Setting record straight about video poker and slot machines

Sep 25, 2012 3:00 AM

I don’t think there is a game in the casino more misunderstood than video poker. Even in the days when slots were mechanical, most people considered video poker to just be another slot machine, but one with a computer screen.

I think many people just think it was too hard to create a mechanical machine using cards, so they digitized it all, but it still plays like a slot machine – all because the hardware looks roughly the same. It is not the hardware that makes the game.

This past week I met a gentleman who told me he likes to play keno slots. I have to be honest and say I had no idea what he was talking about. He explained he picks a certain amount of numbers from 1 to 80. The machine picks 20 numbers and he gets paid if the 20 picked includes at least some amount of the ones he picked.

I politely looked at him and said there is nothing “slots” about what he just described. He simply was playing keno in video version, hence it is called “video keno.” He was playing the exact same game as if he was playing in a keno parlor marking the little pieces of paper and handing them to the scantily clad woman.

Ironically, the video version of keno tends to pay higher than the old fashioned version because the player can play far more hands per hour. I explained to this man that the machine pulls 20 completely random numbers and throws them onto the board. It does not decide ahead of time that you will hit three of the eight you marked and then decide which numbers to pull to make that happen.

This is in essence the very difference between a slot machine and a video keno machine or a video poker machine or a video blackjack machine. In the latter three games, the machine uses a random number generator to decide which card to deal or which ball to draw. You win or lose based on the specific cards/balls it randomly draws.

In a slot machine, the machine first determines whether you will win or lose. If you are to win, it will decide how much you will win and set the symbols in the appropriate fashion. If you are to lose, it will decide exactly which symbols to show you – always a losing combination – but potentially set up to make you feel like you almost won. 

Over the years, when I’ve been asked what I do for a living and explain I analyze casino games, a frequent follow up question is do I do it for live games or electronic games. Since the majority of my work is in table games my response is usually just that, but I tell them it really doesn’t matter what medium the game is in.

As long as the game is using essentially a random deck of cards (or ping pong balls) where each card has an equal chance of appearing, it does not matter if you are playing a game with a real live dealer at a casino on an electronic multi-player table, on a stand-alone machine in the casino or playing at home on some software.

Video blackjack has existed for years in the casino. It was not always easy to find, but many players relished the idea of playing for only $1 per hand and having the same experience (well, mathematically) as playing at a live table. I would certainly understand those who feel playing on your own machine is not as sociable as playing at a table, but that’s not a mathematical difference.

In the past few years, many casinos have added multi-player electronic versions of popular table games (i.e. Shuffle Master’s TableMaster games). These games play identically to the live games. There are times when for one reason or another the casino chooses to employ different pay tables, but the probabilities of winning a hand or losing a hand or being dealt a particular hand remains the same.

Any changes to the payback as a result of pay table changes cannot be sneaked past the player. These payouts must all be visible on the machine. Because the digital cards are as random as real cards, we can always calculate the exact payback of any of these games based on the pay table.

While the name “slot machine” presumably comes from the different slots the wheels are in (well, were in when they were mechanical), and there is a little bit of similarity in the notion that video poker cards are in slots in the machine as well, this is where the similarity ends.

The critical difference between games like video poker and slots is that in video poker your cards are determined randomly and you win or lose based on the pattern of these cards. With slots, whether you win or lose is determined by the machine and then you are presented with symbols to match the pre-determined outcome.

Slots could never be replicated on a live table, but games like video poker, video keno and video blackjack are (or could be).

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. Contact Elliot at [email protected].

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