Walk through a brick-and-mortar casino or log on to 888casino and the slot machines are impossible to miss. Chinese themed Zodiac Lantern Rabbit, the enticing Cash Eruption and jewel-centric Sapphire Spin are all amazingly alluring. They’re the games you want to play for quick spurts of gambling satisfaction and potential cash payouts.

But what is inside these flashy sirens of the gambling world and how do they work?

Early Slots

Back in the day, before slot machines were computerized and when they truly lived up to their “one armed bandit” nickname, the machines were purely mechanical. Fittingly then, the first slot machine was fashioned by a San Francisco, California, auto mechanic named Charles Fey. 

Known as the Liberty Bell, it hit American barrooms in the late 1800s with three motorized reels and paid out 50 cents when three Liberty Bells stopped at the same time. Other images on the reels were hearts, diamonds and spades, just like in a deck of cards, which, no doubt, got the juices of gamblers flowing.

For decades to come, Fey’s invention served as the slot machine paradigm. Refinements – such as a mechanism for recognizing counterfeit coins and splashy glass fronts with themes that made the gambling devices all-the-more eye-catching – were implemented, but it was the insertion of video capabilities that changed everything and brought slot machines into the modern era.

Computers in Slots

That began in 1975 when a machine called Fortune Coin turned heads on casino floors. Gamblers lined up to play that first slot machine as it operated on a computer screen.

Twenty years later, the Odyssey machine had a mega-sized screen and made players feel like they were gambling on a high-tech TV. Sound and video cards inside the Odyssey models provided bells and whistles on the outside.

But it was the implementation of computer chips that made slot machine interiors come to resemble those of Mac Book Pros. Such upgrades allowed the games to step up to 21st century standards.

These days, the inner workings of your favorite slot machines are driven by the chips and circuit boards that allow the outsides to be visually compelling and a hell of a lot of fun to play.

Random number generator

Random Number Generator

Dominating the guts of every slot machine is the random number generator, also known as the RNG. It’s a nifty piece of technology that keeps the machine in line and makes players happy. The random number generator guarantees that the slot pays off exactly as it is supposed to.

Let’s say that a machine is promoted as having a 95% payout (or a 5% hold; i.e., the money that is kept by the casino), the RNG insures that it happens over time. This means that on average, over the course of millions of spins, the machine will keep 5 cents for every dollar put in.

In the short term, however, it can hold a lot more or a lot less. A strong desire for the latter, of course, is what keeps us playing.

The RNG is continually coming up with series of numbers that translate into the outcome of a slot machine play.

It does that many times per second and never stops. It’s complicated for a three-reel or five-reel machine and even more so when there are, say, 25 paylines, as is the case with Saved By The Bells. But the RNG never stops calculating and locks in as soon as the machine handle is pulled or the play button is pressed.

At that point the machine knows the outcome. But, via the deployment of sound and video, the information is revealed to players in exciting but efficient manners. Usually, it’s accented with shimmers of gleaming visual effects and synthesized audio to indicate a winner. For that we can thank the sound and video cards tucked inside the slot machine.

Money Matters

At brick-and-mortar casinos, money to facilitate the play is usually inserted via bill readers, like the ones that we use in supermarkets. This sucks in the cash and scans your Benjamins to make sure they are not counterfeit. Online, of course, the funds are kept on account and the process is all done digitally.

Hit a jackpot online and you get to celebrate at home in whatever manner best suits you. 

Hit one in a live casino, and, depending on the jurisdiction, the machine’s inner workings contain a program to do a few things. In Nevada, for example, if the win exceeds $1,200, the machine’s interior computer sets it into what is known as “jackpot lockdown.”

This means that the machine essentially freezes until a few things get sorted out. For starters, a casino employee comes over so that the win can be confirmed, the player’s identity can be verified and the all-important payoff can take place. Next, a tax form is filled out so that the US government gets its share of the windfall.

For more modest wins, machines that used to settle-up with showers of coins now do it the modern way. Inside the machine is a thermal printer, which spits out a receipt – not unlike what we get at the ATM – that can be redeemed for cash. 

All players hope to experience the thermal printer in action – it means that you won! – but what you won’t have to deal with are certain features inside the machine that are only for casino managers that oversee slots action.

Activated by a key inserted into the machine, there is a touchscreen that shows how much money has been gambled on the machine and how much has been paid off. In the event of a dispute over the outcome of a spin, there is also an interior program that can replay recent spins. They are used to settle any disagreements.

Slot reels

Looking Ahead

While there is no doubt that slot machines are state of the art and getting to be even more so – especially as they move up to their next level and become increasingly like video games of skill – there are some components that remain much like the games that were rigged up by ingenious Charles Fey back in the late 1800s. 

As one veteran slot machine designer put it during a gaming conference in Germany, “As long as you keep the essential slot machine DNA, you can create whatever experience your player needs to have.”

Surely, his fellow designers would agree with that line of thinking, and the inner workings of state-of-the-art slot machines, whether played in a Vegas gambling spot or online via 888casino, will bear that out with increasing complexity.

Michael Kaplan is a journalist based in New York City. He has written extensively on gambling for publications such as Wired, Playboy, Cigar Aficionado, New York Post and New York Times. He is the author of four books including Aces and Kings: Inside Stories and Million-Dollar Strategies from Poker’s Greatest Players.

He’s been known to do a bit of gambling when the timing seems right.