It’s every gambler’s dream.
You put money in the slot machine, pull the lever (or press the button, on most modern machines), and watch the symbols come up. You see one cherry, two cherries, then…
Suddenly, you realize what you’re looking at. You’ve won the jackpot, and you’re about to walk out of the casino a winner. Depending on the size of the jackpot, your life might change from this point forward.
We’re happy for you, but before you count your winnings, there are a few things you should know.
1. You’re going to have to fill out a tax form.
We’re going to assume that you won more than $1,200. Bad news: The IRS gets a cut.
You’re going to have to pay tax on all of your winnings, and the casino will issue you a W-2G form, a special IRS document designed specifically for “certain gambling winnings.” The good news is that if you’re a frequent gambler, you can deduct the money you spent while chasing that jackpot—provided, of course, that you kept records of both your wins and your losses.
2. A casino worker will quickly home in on you.
Expect a quick visit from one of the casino workers. Your jackpot win just sent a signal back to the casino’s monitoring room, so an attendant will rush over to verify your win. They’ll ask to see your identification, and you won’t get a cent until you show a valid government-issued I.D.
That applies to nonresident aliens, too; they’re eligible to win jackpots, but they’re also taxed, albeit at a different rate from U.S. residents. If you don’t have any identification, the casino will hold the money in safekeeping until you can provide some. Some casinos keep millions in their safekeeping accounts for years—by law, they’re not allowed to spend it.
Provided that you’ve got identification, however, the casino might just hand you your cash. Casinos take pride in fast “hand pays,” so don’t be surprised if the attendant has a bundle of $100 bills.
3. If you win more than $5,000, you’ll probably receive a check.
Probably, but not necessarily. In some states, casinos will hand out incredibly large sums of cash, and while they’ll happily get their security teams to escort you to your car, you’re on your own after that.
Casinos prefer to pay cash whenever possible, since it increases the chances that you’ll keep playing. Hey, they’re running a business, here.
Some state laws can complicate the payout. Before they hand you anything, they’ll have to verify that you’re not on the state’s exclusion list, and if you are, you’re not getting a cent (otherwise, the casino could face a hefty fine). This is meant to deter addicted gamblers from relapsing. Hey, why play if you’ll never win?
Generally, you’ll receive the full amount that you won, because most states don’t require casinos to take out withholding taxes from gambling wins. You can ask the casino to withhold taxes, though, and usually they’ll comply.
4. By the way, you might not get anything.
When the attendant comes over to issue you your check or a hefty wad of cash, the first thing they’ll do is to check the machine. They need to verify that the slots are functioning properly and that your win wasn’t the result of a machine malfunction.
But wait—if it is a machine malfunction, that’s on the casino, right? You still get your money, don’t you?
Nope. In October 2016, a New York woman thought she’d won $43 million from a slot machine, but a casino attendant told her that the machine had malfunctioned. To compensate for the error, the casino offered her…a free steak dinner. Most slot machines have labeling that says, “Malfunctions void all pays and plays,” which protects casinos against these sorts of losses.
Unfortunately, the New York State Gaming Commission agreed with the casino that the woman was only entitled to her actual winnings, a whopping $2.25.
5. If you win more than a million dollars, you’ll only get part of the money.
You can decide to have the rest of the amount paid in full, but that’s not your only option. Most casinos will also let you take an annual fixed sum.
If you’re trying to get the biggest payout possible, the annuity is usually the smarter choice. It will make money management significantly easier and reduce your tax bill in some circumstances. Don’t worry, you don’t have to decide right away; the casino will give you 90 days to make your choice.
During that time, the casino will try its best to make you part of its marketing campaign. You’ll be invited to casino events, presented with massive checks, and interviewed by the local media. Of course you don’t have to take part in any of that if you don’t want to, but most winners get swept up in the experience.
6. If you continue to gamble, the casino will be watching you.
Make no mistake about it: When you’re gambling, you’re being intensely monitored by professionals. If you luck out and take the house for a boatload of cash, they’ll be keeping an extra close eye on you for the rest of your stay. For more on the way casinos treat you—before and after a big win—give our video below a look:
7. The casino might make you wait for a while.
Expect to wait awhile if you’ve won a massive jackpot. The casino will need to verify your win, inform managers, collect tax forms, check that you’re not on the state’s restricted list, and handle a bunch of accounting paperwork before you see a dime.
For some jackpots, payout can take hours, although the casino will work to handle it as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, in some cases, it’s out of their hands; some payouts are actually handled by game manufacturers, so you may wait days or weeks for your money.
If you’ve only won a few thousand dollars, you’ll probably get the money within minutes, but don’t stress out if it takes longer. The casino’s not trying to get out of paying. Your best bet is to go grab a meal at the casino’s restaurant and start calling banks to find a good rate on a CD.
8. If you’re a big winner, you’re incredibly lucky.
That depends on the slot machine, of course, but all of them pay out on a relatively infrequent basis. Otherwise the casinos wouldn’t make any money.
Let’s say that your slot machine has 64 stops on each reel. Your chances of getting a jackpot would be roughly 1 in 262,144, and many machines have far more than 64 stops per reel.
If you’re looking for some good news, the law is on your side, to some degree. In most states, the slot machine must pay back at least 75 percent of the money it takes in. Percentages vary quite a bit, and casinos don’t have direct control over those percentages.
You might also be a cheater, of course, but your chances of successfully cheating a slot machine are even lower. To get away with cheating, you’d need to directly alter the erasable programmable read-only memory (EPROM) chip on the inside of the machine—something that the staff would certainly detect. You can’t “hack in,” either, since that part of the machine has no network access.