Make most of exceptions while playing video poker

Oct 30, 2012 3:00 AM

Last week, I discussed the notion of casino games being “rigged.” If rigged means that they don’t perform as advertised, then I vehemently disagree. If it means that the player can’t win (in the long run), then I agree – with the exception of some versions of video poker.

People are always amazed to hear this. I’m not even sure if most of them understand what I am saying. I am not saying that there are certain versions of video poker that can be beat in short sessions (this is true of any casino game). There are versions of video poker that pay OVER 100%.

This means the longer you play, the more likely you will be winning and the more money you will win.

I can’t really explain why the casinos allow these games to exist. This remains a mystery to just about everyone. One possible reason is that they know that 90% or more of players do not play well enough to achieve these theoretical paybacks of over 100%. They have also made these machines more of a rarity than once were. Where they do exist, they tend to be in lower denomination so that the profit motive is simply not enough for a professional player.

What do I mean when I say “play well enough?” Well, video poker is a game that is based not only in luck, but skill. The longer you play, the more skill takes over from luck. The right cards need to show up (this is the luck part), but you have a choice on every hand as to which to hold and discard.

This is a critical element in video poker. It is quite similar to the need to know when hitting vs. sticking in blackjack. The trick in video poker is that the strategy is generally even more complex than blackjack and very hard to put onto a little business-card. It will probably take something that is the size of an index card instead.

All strategies for casino games are built around the same question – what should I do to maximize the total amount of money won or to minimize the total loss? Why doesn’t a player hit a hard 17 when the dealer has a 10 up? If we assume he has already checked for an Ace, half the cards will result in the dealer beating the player (8 - Face), one will push and the other five will see the dealer taking another card that might bust or beat the player.

In the end, the player will lose with a 17 against that 10 far more often than he will win, so why not hit it? The player doesn’t hit the 17 because that is simply a play that is even worse. He will bust 9 out of 13 times and improve his hand the other four. And, not busting doesn’t even mean he will win the hand, just increase his chances.

Somewhere along the way, someone sat down and calculated (or used a computer to simulate) the outcomes of the only two possibilities available to the player. He can hit or stick. On any given hand, the actual outcome will rely on the next few cards. Over a few hundred hands of this type will approach the theoretical expectation. What happens in a single hand will seem immaterial. The player’s results will wind up right where the math tells us.

The same is true for video poker, only the possibilities are far greater and calculating the possible outcomes is a bit trickier. Still it’s quite do-able with the help of computers. In the case of video poker, every hand dealt to the player can be played out in 1 of 32 ways.

The player has 1 way to either hold or discard all cards. He then has 5 ways that he can discard 1 or 4 cards and 10 ways to discard 2 or 3. The total is 32 of which about 28 will be summarily dismissed by even the novice. If you’re dealt three-of-a-kind and a three-card Straight, I doubt anyone will give much thought about what to discard. Even if dealt a pair and a four-card straight, all but 2 of the 32 ways is quickly dismissed.

To be 100% accurate, programs are written to look at all the possible outcomes of the 32 ways regarding the nearly 2.6 million possible deals from a 52-card deck. The 2.6 million hands are then summarized by the type that is played. From this we learn that a high pair is played over a four-card flush, but a four-card flush is played over a low pair.

In any one situation, you may discard the other half of the low pair and draw another card of the same rank or keep the low pair in order to draw three more cards of the suit represented in the flush. In the long run, the flush will hit as often as you are supposed to (9 out of 47 times) and lose less money by playing the hand properly.

It is only by playing the hands properly can you actually take advantage of the video poker machines that have paybacks over 100%. If you know someone who played one of these machines unprepared and then tried to tell you the games are rigged, maybe you should hand them a copy of this column?

Elliot Frome is a second generation gaming analyst and author. His math credits include Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Mississippi Stud, House Money and many other games. His website is Contact Elliot at [email protected].

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