot, there is more variance or volatility in terms of results. The slot could pay out next to nothing for a very long time, and then suddenly deliver a huge jackpot. Then it could go back to paying out the minimum for a long time, and so on.

What Slot Variance Isn’t

One common misunderstanding about slot variance is the assumption that it alters the expected return for a game.

For example, someone might think that a low variance slot which is paying out more frequently is also going to give a higher return over time, or you could assume the exact opposite. You might think a high variance slot which pays out the occasional huge win is going to have a higher return over time.

Both these possibilities seem like they could be intuitively correct. But actually, neither of them are. Both a high variance slot and a low variance slot can have the exact same return.

Both could have a 94% return or a 97% return (or whatever), but variance does not refer to the amount that a slot is going to pay back to gamblers over an extended time period. It refers to the way in which that money is paid out.

A low variance slot which has a 97% expected return rate will gradually return that amount to gamblers over a tremendous number of spins. Because the slot is low variance, the distribution of that money will be more even, whereas a high variance slot which has a 97% return rate will also gradually pay out that same amount of money to gamblers over many, many spins. The difference is that the vast majority of those gamblers will receive only a tiny amount back, whereas a few will probably receive the bulk of it.

Why it is Absolutely Essential to Understand Variance

There are a couple of reasons why you need to have a solid understanding of slot variance before you choose slot machines to play online.

  1. Grasping Slot Variance May Help You Manage Your Funds
  2. If you are playing a high variance slot, the typical returns you will get for your spins will probably be much lower than they would be if you were playing a low variance slot. For that reason, you may want to be more cautious with bankroll so that you do not blow through your funds as rapidly.

  3. If You Fail to Pick a Slot Game Which Offers the Variance You Prefer, You Will Likely Find Yourself Frustrated
  4. While an understanding of slot variance is important for selecting stake sizes, it is arguably even more important simply for helping you to pick machines you will actually like. Many gamblers have a preference between high and low variance slots. If they find themselves inadvertently playing the type they do not prefer, they can wind up feeling like they are wasting time and money.

One level of slot variance is not “better” than another, objectively speaking. Whether it is “better” to play a high or low variance slot depends entirely on your personal subjective preference. To help you figure out which type of slot variance you prefer, let’s take a look at what the experience of high versus low variance slots is like.

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What Playing a Low Variance Slot is Like If You Enjoy Low Variance Slots

For those who prefer low variance slots, they offer a satisfying experience. Let’s imagine a hypothetical gambler named Anne who does enjoy these types of slots. Here is what playing a low variance slot game is like for Anne.

When Anne sits down to play her favorite low variance slot, she isn’t expecting a massive jackpot. She knows it isn’t likely, but then again, she knows she isn’t likely to win one from a high variance slot either.

What Anne wants is simply to have a good time and maybe get some of her money back as she goes. Sure enough, every few spins, she might get a nice little payout. Multipliers and wild symbols show up frequently.

In short, the slot offers a reliable experience. While there is risk and uncertainty involved with every spin, results are random after all, she knows that long dry stretches are not likely. This helps her to avoid steep emotional highs and lows something not every gambler is looking for, even if they do enjoy playing with an element of risk. Instead, she gets a nice dopamine rush from each small win, enough to keep her hooked and happy.

What Playing a Low Variance Slot is Like If You Don’t Enjoy Low Variance Slots

Now let’s consider another hypothetical gambler named Brad, who prefers high variance slots. For Brad, the thrill of playing slots comes from the possibility of getting a massive win.

While playing the same low variance slot which Anne enjoys, Brad regularly finds himself feeling frustrated. He gets lots of small wins, but for him, they are all disappointments. He feels like the game is teasing him, dangling a carrot which is just out of reach. Each small win seems to promise the possibility of a big one, but never quite delivers. All in all, it feels like a waste of time and money.

In short, the very features which give Anne a nice psychological payoff make Brad feel irritated and cheated.

What Playing a High Variance Slot is Like if You Enjoy High Variance Slots

An old fan favorite, “Megasaur”

Now let’s talk about how Brad feels when he is playing his favorite high variance slot. For the most part, the game only returns minimal amounts of money, but Brad is used to that. He knows that he is rarely going to get a noteworthy win, but when he does, it is likely to be pretty substantial.

Brad’s bankroll is pretty large, so he doesn’t feel uneasy about weathering dry stretches. He’s also pretty patient, and he doesn’t feel like the slot is trying to “lead him on” with lots of small wins.

