Online slots typically have high house edge of 3-6%. When you do not hit a big win, slots may quickly drain your bankroll. If you play without bonuses, you will almost certainly lose over time. However, with bonuses you can offset this large house edge and shift the odds in your favor.
Types of Bonuses
Large wagering requirements and slots are a bad combination. The high house edge and high variance of slots makes it difficult to complete a wagering requirement with traditional strategy. Fortunately there are bonuses without large wagering requirements and without wagering requirements at all.
Cashable Bonuses -- Cashable bonuses almost always have a wagering requirement. Pre-wager slot bonuses with a reasonable wagering requirement can still be profitable, using the strategies described in the sections below. Wagering requirements may be lower for slots than for table games.
Sticky Bonuses -- Sticky bonuses usually have a wagering requirement. Like cashable bonuses, sticky slot bonuses with a low wagering requirement can still be profitable. A few casinos offer sticky bonuses with no wagering requirement. Real Time Gaming no-wagering stickies often have a maximum cashout. If you win a big jackpot, you won't be able to withdraw all of your winnings. If you do claim a Real Time Gaming bonus, be sure to read the conditions carefully.
Clearplay Bonuses & Free Play Bonuses -- Under traditional implementation of Microgaming Clearplay bonuses, you can withdraw your winnings at any time, whether you have met the wagering requirements on the bonus or not. This makes the bonus like a sticky with no playthrough when cashed out early. Unfortunately, most casino groups now use a modified form of the bonus with a required playthrough, especially for sign-up bonuses. Slot play usually contributes more towards total wagering than play on table games. Slots can be a good choice with another games are weighted poorly.
Cashback Bonuses -- Cashback bonuses refund a percentage of net losses within a specified time period. The bonus only pays, if you have a net loss during this period. Cashback bonuses often do not have a wagering requirement, so they can work well with slot play.
The Double Up Feature
After a slot spin is completed, some casino softwares give you the opportunity to double your win in a war-like game. The dealer and player both draw a card. If the player's card is higher, the win is doubled. If the dealer's card is higher, the player wins nothing. If the player and dealer tie, the original win is returned. You can double sequentially until reaching the maximum win. This is one of the only bets in the casino with no house edge. If doubling counts towards the wagering requirement and is not restricted in the T&C, the feature can be used to dramatically reduce the expected loss per unit wagered. If you double up each win 1x, then a house edge of 4% becomes a house edge per unit wagered of HE/(2-HE) ~= 2%. If you double up each win n times, then a house edge per unit wagered becomes HE/(1+n*(1-HE)).
Doubling large wins increases variance, which is already quite high for slots. Doubling small wins can decrease variance over a wagering requirement since wagering done on the double bet may have a lower variance than wagering done on slot spins. If you want to avoid increasing variance, do not double when the size of the double bet is greater than that the variance per slot spin (square of SD per slot spin). Sometimes increasing variance can be useful, such as when trying to reach a high target gain. In such instances, doubling large wins can be useful. Note that doubling does not count towards wagering requirements at most Microgaming casinos.
Bonuses without Wagering Requirements
The average gain for a Clearplay, sticky, or cashback bonus with no wagering requirement can be estimated with the formula below:
Average Gain = Bonus * Chance of Bust - Average Wagering * House Edge (per unit wagered)
This formula makes sense for cashback bonuses since the bonus only pays when you bust, but it may seem counterintuitive for sticky and Clearplay bonuses. One may expect gain to decrease as chance of busts increases, not increase. Recall that the bonus can be bet, but cannot be cashed out (without completing wagering). During the times that you bust, you wager both the bonus and deposit, but you lose only the deposit. Or another way of looking at it... when you wager the bonus, you get to keep your winnings, and you don't have to pay your losses. This increases the average return by chance of bust * bonus. See the sticky bonus page for some examples, which may make this more clear.
To maximize gain, you want to increase the chance of busting and decrease the average wagering. You want to have a high risk of busting in a small amount of wagering. The solution is choosing a higher variance slot or increasing bet size. By "high variance", I mean that the return over the short term tends to deviate from the overall average return of the slot. These are slots that periodically have big hits, but go through your bankroll quickly when they do not hit. 5-reel video slots with high paying bonus rounds or free spins tend to be higher variance, while traditional 3-reel slots tend be lower variance. You can increase the variance of a slot by selecting fewer lines while maintaining the same overall bet size by increasing bet per line, or by doubling large wins. In short, you maximize gain by going for a big win and cashing out after that big win. If the chance of busting is high enough with your usual play, and you do not want to increase it even further, you can also simply continue with your usual strategy. The bonus will only help you, as you can cash out at any point without completing a wagering requirement.
The house edge will be 3.5-5.5% for most Microgaming video slots. Chance of bust and average wagering vary with the particular slot and particular strategy. Hopefully, you have a feel for these values from previous experience. If not, you can test out the games in practice mode before playing for real money. Consider a $100 Clearplay with early withdrawal allowed. If you play on Loaded with a 3.7% house edge, select a bet size such that chance of busting before reaching target is ~80%, and repeatedly double all wins until reaching a target gain, then the formula predicts: $100*0.8 - ~$200*0.037 = $74... approximately 3/4 the bonus. Note that $74 is the overall average gain. During the 20% of the times when you get a big win the average gain is much higher -- ~$770. The other 80% of the time, you lose your $100 deposit. So the overall average is 20% * $770 - 80% * $100 = $74. You must cash out after the big win to achieve this average gain. If you continue playing, you are expected to eventually lose your winnings.
