Bright lights, spinning reels, and the promise of titanic payouts that rarely, if ever, come. No, I’m not referring to the characteristics of a slot machine, but instead those tied to one of the most popular online poker variants on the planet: lottery-style sit & goes.
The proliferation of so-called LSNGs, and in particular Spin & Go’s on PokerStars, symbolically marked the end of an era for online poker. For better or worse, no longer did operators chum up to their high-volume players. Instead, casuals now wore the proverbial bullseye on their back.
It’s hardly hyperbole to say that since 2014 nearly all new online poker variants have been characterized by attributes more closely associated with slot terminals:
- Frenetic gameplay
- Randomized payouts
- High house edge
- Easy (easier) learning curve
- Long stretches of low, or nonexistent, returns
…to name a few.
Yet there are a few notable distinctions between the one armed bandits and Spins. Namely, Spin & Go players do benefit somewhat from being skillful players. But for the most part Spins are online poker’s equivalent of Quick Hit Platinum, or Wheel of Fortune On Tour.
For PokerStars NJ, the emphasis on lottery sit & goes has worked. Despite boasting similar tournament and cash game traffic to the WSOP NJ/888 NJ network, PokerStars has generated approximately 40% more revenue. Given this, it’s little wonder that both WSOP NJ and 888 NJ have recently gone live with their own take on the lottery sit & go: BLAST.
But despite the skill-factor, when an eager new NJ online gambling fan asks me what they should be playing, either Spin & Go’s or traditional slots, I’ve had to take pause, not truly knowing which would decimate their bankrolls faster.
So I decided to conduct a little analysis, and here are the results.
On a game-by-game basis, slots wins out
Let’s imagine for a second that Spin & Go’s are in fact slot terminals. That’s not too much of a stretch right?
There are two defining characteristics of slots that define their value: return-to-player and volatility.
First, let’s determine a Spin & Go’s return-to-player, which is pretty straightforward. A Spin & Go sees 7% of the prize pool go to the rake, meaning that if an average player grinded out an infinite number of games, they would concede 7% of their buy-ins to the house. This equates to a return-to-player of 93% (1 – 0.07 = 0.93).
Volatility is trickier. Think of volatility as a measure of chaos if you will; the more volatility the longer it will take players to reach their expected return:
- Low volatility slot machines feature lots of small payouts, but only modest top prizes. These “jackpots” occur at a reasonable frequency.
- On the flip side, high volatility machines are characterized by long droughts where the player punts away money, and the very occasional big payoff.
Spin & Go’s don’t neatly fall into either category. There are semi-long droughts, and a decent number of small-to-mid sized payoffs, which are characteristics of medium volatility machines.
However, the payouts that pipedreams are made of occur only once in 100,000 games. And given that there are three players per match, our average bloke only has a 1 in 300,000 chance of scoring that hit. That aspect of the payout system is about as volatile as it gets, on the level of progressive slots.
So on balance, let’s say that Spin & Go’s possess a medium-high volatility rating.
Comparatively, an examination of online slots reveals the following:
- The return-to-player varies from 92 – 98%, with an average of approximately 96%.
- The average volatility rating is medium, maybe even tending toward medium-low.
Thus, not only do slot players see better average returns, but it’ll take them less time to realize those returns. I want to emphasize that this conclusion only applies to slots featured on NJ online casinos, as slot returns in Atlantic City trend much closer to 90-91%, and there are far more progressives, which bumps the volatility rating up a notch.
Compared to AC slots, Spin & Go’s appear to be a better investment for new players. Just not compared to their online counterparts.
However, there is more to the story.
A brief discussion of time and stakes
Spin & Go’s may be frenetically paced relative to other online poker formats, but they’re still slow as molasses compared to slots.
To wit, the average Spin & Go player will see somewhere in the vicinity of three blind levels per game. It often takes more levels to win a match, but I’m factoring in all the times a player makes a quick exit. Add another minute in for registration and payout determination times, and that’s 10 minutes a round.
Slot rounds take all of five seconds to complete — even less, but I’m accounting for bonus rounds. Thus, a slot player can spin the virtual reels roughly 120 times in the time it takes to complete just a solitary Spin & Go match. Wowzer.
