Might not want to argue with the math guy on right casino moves

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This past week, I spoke to an acquaintance who is a regular video poker player here in Las Vegas. He wanted to know why, despite playing games that claim to pay over 100%,  he rarely won. There is a fairly obvious answer to that.

From past conversations with this person, I know he hasn’t sat down to learn to play Expert Strategy. Instead, he relies on his own inner sense about the math. Now, he may have a good head for it, but it doesn’t mean he’s perfect. And it just doesn’t take that much to turn a 100.2% game into a 99.2% game.

For example, during the evening, he mentioned seeing a new blackjack game, where the player can discard his 15, 16, 17 or 18 initially dealt hand for two new cards. I told him I was very familiar with the game. He asked why would someone zap an 18? I told him you should against a dealer 9, 10 or 11.

But, he insisted the dealer could still bust those hands. I replied, yes, he could, but he’ll turn over a 10/Face often enough to make you a loser, so you should still zap it.

As he continued arguing with me, our host chimed in and asked the gentleman if he realized he was arguing with the guy who did the math for Zappit Blackjack! He acknowledged he knew this, but kept on arguing with me!

As it turns out, playing this wrong will lower the payback from about 98.9% to about 98.75%. This is one mistake that increases the loss rate by more than 10%.

Fortunately, there is another explanation for why he doesn’t win all that often. In most versions of video poker, the Royal Flush adds 2% to the payback. This is important for two reasons to the conversation I was having. The first is if you aren’t playing max-coin, you are being paid 250 and not 800-for-1 for a Royal. This reduces the payback by about 1.4%. There goes the positive payback. The 100.25% game is now below 99% simply because you chose to play less than max-coin!

The second reason is even if you are playing max-coin, the Royal Flush is 2% of the payback! If you didn’t hit a Royal Flush in the recent past, then the game you are playing is paying at 98.5% (on average)! This is not a winning percentage. Of course, at some point, you’ll hit that Royal and on that day, you’ll have a very big winning night!

Last week, I hit a Royal on the 4th line of a Multi-Strike game with max-coin in! I won over $300 on what is a penny machine (As it is a multi-play Multi-Strike game, I am wagering a total of $1 per deal). That’s the single biggest win I’ve ever had and the biggest winning session I’ve ever had on this type of machine. So, I might lose $20-$40 a session for a couple of weeks and then have a hand like this one! At the end of the month (or three months or whatever), the payback is whatever the theoretical payback is, but I’ve lost more often than I’ve won.

A Royal Flush will occur about once in 40,000 hands if you are playing the right strategy – and we’ve already discussed how my acquaintance may not have been. While it depends on the specific event, I think it is a fair estimation guide to say something that occurs 1-in-40,000 could very realistically occur 3 times as often.

This means it is very possible for you to go over 100,000 hands without hitting a Royal. While this dry spell is going on, you’re not going to have a lot of winning sessions! On the other hand, it is not inconceivable for you to hit three in 40,000 hands. During this stretch, you’re going to feel as if you can’t lose.

I recounted to the gentleman how 30 years ago (give or take), I came to Las Vegas to visit my parents with my then girlfriend. We were playing at the Silver City Casino on the Strip. I think I was playing quarter video poker and she played the nickel machines behind me – one nickel at a time. She hadn’t played for more than an hour and she excitedly screamed how she had hit a Royal. She won $12.50. I would not hit a Royal until about 8-10 years later. I then hit three over a two-week span.

Fortunately for me, mine were max-coin quarter play! I then proceeded to not hit another one (except on hundred play machines, which I don’t count!) until a few weeks ago when I hit one and then the “big one” I hit last week.

This is simply the random nature of cards. They can be streaky. This is the beauty of a game like video poker in which the randomness is, well, naturally occurring, as compared to slots where it is partially created by the programming of the reel combinations.

I had one more reason to suspect my friend was not playing Expert Strategy. Even a 98% game will afford the player a fair amount of winning sessions. You shouldn’t be losing “most of the time.” Make mistakes and take the payback down to 95-96% and winning sessions will be much harder to come by.

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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