Multi-Strike video poker betting strategy

Jul 5, 2011 3:00 AM

I’m in Las Vegas this week, penning this column from my hotel room.

The other night, I was playing video poker at Sam’s Town next to a guy who was playing single-line Multi-Strike video poker. I’m familiar with how the game works, but I have to admit my knowledge of the strategy changes for this intriguing game is extremely limited.

I know you have to alter your strategy to increase win frequency at the expense of payback when you are on the lower three lines without having received a "Free Ride."

For those unfamiliar with the game, allow me to try and explain. There are four levels in Multi-Strike. To move up to the next level, you have to get a winning hand on the prior one. Each of the levels pays progressively more than the previous one.

Thus, hands on Level 1 pay 1x the pay table, Level 2 hands pay 2x the pay table, Level 3 hands pay 4x the pay table and Level 4 hands pay 8x the pay table. To play the game you have to wager at least one unit on each level. Thus, to play max-coin you have to wager 20 units – five coins times four levels. This means you are paying for a level you may never reach for each hand. On each level, you play a brand new hand of video poker.

Roughly speaking, someone playing proper "normal" video poker strategy will win 45% of his hands. This can be raised a bit if you tweak the strategy to focus more on winning as opposed to how much you win. However, at 46-47%, you would get slaughtered playing Multi-Strike because the odds of winning the three hands at Levels 1 through 3 would not be enough to be worth putting up the extra coin each time.

Thus, the game also incorporates what is called a "Free Ride." This is randomly generated by the machine to give the player an automatic trip to the next level. The player continues to play the level that gives him the Free Ride, but even if he loses the hand, he still proceeds to the next highest level. The impact of this feature is to bring the win frequency very close to 50%.

I’ve never analyzed Multi-Strike, so I can’t provide you with a payback of the game. Also, there are numerous versions of the game to correspond to regular games (i.e. Jacks or Better, Bonus, Double Double, etc…). Additionally, the game does not clearly provide the frequency of the Free Ride feature at each level, which is required to calculate an accurate payback.

I have seen published numbers from IGT (maker of the game), but there is no way to know for sure if there are different variations and which games are programmed for what frequency.

Then again, the point of this particular column was not necessarily an analysis of Multi-Strike. The player I mentioned earlier came across an interesting hand. He was dealt an ace high straight that was also a 4-card royal on Level 3. The straight paid four units times four (for Level 3) for a total of 16 units (I didn’t notice what denomination the guy was playing).

The player now faced the choice of sticking with that win and guaranteeing a shot at Level 4 or going for the royal flush, which would pay 1,000 units (250 x 4). By going for the royal he would also risk not winning at all and therefore not being given an opportunity to play the Level 4 hand.

First, I’d like to look at this as if it didn’t happen in Multi-Strike. So the question is, when dealt a straight that is also a 4-card royal, what is the right play? Keep in mind, in this particular case the player was not playing max-coin, so the payout for the royal was "only" 250.

To fully analyze this situation, we need to look at every possible outcome of going for the royal. However, even at a quick glance, we get our answer. The player is essentially risking 16 units to win 1,000, which is more than a 60-fold increase.

With 47 cards remaining in the deck, he has a 1-in-47 chance of hitting the royal, which means his potential winnings are greater than the risk. This tells us he should go for the royal. When we realize he will also have an additional chance to get a straight flush, seven more ways to get a flush, five more ways to get a straight and nine ways to get a high pair, the decision to go for the royal becomes an easy one.

The expected value of going for the royal is about 8.19, while holding the straight is only 4.

Of course, in the specific case I’ve spelled out, the decision was a bit tougher. By going for the royal, he still has 23 out of 47 chances to wind up a winner and get to play Level 4. But, by holding the straight, he has a 100% chance of playing Level 4. We cannot dismiss this from the equation.

The expected value for Level 4 is about 7.84 (assuming a 98% payback multiplied by 8). However, this assumes we definitely get to play it. In the case of going for the royal, we need to multiply this by 23 and divide by 47 to account for the probability of getting to Level 4. This is only 3.84.

So, we need to add these amounts to the respective EVs stated earlier. While the decision gets quite a bit closer, going for the royal still edges out the straight by about 0.19. I have to admit I didn’t exactly do this calculation in my head when the guy looked my way (not knowing who I was) and I said "I’d go for it."

Good thing for me and for the guy playing that he hit the royal! Yes, folks – that’s why they call it gambling!