Return to Player
Casinos often use the phrase “Return to Player” (RTP) to describe a game’s theoretical payout percentage, such as how much of all wagered money that a video lottery terminal or slot game will pay back to players over time. RTP is typically expressed as a percentage, like 95%, which would mean that out of every $100 bet, the player might expect to receive $95 back in winnings.
Another way to think of RTP is as the flip side of the House Edge. A casino table game like European Roulette has a built-in advantage for the House of 2.7%, so the Return to Player can be expressed as RTP = 1 – 2.7% = 97.3%. In theory at least, the higher the RTP, the longer the player’s bankroll should last. But players are well advised to take any claims regarding RTP with a grain of salt. It is not exactly what it might appear to be.
Behind the Numbers
Especially online, casinos often publish the RTP percentages for their slot and table games. They do so to convince players of the fairness of their software and to provide a means of comparison with their competitors. Games with low RTP figures are said to be “tight,” while those with high values are referred to as “loose.” For slot games, the range separating the two categories can be as great as 75 to 99 percent. Fortunately, most jurisdictions regulate the minimum paybacks that games must return, so players are protected from casino operators who might otherwise take unfair advantage.
Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the declared RTP, no matter how truthful or accurate, is an average of many, many plays over time. The percentages may vary only a little from month to month, but during a single short session of play, the actual RTP can be quite different from the published statistics.
Take, for example, a game of Blackjack played solo against the House. The House Edge might be 1%, but the player doesn’t expect to win back $99 on every $100 bet. For a single $100 wager, the RTP will most likely be either zero (for a loss) or 200% (for a win). If splits, doubles, insurance, pushes and surrender are taken into account, even more possibilities arise, none of which is 99%. It is only over the course of hundreds or thousands of hands that the theoretical payout of 99% will be reached.
The Frequency Factor
RTP can also be misleading in another way. It does not give any indication of how frequently the player can expect to win. As noted above, European Roulette offers an RTP of 97.3%. That percentage is true for every bet made at the table. But a player wagering only on the colors, Red or Black, will see payouts much more frequently than the player who bets on just one number straight up. In fact, it may take dozens of spins before the single number player sees any return at all.
This frequency factor applies to slot games, too. A 95% RTP game that has a low frequency of payouts may only have a winning combination show up once in every ten spins while a high frequency 95% RTP game may have winning combinations appear every three or four spins on average. The difference is that games with a high win frequency make numerous small payouts, while those with a lower win frequency pay out larger amounts only on occasion. Frequency has no effect on the game’s RTP.
One other way in which casinos use RTP to mislead players about the frequency of winnings is through progressive jackpots. Each time a huge progressive is won—a rare event at best—the massive payout gives a big boost to the average RTP, making it appear as though the games reward players much more often than they actually do. Therefore, when evaluating what games to play, RTP should not be considered in isolation. The player should also take into account other factors, such as “Volatility” and “Variance,” as explained in accompanying sections of this web site.