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One of my mother’s favorite expressions was “everything in moderation.”  

I’m not sure if truer words were ever spoken. The concept can definitely apply to volatility in the casino.  

Over the years, I’ve found myself going from Blackjack to Jacks or Better Video Poker to Double Double Bonus Video Poker. Little by little I’ve amped up the volatility of the game I’m playing for the adrenaline rush and for the opportunity for a big victory.  

Of course, with big wins come big losses. I don’t want anyone to get too concerned for me here. I play mostly nickel machines, so ‘big’ isn’t really all that big.

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Of late, I’ve noticed something else happening as I’ve increased the volatility. More of my sessions are just not fun. The problem with volatile games is that the streaks of losing are longer and deeper. 

Winning is not necessarily a streak, but rather a single big hit. So, this past week, I was playing a Deuces Wild game and not doing very well. If I was dealt a pair of Deuces, I couldn’t seem to even get Quads on the draw. After about an hour or two of this, all of a sudden it dealt me five 10’s across the top line of the 16x Multi-Strike. I had all of my losses recovered and took home a small profit.

I can’t say that it was a lot of fun. It was more fun than if I had left a hand earlier having lost. Yet, when I looked back at my time, I found I spent 89 minutes frustrated and 1 minute happy. This is not as entertaining as it could be. 

To fully understand what volatility can do to impact our fun, I need to make sure you know what volatility is. While there is a mathematical formula for it, I don’t think that is going to help any of you. Instead, think of volatility in terms of a roller coaster. That little kiddie roller coaster has low volatility. That gigantic corkscrew one that takes you upside down and backwards – that’s is high volatility.  

In the casino, betting red or black on a Roulette wheel would be the definition of very low volatility. You win almost half the time and you can never win more than even money. Pai Gow is another very low volatility game. You win about 28 percent of the hands. You push about 42 percent of your hands. You can never win more than even money.   

Blackjack is at the low end too, but a bit higher than the prior examples. In Blackjack, you occasionally Double Down or Split which gives you the opportunity to win a bit more than even money on your original wager. 

In all of these games, you could probably start with $100 and play at a $5 table for hours upon hours. Ultimate Texas Hold’em has about the same payback as Blackjack. But, if you were to sit down at a $5 table with $100, the probability that you will run out of money in the first hour is very high. Even if we take into account that the average wager is 4+ units per hand and start with $400, we will find that the probability of our bankroll going to zero is still far greater than it is with a $100 bankroll playing Blackjack. This is due to the higher volatility of the game. In Ultimate, we will lose more hands and lose more money when we lose. At the same time, the potential for a big win also exists.   

So, while the paybacks of the games are similar, we have to remember that a significant percent of the payback can be built into the top hands. With Deuces Wild Video Poker, the Natural Royal and the Four Deuces are both ‘jackpot’ style hands. Having two jackpot hands relative to Jacks or Better means that something else has to be given up. In this case it is a lot of the smaller winning hands.  

The end result is a game that has higher volatility, which means, the player has to expect sessions like the one I described – a lot of losing until you get to that one big hand.  The problem is that if that hand doesn’t come, your loss will be more substantial.

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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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