Hard look at software as people question if video poker is rigged
August 29, 2018 3:00 AM
by Elliot Frome
I get asked a lot if video poker machines are “rigged.” This seems like an important question to answer as we approach National Video Poker Day on Sept. 6.
My father, Lenny Frome, gave video poker the title of America’s National Game of Chance. I don’t think he would’ve done this, nor would it have been deserved, if it was a game known to be rigged. Quite the opposite. For a game to truly be a game of chance, it must be appropriately random.
This is the key area in which video poker differs from slot machines. According to gambling rules in most jurisdictions (especially outside of Indian reservations and/or cruise ships) an electronic game that plays with a seemingly real-world item, must play with the same randomness as that item.
In other words, video poker must play the same as if you sat down at your dining room table and used a real deck of cards. In the late 1980’s, this would be called WYSIWYG (pronounced something like woozywig). This is an acronym for “what you see is what you get.”
Slot machines don’t have to abide by this rule. You see 20 symbols on a reel, they don’t have to appear with the same probability. Symbol 1 might be set to only show up 0.0001% of the time while symbol 2 might show up 10% of the time. The math behind slots is more psychology than random number generators. The goal of a slot machine is to have you win a certain percent of the time and to have you nearly win a certain percent of the time. With video poker, these frequencies are based on the payouts of the hands, which drive how the player will Hold/Draw cards, not predetermined frequencies.
If your expectation is that the casino and the player have the same chance of winning, but in reality, the casino has a better chance, you might consider the game to be rigged. In my opinion, this would be a very unrealistic definition of rigged.
Video poker machines most assuredly do play as advertised. Now, this is not to say there has never been one that does not. It is rare, but possible for a machine to malfunction. I believe it is even more rare for a machine to purposefully play non-randomly.
Rigging a machine to play non-randomly is both incredibly simple and incredibly near impossible. Simple in that the program that plays video poker is probably no more than a few hundred lines of code. If I had that program in front of me, I could modify it in a few minutes in a way so it would not play randomly and clearly increase the house advantage. That’s the easy part. The hard part is now getting that program onto the casino floor.
For gaming machines, the software is generally burned onto a physical “chip” in the machine, not loaded software the way a video game is loaded onto a Nintendo Switch. So, it would no be possible to simply pull out a cartridge and put in a different one. You would need to replace the printed circuit board in the machine. This is not an easy task and things like this are done under the watchful eye of regulators.
In the real world, someone has to create this new circuit board. Even if somehow a gaming company were convinced to create such a board and to hand hundreds of them over to a casino without regulatory approval, there are going to be programmers and/or testers who are aware of what took place. It would require that all these people be complicit in this action. If just one of them were to decide to blow the whistle, it is game over!
This leads to the next major reason why I believe it is beyond unlikely video poker machines are rigged. The risk is not worth the reward. The odds of getting away with it are so incredibly small and the risk is so high. What would be the cost to a major casino company (like MGM, Wynn or Caesars) if it were caught using unlicensed, unregulated circuit boards in their machines? Besides likely losing their licenses, they would face massive class action lawsuits for fraud. It would truly be game over for a multi-billion dollar company.
And what would the reward be if they were actually able to pull it off? Just how much of an additional advantage do they think they can get? They can take a full-pay Jacks or Better machine that is supposed to pay 99.5% and take it down to 97.5%. The simpler way is to simply change the paytable from 9/6 to 8/5. Just like that they increase the house advantage by 400% with virtually no risk. They can go all the way to 6/5, take the payback down to 95.5% and increase the advantage by 800%. Why would a casino risk its entire existence when it could achieve virtually identical results completely legally?
Most players do not look at the paytables. They just sit down and play. This is why so many casinos offer solid paytables because they also know a very small percentage of players utilize the right strategy. This is what makes video poker America’s National Game of Chance. You can be one of those people who sit there and play at 98% and up and let the other players pay for all the neon lights!
For GamingToday readers, we offer our three top selling video poker books for just $7 each! You can order Expert Video Poker for Las Vegas, Winning Strategies for Video Poker or Video Poker: America’s National Game of Chance – or order all three for $21. This includes first class shipping and handling. If you’d like to order, send a check or money order to Gambatria, P.O. Box 36474, Las Vegas, NV 89133 or shoot me an e-mail at Elliot@gambatria.com if you’d like to use a credit card.