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Last week’s column touched on the notion of gambling without even so much as the basic knowledge of what the player is wagering on.

Sad to say, we have all watched this at table games, too, and video poker. One reader wrote to me this week and told me a story of how two women showed up in a poker room, admitted to not knowing much about poker, but had heard the bad beat jackpot was nearly $100,000, so they decided to play for a while with $100. Their money didn’t last very long!

More than two decades ago, my father, Lenny Frome, created the concept of Expert Strategy. He likened it to a 3-legged stool where each leg is just as important as the other two. These three legs were “know which games to play,” “know how to play them” and “know what to expect.”

All the games in the casino are not created equal. Paybacks vary by 20% or more. Play a game with a 99% payback and you stand a reasonable chance of winning in the short run.

Depending on how the game is constructed, I would tend to say you have a 30%-45% chance of winning in a three-hour session if the game has this high of a payback. Play one with a 90% payback and I’d be surprised if you win, over three hours, more than 15% of the time.

Over the long run, you’ll lose 10 times as much money (as a percent of total wager) playing a game at 90% vs. playing one at 99%. Keno and the Big Wheel are near the bottom of the payback scale. Blackjack, Ultimate Texas Hold’em and some varieties of video poker tend to be at the top.

Many base table games have 97%-98% paybacks, but their sidebets might only pay 90%-95%. Progressive sidebets will pay even less, and a larger percentage of the payback goes to the one player who hits the jackpot. Casinos don’t usually tell you the paybacks of games.

If you want to learn them, read my columns or buy a book. Knowing how to play them is a nice way of saying “learn the strategy.” Finding out blackjack has a payback of 99%-plus is meaningless if you don’t know when to hit or stick, or you don’t know when to double down.

Several versions of video poker have paybacks over 100%. But video poker machines are not slots, which have no strategy and pay what they will pay. Video poker has complex strategy and requires learning it in order to achieve the theoretical payback.

If you play 10%-20% of the hands wrong in video poker, you’re not going to come close to getting paid the full payback. Most games in the casino have at least some form of strategy.

While some casinos might give you some help on some basic strategy, if you really want to learn how to play the games, read my column or go to my website (, and consider ordering some of my booklets on table games or video poker.

 Don’t just get a general idea of the strategy. Really sit down and learn it. Practice with a deck of cards or on the computer where possible until you really have the strategy down right. Some games will take you five minutes to learn the strategy (Three Card Poker and its simple Q-6-4 rule) and some will take much longer (blackjack, video poker, Ultimate Texas Hold’em).

Knowing what to expect: You could spend a lifetime on this topic and probably not cover everything you would need or want to know. It is critical to have an idea of what to expect the outcomes will be when you are playing a game.

I’m sure there have been nights when you’ve walked away from a machine or table and muttered that the game is rigged. The dealer got too many blackjacks or you just couldn’t seem to hit that big Four of a Kind in video poker.

Most people do not have enough knowledge of probability to truly understand what “normal” means when discussing frequencies. Just because something is supposed to happen 10% of the time does not mean it will happen exactly every 10 hands. It might not happen for 30 or 40 hands or it might happen 3, 4 or 5 times in a row.

We all tend to have selective memory while playing and remember all of the seemingly odd occurrences and completely forget all the times things seemed to happen exactly as they are supposed to. Barring a malfunctioning machine, the cards dealt are random and thus everything that happens is happening according to the normal laws of probability – even if you don’t think so.

The reason why knowing what to expect is so important is because it is what constantly reminds us of the importance of sticking to the strategy we have learned. It becomes so very tempting to start playing by hunches when cards seem to be doing things they aren’t supposed to.

Everything that has already happened is meaningless and the probability of what will occur next is exactly what it was calculated to be. This is the basis for determining our strategy and why we should always stick with it.

Gambling is a unique form of entertainment where the cost varies from night to night. If you had to answer a trivia question to pay half as much for your movie ticket, you’d probably do a little brushing up on your trivia.

Bottom line: You can make your time gambling far more fun and less costly if you spend some time brushing up on your Expert Strategy. It just makes sense to do so.

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 Contact Elliot at [email protected].

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About the Author

Elliot Frome

Elliot Frome’s roots run deep into gaming theory and analysis. His father, Lenny, was a pioneer in developing video poker strategy in the 1980s and is credited with raising its popularity to dizzying heights. Elliot is a second generation gaming author and analyst with nearly 20 years of programming experience.

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