Understanding Slot Machine Variance

Variance. It’s a word that experienced slot players bandy about a lot, but one that many players may not have heard, or don’t understand. Loosely speaking, variance is a gambling term for “risk” or “volatility”. It’s not quite as straightforward as that, as that might imply one game’s house-edge was significantly lower or higher than another, when in fact a high variance slot can have better odds of winning than a low variance slot, or vice versa. And variance doesn’t just apply to slots - it can be applied to any game: video poker, even variations of Blackjack have different variances.

Essentially, variance is a term that is used to describe a combination of things: the chances of winning big, the streaks within a game and the impact they are likely to have on a players bankroll. There are 3 categories of variance: low, medium and high, although you could add low/medium and medium/high if you want to start getting intricate. Let’s explain the 3 levels and how they might suit you as a player:

Low Variance

A low variance game will typically pay out reasonable wins fairly often. You’ll rarely get a “major” win, but you will find that a bankroll lasts longer. A low-variance player will generally be looking for a smaller profit from his/her session, but will be expecting a longer period of entertainment. Low Variance Slot Reviews »

High Variance

High variance games generally require a larger bankroll to sustain a session for “entertainment”, but can yield higher payouts on an infrequent basis, along with irregular small and medium wins during the passage of play. A high variance player will be looking for one or two “big wins” before cashing out which could happen very quickly, or not at all! Check out these high variance Slots.

Slotjunkies has a full list of high variance slot games available to play online with videos of each one and details of where they can be played.

Determining Variance

Typically, a high variance game can be identified using the paytable: in slots terms, high payouts for the 4/5 of a kinds and almost negligible payouts for the 2/3 of a kind. A “free spins” bonus with 15+ spins and 3x or more multiplier also starts to push towards that territory, although the number of lines come into play. A 9-line slot with those figures is likely to be medium, or medium/high variance. Look at these Isis shots,a Microgaming slot available at 32Red, Roxy Palace and Ladbrokes, for a good example of a high variance paytable:

Isis Paytable 1

Isis Paytable 2

You’ll see that 5 scatters pays out 600x the total bet, which is huge, while 5 wilds pays 10,000 coins and the free spins give 20, 25 or 30 spins at a whopping 6x! That’s much more than many other slots, but when you look at the payouts for the smaller symbols, although some of the 5-of-a-kinds are good sized payouts, there is a huge gap between those and 4 of a kind and the payouts for 9,10,J,Q,K and A are pretty low all-round. That gap, along with the free spins number/multiplier is a sure indication of a high variance slot.

A Quick Word On Video Poker

Variance isn’t just confined to slots, it can crop up in variations on pretty much any game. Slots aside, the other notable game where variance plays a big roll is Video Poker. “Wild Card” and “Bonus” video poker games tend to have a higher variance than your standard “Jacks Or Better” style game. This is more easily spotted by some bigger payouts at the top end of the paytable, and an 8/5 (Full House/Flush) or worse return at the bottom. In fact if you see the game pays less that 45 coins (when betting 5 coins per hand) for a Full House, and/or less than 30 coins for a Flush, you know that the variance is higher than normal. Most higher variance Video Poker games will also pay the same for two pairs as a pair of Jacks (or better). To counter this you’ll see some of them have a higher expected return, but you’ll need a bigger bankroll to achieve that..


If you are low roller looking for entertainment, nice if you can make a small profit from time to time, then go low variance. If you have some reasonable cash to burn, are happy to risk some time playing against the possibility of something decent, then go medium variance. If you like a risk, have a good bankroll behind you and aim high…well it should be obvious! And good luck. I tend to sit between medium and high variance myself. I like the adrenaline rushes!