Bonuses with Wagering Requirements
I recommend starting with the same strategy as with no-wagering bonuses -- leverage the bonus by choosing "high variance" slots and/or doubling wins. If non-slot games are allowed, but do not count towards wagering, then alternatively you can choose high variance bets on non-slot games with a lower house edge. This latter strategy of doing high variance betting on low house edge non-slot games often has a higher EV than slot games, even if the non-slot games do not count towards wagering.
The difference in strategy for with wagering bonuses occurs after a big win. If you keep making high variance bets throughout the wagering, EV will be very high, but you will almost never complete the wagering. So instead I recommend decreasing variance and having a better chance of making a cashout. Reduce bet size, witch to a lower variance slot, and/or complete the wagering on a non-slot game (if allowed). The lower variance slots tend to be ones without high-paying bonus rounds where you can continue playing for long periods without busting. Unfortunately the lowest variance games are often the less exciting ones because you aren't getting the rare huge wins. You can still complete wagering requirements on your favorite high variance video slots. But if you do so, I recommend a small bet size. Doubling wins can also be useful, as it can reduce the high house edge of slots to a reasonable house edge per unit wagered when it counts towards wagering. However, doing so on larger bets dramatically increases variance (doubling smaller bets can decrease variance).
Continuing with the $100 cash balance, $100 bonus balance example... when playing video slots with an 80% bust rate, the expected gain from the no-wagering bonus was $74. If the Clearplay bonus had a 30x wagering requirement and an average of 28x wagering remained, then you are expected to lose 2800*0.037 = $104 while completing the requirement. You also gain an extra $100 from being able to cash out the bonus. So during the 20% of the time that you make a big win, the average decreases increases from $770 to $770 - $104 + $100 = $766. And the other 80% of the time, the loss is unchanged. This makes the overall average gain is 20% * $766 - 80% * $100 = ~$73. The extra wagering decreases the average gain by less than $1 from $74 to ~$73.
See the two-tier betting page for a more detailed discussion of this type of high-variance/low-variance strategy and the effect of variance & bet size on EV.
Example #1 : Clearplay Bonus, No Double Bet, No Early Withdrawal
For a variety of reasons, players may not wish or may not be allowed to use double bets. As an example, consider a $100 Clearplay bonus with 10% weighting on most non-slot games, 2% weighting on Classic BJ, and All Aces & double bets banned. This example can be tested using the two tier simulator. There are several strategies, one could use to play this bonus, all with different advantages and disadvantages. A summary is below:
All Blackjack -- The highest EV for a given chance of bust occurs with two-tier betting on blackjack, in spite of the reduced game weighting. The simulator returns an EV of $76 with a 76% chance of bust for half-bankroll bets on Vegas BJ to a $600 target, followed by $5 bets. There are two main downsides to this strategy. Completing a 300xB (30xB with 10% weighting) wagering requirement takes a long time. You'd need to run autoplay for several hours with the listed bet sizes. The other issues is a higher risk of problems when cashing out. Unreputable casinos could attempt to deny winnings with a "irregular betting" clause in the T&C or similar.
Blackjack, then Slots -- Another possible strategy is beginning with two-tier betting on blackjack, then completing wagering on a low house edge slot game, such as Loaded. The simulator returns an EV of $74 with a 76% chance of bust for half-bankroll bets on Vegas BJ to a $675 target, followed by small bets on Loaded. Note that the target gain on BJ needs to be higher to maintain a 76% chance of bust, due to a reduced risk of busting when completing wagering after reaching target. EV only decreased $2 for playing Loaded instead of BJ. The time requirement is quite a bit shorter since you are only wagering 30xB to complete wagering instead of 300xB. There is still a significant risk of problems at some casinos due to the large half-bankroll bets. You can greatly reduce this risk by using a smaller bet size on blackjack, without a great difference in EV. EV is $70 with a 76% chance of bust using $25 flat bets on Classic BJ (higher EV than Vegas BJ due to larger wagering) followed by small bets on Loaded.
All Slots -- The lowest problem risk of all occurs when playing all slots. I have yet to hear a case where winnings were denied due for "irregular betting" when only playing Microgaming slots. EV is still high, but not as high as the other strategies. The simulator returns an EV of $59 with a 76% chance of bust for $10 bets on Loaded to a $500 target, followed by smaller bets on Loaded.
Example #2 : Sticky Bonus, Only Slots, No Double Bets Offered
Consider a 400% to $400 sticky bonus with 10x(B+D) = 12.5xB wagering on slots. The T&C specifies that winnings may be confiscated if non-slot games are played, and the software does not offer double bets. Precise house edge of slots are unknown, but payout reports suggest about a ~5% house edge. I will use the 3-reel games Off The Hook (high variance) and 7 Sultans (low variance) to simulate this case since they are programmed to have a 5% house edge in the simulator. Using $4x3=$12 on Off The Hook to a $750 target, followed by $1x3=$3 bets on 7 Sultans gives an EV of $200 with an 80% chance of bust. This bonus has a higher EV per chance of losing $100 than the non-sticky Clearplay bonus in example #1, due to the high bonus percentage.
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