At Iowa Casinos, Some Slot Machines Are (Slightly) More Generous Than Others

Written By Russ Mitchell on June 23, 2022 - Last Updated on July 22, 2022
Slot machines Iowa 2022

It may seem like slot machines have a grudge when you visit one of your favorite Iowa casinos, but an Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission (IRGC) report lets you know how often the reels align in your favor.

The IRGC on June 10 released the state’s slot machine payback statistics for March, April and May. Based on three months of numbers, slot machines at Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Altoona have the highest payback:

“If you were to go into Prairie Meadows, for example, you would see a sign posted at the cage — and at the entrances — that says their payback percentage is 90.9%,” IRGC administrator Brian Ohorilko said. “And that will change. It’s calculated based on the actual payback percentage for the last three calendar months.”

Slots must pay back at least 80%, so Iowa casinos will never keep more than two dimes out of every dollar. But as March-to-May numbers suggest, 90% seems to be the industry standard — regardless of where you go in the state.

The state’s casinos want the revenue, but they know they’ll lose betting traffic if their machines have a reputation for being too stingy.

Iowa casinos post new slot machine stats each month

Iowa customers can track the slot machine hot spots every month, even though the IRGC report is a three-month total. Again, the current slot machine payback report covers March, April and May. So, when the IRGC releases June numbers next month, the posted statistics bump March numbers out and add June — it’s a three-month rolling total.

And Iowa casino visitors shouldn’t expect to go home with 90 cents for every dollar they put into the slot machines.

“I always caution people because we’ll get questions or complaints from time to time from the general public about, ‘well, the slot machine payback percentage is 90%. I put in $100. Shouldn’t I get $90?’ And, it’s important to remember how slot machines work,” Ohorilko said.

“For every jackpot that’s hit, there are likely a lot of instances where people don’t win anything at all. Those machines are set on average theoretical holds. It doesn’t mean that for every dollar that’s put in a machine, someone’s going to get 90% or 90 cents or whatever that payback is.”

Do Iowa’s slot machine payback rankings change much?

Since the paybacks are all within a 2% range there are no “bad” slot machine casino locations. Okorilko told PlayIA that the monthly updates don’t change much.

“You will historically see the same facilities at the top, and the same facilities at the bottom,” he said. “A lot of it is just operational decisions.”

Some casinos will experience jackpot droughts or outbreaks, which can cause temporary dips and spikes.

“A facility that has a lot more volume is going to be less volatile,” Ohorilko said. “For example, Prairie Meadows is the largest facility in terms of revenue in the state. That payback percentage does not change very much. It wouldn’t change very much based on jackpots hit because there’s so much volume that goes into those games.”

And, if your favorite casino is a penny-slot paradise, that might be keeping the payback down.

“Penny machines have a lower payback percentage than dollar machines, or $5 machines,” Ohorilko said. “So, if the customers have a preference to play more penny machines, then those payback percentages will gravitate toward that payback percentage of a penny game. A facility has a lot more penny games on their floor — and they may do that because that’s what their customers want. And if that’s the case, then that could also have an impact on those on those payback percentages.”

‘But my casino’s slot machines are rigged — I just know it.’

Yes, the “house always wins” is an adage for a reason. And some nights just aren’t going to be your night. But is there evil lurking inside that spinning neon shell? The IRGC hopes not.

The state uses two different gaming technology companies to make sure slot machines are set at or above the 80% payback threshold. The slot machine coding and algorithms are tested at one of the two labs.

Then, the Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission employs technicians to maintain custody of the software. The technician physically loads the software into slot machines on the casino floor. Then the contractor applies no-tampering tape to seal the software between inspections.

Iowa’s casinos and the IRGC can monitor payback percentages electronically to address any abnormalities as well. The same data that generates the three-month payback report also helps maintain game integrity.

“If a machine is not acting in accordance with how it is set, that’s something that we can see through the slot system,” Ohrilko said.

Iowa casinos have to post the three-month payback percentages, but they don’t have to break that down to penny slots, nickel slots and so on. The IRGC offers that breakdown in its monthly gaming report, however.

Using Prairie Meadows as an example for the month of May:

  • 988 penny slot machines — 89.4% payout
  • 53 nickel slots — 93.7% payout
  • 72 quarter slots — 93.1% payout
  • 180 dollar slots — 94% payout
  • One $2 slot — 91.8% payout
  • 19 $5 slots — 96% payout
  • Four $10 slots — 93.4% payout
  • Two $25 slots — 91% payout
  • One $100 slot — 94% payout

And, if you think the low-bet slot machines are a low-income feature for the casinos, think again.

The penny slots at Prairie Meadows raked in $133.9 million worth of bets for the month May.

Photo by Shutterstock Image
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Russ Mitchell

Russ Mitchell has been covering news and sports in northwest Iowa since 1997, including 11 years as managing editor for one of the most acclaimed community newspapers in the state. He looks forward to keeping readers up to date on the growing sportsbook industry in Iowa.

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