It has been more than 20 years since my father, Lenny Frome, began writing about video poker.
I think he had two goals when he started:
• Telling people about this relatively new casino game, which had paybacks about as high as any in the casino – and in some cases over 100%.
• Getting people away from slots, which have arguably the absolute worst paybacks in the casino.
Two decades later, it would appear that while much good work has been done, much more is needed.
The most common question I’m asked by friends is "what is the best game to play in the casino?" In this case best means having the highest payback. Usually, most people start to answer the question before I can.
Start with blackjack, which is essentially a correct answer. With a payback of 99.5% (give or take, depending on the rules), blackjack must be described as being one of the best games to play. Of course, the original version is a bit slow and requires a significant degree of strategy, but that really isn’t part of the equation at the moment.
Frequently, the next answer that comes up is craps. This is a bit tougher to size up. Craps is really dozens of different independent wagers so determining the payback is not only difficult (if not impossible), but meaningless.
Avoid all the proposition wagers with horrible paybacks and you’ll have a much higher payback than the guy constantly buying hard way bets. Craps can be a really fun game with a lively table or when a shooter gets hot. It’s not as much fun with just a couple of players or during only cold or slightly warm streaks. Also, I prefer games where you can sit down!
After blackjack and craps, the person who asked the question finally goes silent. It is almost as if the casino still only has four options – blackjack, craps, roulette and slots. Well, I guess the good news is the silence means most people have figured out you’re not going to win money playing slots.
As for roulette, well, it is a bit like craps, but almost every wager has the same so-so payback. But what about the rest of the casino?
Over the past 20 years, the casino floor has changed tremendously. Many of the people who ask me the question do go to the casino. Have they not noticed all the other games?
I don’t know who is more surprised. The person I’m talking to when I say "video poker" or me when they respond "what’s that?" I guess if you’ve always been a table game person maybe you haven’t noticed that not all the slot machines look alike.
Of course, this was truer when slot machines still had handles and video poker machines didn’t. With the advent of video slots, the casual observer may just see lots of lights and colors on a computer screen and think they are all the same. I’ve spent many columns explaining the vast differences between slots and video poker.
Once I explain what video poker is to the person who asked the original question, they are even more surprised to find out a routine payback can be about the same as blackjack and there are still a fair number that can be found with paybacks over 100%.
This leads to an explanation of what it takes to exploit such a player advantage. Yes, you can probably make 30k-40k a year playing quarter video poker, but it would take playing 40 hours a week in a smoky casino and playing very disciplined. It would be a lot like having a very streaky commission job.
You might earn nothing one year and 50k-60k the next. This is not necessarily an easy job or one suited for anyone. The ultimate irony comes when I find out the person I’m talking to is an attorney, here in the NYC area, who is probably pulling down at least a few hundred thousand a year. I don’t think he’s giving up his day job!
So, I guess after more than 20 years of trying to get people to break the slot habit, we can confidently say we have achieved some success. I think the number of people who think they have a shot at the slots has gone way down.
At the same time, the campaign to keep teaching people about all the other games in the casino goes on. From video poker to blackjack to many of the newer table games that offer higher paybacks than the traditional casino games and offer a good deal more excitement too.
The next time you head out to the casino, before you sit down to play, just walk the casino floor and check out all the games you may not have known existed. To learn more, head over to www.gambatria.com and there’s a good chance I already have written about it.