Video poker the original skill-based casino game
January 05, 2016 3:00 AM
by Elliot Frome
Several months ago, I listened to a speaker talk about the next wave of games that should be hitting casinos in the coming years. He was talking about skill-based games.
I loved how he started his discussion, stating skill-based games have existed for years. After all, video poker has been around for a couple of decades now. I almost fell off my chair. What he stated was incredibly true, and in my opinion incredibly obvious. But, it just didn’t seem to be anything that was stated publicly too often.
Many, many years ago, my father, Lenny Frome, wrote about a court case (I believe from Pennsylvania) that focused on whether or not video poker was a game of chance or skill. He was asked to provide his expert testimony in the case.
My father believed 100% that video poker was a game of skill. Now, this doesn’t mean there is no element of luck. Almost everything in life has an element of luck to it. The question came down to whether a player claiming to have skill could outperform on a regular basis (or over the long haul) a person who knew the basics of video poker without any strategy.
Remarkably, the judge ruled that video poker was a game of chance. It took two decades, but I’m glad to see people are starting to see otherwise.
For years, the gaming regulations relating to video poker were the same as the ones that applied to slot machines. This is absurd. One is a game of 100% luck. If it were legal, I could build a device to just keep hitting the spin button every several seconds while I play on my phone or take a nap. The results will be the same as someone who focuses on every spin and its result.
Playing slots reminds me of taking my son to Chuck E Cheese in New Jersey where every game must put out the same number of tickets regardless of skill level. Score a 0 on the game, you get four tickets. Get the all-time high score, still four tickets.
Okay, so slots have higher volatility, but there is no reward for knowing how to play any better than the next guy. Video poker isn’t like this at all.
If I go to an arcade in Las Vegas (we really need a Dave and Buster’s here!) and Stephen Curry is shooting baskets next to me, he deserves to win a boatload more tickets than I do. The fact that he can probably outshoot me with his eyes closed doesn’t change the fact that shooting baskets is an act of skill and not luck.
If we were to head to the casino, there’s no doubt I could do to him in video poker what he did to me at the arcade. Does he know the strategy for what to hold? Does he know how to bankroll the game properly?
Of course, some of you doubters may question if this really matters. Unlike shooting hoops, he may still beat me at video poker if he’s dealt a Royal Flush or Quad Aces playing Double Double Bonus Poker. This is true and nothing can change this. But this is in the short run.
Sooner or later he may miss a shot when I hit one (unlikely, I realize, but just go with me on this). This doesn’t make shooting baskets a game of luck! It is about the long run. He’s going to hit 90-100% of his free throws and if I’m having a good day, I might hit 50%.
Over the long run, we’ll get the same number of opportunities in video poker. Dealt hands will even out. The question is what will we each do with the hands that require a decision. I’m guessing I can leave him in the dust on this one. How much of a difference will this make? This is hard to say and is probably what allowed the judge to rule video poker was a game of chance 20 years ago. Although, I still think he was very wrong in this.
No two players playing by the seat of their pants will play identically. In the short run, playing what is theoretically worse than another might result in a better result. In the end, your mistakes will catch up to you. A good player playing full-pay jacks or better should have no problem achieving over 99% (the theoretical is 99.55%, so this is allowing for some errors by a good vs. expert player).
The casinos don’t get built on the backs of players earning over 99%. The majority of players are playing in the 95-96% range at best. There are many playing far worse than that. I’ve seen players hold cards that I couldn’t even figure out what they were hoping to draw!
It goes beyond just the payback calculation. If I could capture what a player actually plays on each hand, I could calculate a theoretical payback for that player. This would give us a basic idea of the impact skill has on video poker. But being a better player has extra benefits as well.
The other day I was playing video poker. I was almost out of time, but still had bankroll. Since I was playing nickels, the $60 I set aside should have been more than enough. But, at one point I was down to about $3. I started hitting some Quads on a Double Double game and made a bit of a comeback.
I was down $35 when I went over to a single-line nickel game. I hadn’t played more than 50 hands when I was dealt Three Aces with max-coin. I hit the fourth Ace (without the kicker) and left even.
While this shows the importance of proper bankroll, it also shows the importance of proper strategy. Had I been playing less than expert strategy, there is a good chance my $60 bankroll would’ve been gone at some point and my strong comeback never happens. I’ll discuss more about this next week as I try to explain the compounding affect of payback on one’s bankroll.
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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 www.gambatria.com. Email: ElliotFrome@GamingToday.com.