How to Play Slots Guide

Canadians from Newfoundland & Labrador to British Columbia are passionate about many things. We love our ketchup and/or dill pickle potato chips, and we love our Kraft Dinner. Did you know that Coffee Crisp is a Hershey's chocolate bar that you'll only find in Canada?

Likewise, online slots are another passion for many Canadian players looking for a bit of leisure in their time off. And why not when there are so many different slots with so many great themes, graphics, sound effects and more to entertain us? That's aside from the thrill of triggering a feature that can reward some big-time cash! Big-name developers like NetEnt, BTG, Microgaming and Play'n GO are leaders in cutting-edge slot games and behind some epic titles that resonate with Canadians.

Whatever your motivation, it's in your interest to understand the basic concepts surrounding slots to maximize your enjoyment, increase your playing time or the likelihood of a bigger payout. Whether you consider yourself a slots expert or a novice, investing a little time to learn now can pay dividends down the road:

  • How to play slot machines
  • How slots work
  • How to win at slots

A basic understanding of slots will help you select slots more in line with what you're after. Online Casino List has put together a slots guide to help you get started.

How to Play Slot Machines

Have you ever visited a brick-and-mortar Canadian casino in your home province or elsewhere and played slot machines? Perhaps it was one of the many penny slots. Do you remember the anticipation of waiting for the reels to stop spinning?

Well, playing online slots is a lot like that. Although slots can be a little different from one another, the basics remain similar:


Most slots have a fixed number of paylines, meaning that they are locked and cannot be changed. However, there are also variable paylines slots where players can activate or deactivate paylines. For example, a 50 variable paylines betting slot will allow you to reduce the number of paylines to as low as one payline.

There is always a trade-off when activating or deactivating paylines in a variable paylines slot. On the one hand, reducing the number of activated paylines reduces your 'bet.' However, it also makes landing payline wins more difficult. Although there is no right or wrong number of paylines, we recommend activating all of them to increase the frequency of your wins.

But how does one create a winning payline? Well, most slots reward payouts when a player manages to land the minimum required number of identical regular symbols from left to right on a payline. A regular symbol is a standard symbol that does not have any unique ability, such as triggering a feature.

A payline does not necessarily need to look like a straight line either. Indeed, often a payline can resemble a pattern. You can find an illustration of the paylines by checking the paytable. Although less common, some slot machines will also reward a payout from right to left and left to right. Effectively, this increases the chances of winning.

We should mention that not all slots use paylines. For example, a cluster pays slot only requires that the same symbol is horizontally or vertically adjacent to one another in groups (often 5+). This type of mechanic is quite popular, and the payout grows depending on the symbol and size of the cluster.

Another popular mechanic goes by several names: bet ways, ways to win or ways. Here, winning combinations are created by 3+ identical symbols from left to right on the reels. For example, a player that lands 15 identical symbols on a 3x5 (reels x rows) playing area wins 3x3x3x3x3x3 = 243x their total bet.

Coin Value

It is common for slots to allow a player to adjust the value of their coin bet. A coin may have a value of $0.01 which can be adjusted in increments up to around $0.50 or $1.

Coin Bet Per Payline

Slot machines with paylines will sometimes allow players to adjust the number of coins they wish to bet per payline. Developers such as NetEnt may refer to it as the bet 'Level.'

Increasing the level will also increase your coin bet per payline. For example, a slot with 20 fixed paylines may have a default bet of 20 coins (1 coin/payline x 20 paylines). Increasing the number of coins per payline to 5 will increase your bet to 100 coins (5 coins/payline x 20 paylines). In slots with no paylines, each round has a default number of total coins.


The autoplay function allows a player to instruct the game to spin a predefined number of times. The advantage here is that a player does not need to manually spin themselves. This will typically range from around 10 free spins to 100 free spins but can sometimes go even higher to 500 or 1,000. Most autoplay features have advanced settings where a player can instruct the game to stop autoplay:

  • On any win.
  • If an individual win is greater than a dollar amount defined by the player.
  • If a player's bankroll increases or decreases by a dollar amount specified by the player.
  • If a bonus feature such as free spins is triggered.