To him, the excitement of the slot is the knowledge that his next win might be enough to cover his gambling expenses this year and maybe pay his rent for a few months. Perhaps he’ll get really lucky and the next win will be a life-changer.

What Playing a High Variance Slot is Like If You Don’t Enjoy High Variance Slots

Now let’s picture Anne playing the same high variance slot which Brad is so fond of. Sitting down to play, she hopes that the game will deliver lots of small rewards to keep her engaged. If she is at least aware that it is a high variance slot, hopefully she will adjust her expectations a bit but she still probably will become impatient with the game.

Each time she takes a spin, she will wonder, “Will I ever get a wild symbol? Why doesn’t this game ever seem to give me multipliers? How many coins will I have to put in before I get something substantial back?”

Instead of being a relaxing, fun time, the process quickly becomes exhausting. Fed up with the slot, Anne feels like she’s wasted her money.

Picking the Right Variance of Slot is Essential to Have a Good Time Gambling

You now can see how it isn’t just the quality of a slot which impacts your enjoyment of it. It is also your gambling personality and your expectations. If Anne greatly prefers a low variance experience, and she picks a high variance slot, she probably will not have as much fun.

If she isn’t aware she has chosen a high variance slot, the problem is compounded. At that point, she becomes frustrated not just with the game, but with her confusion. Vice versa is true for Brad.

So you should always ask yourself these questions before picking a slot

  • Do I prefer lots of small payouts, or do I prefer giving myself a shot at infrequent, hefty payouts?
  • How strong is my preference? Is it flexible? How flexible?
  • Is the slot I am considering a high or low variance slot?
  • Are my expectations aligned properly?

Doing this will ensure two things. One, that you are picking a slot which will suit you. And two, that you will not become frustrated because you walk in expecting one experience and end up getting another.

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How to Determine the Variance of a Slot Game Online

So now that you know what variance is and why it matters so much, how do you go about determining whether a slot you are thinking about playing is low, medium, or high variance?

The first thing you can do is try and see whether the variance is listed. Look through the information on the game which the provider has offered, and see if the variance is blatantly stated.

If it is not, you will need to try and figure it out on your own. There are a couple of approaches you can take here.

  • Analyze the pay table

Your first option is to look at the pay table. Specifically, look at the payout you get for having four symbols lined up and the payout you get for having five symbols lined up.

How large is the difference between the payouts?

If the payout for five symbols is anywhere from 2-5x the size of the payout for four symbols, this implies that the slot game has a low to medium variance.

If the payout for five symbols is much higher, for example 10x or more, this implies you are looking at a high variance slot.

Hopefully you can intuitively see the logic here. Basically, five symbols lining up is a much more common occurrence with a low variance slot.

Being as that is the case, the machine isn’t going to pay out a huge reward for it. It isn’t that much less likely than having four symbols line up, so it simply doesn’t make sense to offer a huge jackpot.

But with a high variance slot, having all five symbols matching on the payline is not nearly as likely as getting four symbols aligned, so the payout difference is going to account for that.

  • Play the slot

  • Yet another fan fave, “A Night With Cleo”

The second option is to actually play the slot. To avoid unnecessarily blowing through funds, play for free while you are conducting this test if that feature is available.

Simply take a large number of spins, and take notes about how often you get payouts and how large or small they tend to be.

The more experience you have with slots in general, the easier it will be for you to tell whether a slot has low, medium or high variance this way.

Even if you are relatively new to playing slots however, you probably will be able to get a feel for the variance level of a slot you are trying.

In fact, on that note, this is another benefit of playing for free before you play for pay when you are a newbie.

Not only will it give you a chance to figure out which slots are low, medium or high variance, but it will also improve your grasp on the concept and help you figure out what you enjoy to begin with.

Whatever Variance You Prefer, Plenty of Fun and Engaging Online Slots Await You

You now should feel pretty comfortable with the concept of slot variance. You know what slot variance is, and you know the difference between low, medium, and high variance.

You also have a few methods for determining the variance of slot games which you encounter both online and in brick-and-mortar casinos.

In all likelihood, you will discover that you have a preference for lower or higher variance slots. Regardless of what types of slots you do find you enjoy the most, online, you’ll find a massive selection of games which meet your preferences.

Ready to get started? Check out our reviews to find some of the top online casinos for slot gaming online. Also make sure you continue to explore our other blog posts for more slot tips and guides!

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