Playing video poker ‘bonuses’ no big advantage

Jun 7, 2011 3:00 AM

Those of you who have been around for a while might remember when the first video poker machines came out. They were simple draw poker machines and offered only the jacks or better version of the game.

Some time after these first machines were introduced came interesting bonus variations of the game that gave better payouts for hitting certain four-of-a-kinds. The bonus games paid somewhat less for easier hands, but many players were only too happy to give up five or ten credits here and there on comparatively common hands to have a shot at making hundreds more credits for hitting a big quad.

Soon players realized the bonus versions of the game were not only more fun, but they seemed to do just as well on them if not better. This is because the theoretical payback percentage was similar to that of the original draw poker games. The tradeoff between bigger payouts on quads for smaller payouts on hands ranging from full houses to two pairs gave the bonus games roughly the same payback percentage as the original draw poker machines, at least over the long term.

Only the volatility varied substantially. While the hold percentage on the games could be set nearly identical regardless of how many times the word "double" appeared before the word "bonus" in the title, the greater disparity between payouts on easy hands compared to four-of-a-kinds led to greater game volatility.

This meant players who played bonus versions often won or lost greater amounts in less time, but over the long term the larger wins and losses balanced out. This is still true today. Virtually all video poker games are set somewhere between 95% and 98% payback, regardless of which game you’re talking about. They can be set as tight as just under 93% or as loose as barely over 100%; however machines set at these extremes are far from commonplace.

This means when your friend asks you which video poker game is "best" to play, there is no real answer. Since they’re all set to roughly the same payback, especially if you’re talking about choosing between games on one machine at one casino, "best" is subjective depending on volatility gamblers desire.

Almost the exact same thing can be said for video keno. Nowadays there are plenty of varieties of keno games to choose from and I often get asked, "Which keno game is the best?" The answer is the same as it is for video poker. They’re all set about the same as one another as far as payback percentage goes, only the volatility varies substantially. There is no real "best" version.

But if all video poker varieties are roughly similar in payback percentage and the same can be said for all video keno varieties, does it really matter which one you play? Actually it does. While the varieties of each are similar within themselves, there is a pretty big difference between video poker and video keno.

The main difference is video keno games are almost always set tighter. The typical spread of a video keno machine is between 88% and 93% payback, with extremes of about 86% and 95%. You will never see a video keno game over 100% because they aren’t even made. In fact, I’ve only seen one manufacturer offer video keno as loose as 98%, and to get that you have to play a U1 machine (available at Stetson’s by the way) at $10 per draw.

Why such a big difference in settings between video poker and video keno? The answer is human error. In keno, the payback is set in stone. The numbers you pick make no difference because each one has the exact same probability of being drawn as every other. You can’t make a mistake that affects the payback percentage.

In video poker, the cards you hold before you draw replacement cards make all the difference in the world. Hold the wrong cards and you can turn a 98% game into a 93% game in an instant. Keep making the wrong plays and theoretical paybacks can plummet far below any keno game.

So even though video keno games are, in general, always set tighter than their video poker counterparts, they are nevertheless a far better choice if you are not an experienced video poker player. If you enjoy video poker or want to start playing it, do yourself a favor and do some serious research before playing with real money. It’s a lot cheaper than trial and error.

And regardless of which you choose, remember the main difference between the varieties of each is in the volatility of the games. Decide which you want: play time, greater opportunity for big payouts, or something in between. Then look at the paytables and see which games offer the mix you desire, remembering that due to each player’s unique experience level and objectives, no one choice can universally be called better than another.

(Note: Brad Fredella is GM of Stetson’s Saloon and Casino in Henderson, Nev.)