However, Spin & Go’s players are forced to gamble at least a buck per game, compared to just $0.20 a spin on the most budget-friendly bandits. Assuming these stakes, we can determine how much each player is expected to lose per hour:
- Spin & Go player: six games per hour, $1 per game, house edge of 7% = expected loss of $0.42 per hour
- Slots player: 720 games per hour, $0.20 per game, house edge of 4% = expected loss of $5.76 per hour
It goes without saying that that’s a tremendous divide. The slot player loses nearly 14 times as much under these conditions.
However, the most popular Spin & Go stakes appear to be at the $5 and $10 levels, and the $0.50 level (I’m generalizing here) for slots. What does this stake comparison reveal?
- Spin & Go player: six games per hour, $5 per game, house edge of 7% = expected loss of $2.10 per hour
- Spin & Go player #2: six games per hour, $10 per game, house edge of 7% = expected loss of $4.20 per hour
- Slots player: 720 games per hour, $0.50 per game, house edge of 4% = expected loss of $14.40 per hour
One more example. Let’s now assume our slots players are especially savvy, and only plays games that return 97%+. Not only that, but they seek out especially low volatility games. On the contrary, let’s assume our Spin & Go players won’t hit one of the top three prizes (odds of 13 in 100,000) anytime soon, increasing their effective rake to 8%.
- Spin & Go player: six games per hour, $5 per game, house edge of 8% = expected loss of $2.40 per hour
- Spin & Go player #2: six games per hour, $10 per game, house edge of 8% = expected loss of $4.80 per hour
- Slots player: 720 games per hour, $0.50 per game, house edge of 3% = expected loss of $10.80 per hour
From this, it’s pretty clear that Spin & Go’s are a much better means of stretching the gambling dollar, even under these favorable slot conditions. Heck, even if we assumed the Spin & Go player opened up two games at a time, they’d still be losing less than the slot junket.
Looks like our initial conclusion, that online slots were the better play, has been turned flat on its cherry. Or maybe not.
The skill factor, and what it means for return
Of course, we’ve neglected one major attribute of Spin & Go’s in our analysis thus far, and that’s the role skill plays.
Despite so-called betting systems, and delusions that flailing one’s arms around like a lunatic will increase the chances of hitting a bonus, slots are an unskillful game. Hit the button, spin the reel, and see what falls.
To the contrary, Spin & Go players have a say in their own destiny (less so if they’re playing Spin & Go Max, but those haven’t launched in New Jersey just yet). Players start with 25 big blinds, and blinds increase every three minutes, so there isn’t too much room to maneuver, but it exists.
The skill component is something of a double-edged sword. For seasoned players, it means they’ll be able to edge trim. The truly elite have even been able to squeeze out a small win rate.
But for every player that edge trims, there are those that lose more than the rake. I estimate that percentage to be approximately 20% for players that just blindly push all-in every hand.
More realistically, those who understand basic poker concepts, but aren’t up-to-date on push-fold charts and generally play passively are probably going to give up somewhere in the vicinity of 12-15%, or up to $9 an hour for a $10 Spin & Go player.
That’s comparable, but still less, than what our $0.50 slot player is losing hourly.
Per betting round, a slot player will see a better return than an average or below-average Spin & Go player. However, the x-factor here is time. Spin & Go’s move so slow that players will also lose more slowly.
Not to mention, a Spin & Go player can, and likely will, improve over time. Thus, the amount they lose per hour will also slowly creep toward the expected loss of 7%, and may even reach 0% (or less) over time. Slot players will never be able to edge trim, outside of the times they’re playing through a NJ online casino bonus.
One last experiment. Let’s now compare our average $10 Spin & Go player to a $1 Blackjack player. This is an interesting analysis as Blackjack too benefits from skill (although that benefit is hard capped), and is a game with virtually zero volatility — so players will achieve their expected return in relatively short order.
- Spin & Go player: six games per hour, $10 per game, house edge of 7% = expected loss of $4.20 per hour
- Blackjack player: 240 hands per hour, $1 per hand, house edge of 0.5% = expected loss of $1.20 per hour
Although a comprehensive analysis is beyond the scope of this piece, our quick comparison reveals that skillful casino games do have the potential to be much more friendly to player bankrolls than Spin & Go’s.
Guess this means we should all be ditching the Spins and the Slots in favor of our basic strategy cards. Then again, we can’t win 100,000 times our investment on a hand of Blackjack.