Multi-play?

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I received an e-mail this past week from a reader wanting to know, “Which of the many multi-play video pokers are best?” Was she best off going 3 play, 5, 10, 50 or 100?

From a mathematical payback perspective, it does not matter one single bit. A traditional one-line jacks or better video poker has the exact same payback as a 100-line Jacks or Better machine (assuming identical paytables).

In the vacuum of the math world, it doesn’t matter. Reality, though, isn’t a vacuum. Thus, a player needs to be mindful of a few things when making his/her decision.

I started with the premise that the paytable must be equal. However, we all know that for most video poker paytables, there is a “bonus” for playing max-coin on the Royal. In order to maintain this payout, we must assume that someone who is willing to play a single line game at a nickel is really playing 25 cents per hand.

Take this up to a 5-line game and this player is now at $1.25 per hand. Take this to a 100-hand game and the person who was wagering maybe $200 per hour is risking $20,000. I tend to doubt there are many players who would do this.

Most play at a denomination that they feel comfortable with, generally based on how much risk to take. If you multiply the amount played per hand, you have to be willing to increase bankroll by the same percent. Maybe this works for someone going from 3 hands to 5, but even going from 1 to 5 requires a significantly larger bankroll.

So, what are the likely outcomes of a player moving to a multi-play machine? The first is that he plays at the same denomination but reduces the number of coins played per hand. Immediately, the basic premise mentioned earlier – that the paytables are identical – falls apart.

The payout on the Royal goes from 800 to 250 and the player immediately gives up nearly 1.5 percent in payback. To make matters worse, in most cases, I’m willing to guess that the player will still wager more per hand than on the original version – just not maximum coin. So, he will now be playing more money at a lower payback – a double whammy!

The other likely outcome is that the player will drop down in denomination. A quarter player on a single line game might do a nickel on a 5-play machine. In this case, the total amount wagered per hand will be the same if he continues as a maximum coin player.

This might work out just fine. However, frequently casinos will set up their machines so that as the denomination goes down, so does the payback.

Casinos need (want?) to make enough money to cover the cost of the machine, plus all the overhead. It is not so easy to do this on a penny video poker machine paying 99.6 percent. As a result, they tend to set these machines at much lower paybacks – perhaps 95 or 96.

It is not impossible to find lower denomination games with full-pay paytables, merely more difficult to find. Also, some casinos may not downgrade the payback with each drop in denomination. Thus quarter and dollar machines may pay the same, while nickel and penny paytables might be the same.

In the next casino, the nickel and quarter ones might be the same, the dollar ones higher and the penny lower. Don’t be fooled into believing that a single machine that is multi-denominational has the same paytable for each denomination. They are programmed completely independent of each other.

In these cases, a quarter player might go nickel, resulting in identical amounts wagered per hand. As a result of the drop in denomination, the payback goes from 99.6 percent to 97.5. The player is wagering the same, but the house advantage has gone up by more than two points!

There are other factors that the player should consider before choosing a multi-play machine. The volatility of the game is vastly different than its single line cousin. This means the game will be far streakier and you’ll need a bigger bankroll and stronger stomach to handle the ups and downs that will result.

I can’t possibly cover all of these in a week, so we will revisit this topic in the near future.

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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