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I’m writing this article from my new place in Las Vegas! I’ve got boxes everywhere and can’t find half of my stuff, but none of that will deter me from writing my weekly column.

I figure my new beginning here in Las Vegas is a perfect idea for a topic. What should you do when you’re just beginning to go to the casino?

I know one thing you shouldn’t do – play the slot machines. No game requires less knowledge than slots, so that’s why a lot of beginners wind up there. Few, if any, games give you less of a chance to win.

That’s why I think a good place to begin is with video poker. No, video poker is NOT a slot machine. It may look a little like a slot machine, but just because it has a computer screen and some buttons doesn’t make it a slot machine.

Perhaps we should consider ATM machines to be slots as well?

Video poker machines work on a totally different premise than slots. Video poker machines use random number generators to simulate dealing actual playing cards. Slot machines use random number generators to simulate nothing – they simply use it to pick which symbols will appear, but none of it is based on any actual anything.

You see 20 different symbols but that doesn’t mean they will appear with equal frequency. With video poker, you have 52 cards and each one should appear with equal probability.

It is this difference that makes all the difference. Because we know that a video poker machine simulates an actual deck of cards, we can create computer programs and math models to tell us absolutely everything about the machine.

Of course, we don’t know exactly which card will show up when, but we use probabilities to tell us the likelihood of any given card and, in turn, any given hand from showing up. It is from this we are able to develop actual strategies for which cards to hold and which cards to discard.

To start with, we know there are “only” 2,598,960 possible initial 5-card deals from a standard 52-card deck. Each one of these combinations has an equal likelihood of being dealt to the player. For each of these, we know there are 32 different ways to play the hand, ranging from discarding no cards to discarding them all.

Obviously, many of these ways would make little sense. If you are dealt three 6’s, a 10 and a 2, you’re not going to discard the 6’s. But, to be absolutely sure, our computer program takes a look at all 32 ways and determines which is the best way to play the hand.

The value it assigns to each is called the “expected value” or EV for short. The EV is calculated by looking at every possible draw that can occur given which cards were initially dealt and which ones were held.

The program sums up the payouts for each of these hands and divides by the total number of draws. We then look at the expected value for each of the 32 possible draws. Whichever has the highest EV is the proper way to play that hand.

By looking at the results of all 2.6 million hands, we are able to summarize the strategy into what is called a strategy table. This is what a player must learn in order to play each hand correctly.

As some of you are reading this, you may think this all sounds very complicated and not very beginnerish. But, it really is far less complex than it sounds. Most of the hard work is done by people like me.

Your part is to learn the strategy table and to use the information from it to play each hand. About 75% of the hands will be fairly obvious and the remaining 25% may take some memorization to get correct.

I suppose the alternative is to just keep playing slots. As I questioned earlier, if you think video poker is slots, you might as well consider a slot machine to be an ATM – even if they are complete opposites. The ATM gives you your money and the slot machines take it away!

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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