The 'Bet' represents the size of your wager per round. It is calculated as follows: (number of paylines x coin bet per payline x coin value). For example, a 50 paylines slot with 10 coins per payline with a coin value of $0.10 would have a bet value of $50.

Max Bet

Some betting panels also display a 'Max Bet' button, which automatically increases your coin bet to the maximum allowed. However, you will still need to adjust the coin value yourself.

Spin Button

The spin button tends to be the most prominent button located somewhat below the playing area alongside the other buttons. Pressing the button reduces your total balance by the size of the bet and spins the reels.

Special Symbols and Features

The objective of most slots is to create a winning payline consisting of a minimum number of identical symbols. On a 5-reel slot, a combination of 3, 4, or 5 matching symbols on a payline from left to right will reward a payout. The more matching symbols on a payline, the greater the payout. On classic 3-reel slots, a payout is awarded with 3 identical symbols on a payline.

So far, we've only talked about regular symbols. However, there are also special symbols that can help create winning paylines, increase the magnitude of wins, or trigger features.

Scatter Symbols

Scatter symbols are unique because they can reward a payout irrespective of where they appear in the playing area. They can also be used to trigger bonus features like free spins.

Wild Symbols

Wild symbols act like jokers in a deck of playing cards. They can substitute for other regular paying symbols and sometimes create winning paylines of their own. There are many variations of wild symbols: expanding, multiplier, walking, stacked, et cetera.

Bonus Symbols

Bonus symbols can be one of the best parts of a slot game as they can be used to trigger exciting features such as a pick & click and instant prizes. These can also be used to unlock a slot machine jackpot bonus such as a money wheel or other game.

How Slots Work

Aside from the features and special symbols, some mechanics go into slots that are important to be aware of because they affect the outcome of spins.

Random Number Generator (RNG)

The RNG, meaning a random number generator, is an algorithm found in all online casino games of chance. The RNG is used to randomly determine the outcome of any spin. Effectively, it is the heart of a slot and ensures fairness. Slot RNGs are tested and certified for fairness by independent third-party labs, so you know a slot is not cheating.

Return to player (RTP)

The return to player is a theoretical number based on millions or billions of spins. It represents the average percentage payback on each slot spin. For example, an RTP of 95% means that a player would win back $0.95 for every dollar wagered over millions of spins.

Hit Frequency

The hit frequency is not a tricky concept, but it can seem a little confusing at first. While it is true that outcomes are random, this does not mean that every possible outcome has the same chance (probability) of occurring. This is what hit frequency refers to and it is programmed by the developer. Many slots have a hit rate of about 40%, which is what makes winning so hard.

Volatility (Variance)

Slots come in three different volatilities: low, medium and high. Volatility refers to the risk and return characteristic of a slot and is crucial in deciding which suits your risk appetite.

Low Volatility: Wins happen more regularly, but the payout sizes are smaller. Expect the maximum payout to be around 400x the total bet.

Medium Volatility: Wins happen moderately less regularly, but the payout sizes can be larger.

High Volatility: Wins happen much less often, but the payout sizes can be much more significant. These tend to offer a slot machine jackpot, including progressive jackpots such as Mega Moolah from Microgaming and Mega Fortune from NetEnt. Slots with fixed jackpots, such as Book of Dead from Play'n GO can have payouts of 5,000x or more. However, progressive jackpot slots can sometimes reach millions of dollars.

How to Win at Slot Machines

Unlike Canadian ice hockey, slot machines don't come with strategies since there is nothing a player can do to affect the outcome. A random number generator ensures this and is as sure as a cold winter in Calgary!

Still, a player can maximize their enjoyment by tailoring the slot picks to what they look for in a game.

For example, a player who simply wants to play for as long as possible should probably stick to a low volatility slot. This will ensure frequent wins, although the size won't be earthshattering. A player with the motivation to try to win a slot machine jackpot will want to play a high volatility slot. This comes at the risk of draining their player balance much faster.

Another way of improving your odds of winning is to choose a slot with a higher RTP of around 96%-97%.

Closing Summary on Slots

Online slots are to online casinos what Canadian maple syrup is to pancakes. They are as unpredictable as a Canadian winter, which adds to our fascination with them.

Learning how slots work, how to play them and how to win is a guaranteed recipe for barrels of fun!