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Last week’s column about how slots machines are not a ‘what you see is what you get’ type of product leads to an interesting topic.

Simply finding games that are the opposite of slot machines is not enough.  You need to make full use of all the available information. Let’s say you take my advice and forego playing a slot machine. You run over to a video poker machine. By doing just this, have you improved your situation at all?

Not really. You have given yourself an opportunity to improve, but by simply playing a video poker machine, you may not be better off. 

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First of all, what is the payback of the machine you’re about to play? Unlike slots, you can know the answer to this. They won’t publish the payback directly on the machine (wouldn’t it be nice if they did?). But all you need to know is the type of machine it is and the paytable and you can quickly look up the payback or calculate it if you memorize some baseline paybacks.

Every video poker machine in the casino has to tell you the paytable and the type of game it is. With this information, you can know the payback of every video poker machine in the house. 

But what do you do with this information? You must decide to play the machines with the better paybacks. Knowing that the machine you’re about to play has a 96.5 percent payback by itself does you very little, especially if there is a 98.5 percent machine two spots down that you choose to ignore.

Now, over the next hour, we have no way of knowing which machine will actually perform better. There might be a dealt Royal just waiting on that lower paying machine that’s going to show up five hands from now. But, we know that the probability of that happening is identical on the two machines, not just an unknown as it is with slots. And, we have no choice but to play for the long run, which means picking machines with higher paybacks.

If you know the payback of each video poker machine than you must actively choose to find the ones with the higher paybacks. That’s part one of the equation. Part two is knowing how to play those machines.

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One of the advantages of slot machines is that no one can have a true advantage. You pick a machine. You press ‘Spin’ mindlessly and what happens happens. 

With most of the other games in the casino, there is some amount of strategy.  For some games it’s relatively easy, like remembering to play Q-6-4 or better in Three Card Poker. In other games, like video poker, there is a good deal of strategy involved and learning how to read hands and determine which cards to hold will impact your results as much as the machine (and its payback) that you choose up front.

If you repeatedly choose to play a low pair over a 4-Card Flush, your payback on a full-pay jacks or better will not be the published 99.5 percent. As a ballpark, this will take about 0.3 percent off the payback. Put another way, this will increase the house advantage by more than 50 percent. Throw in a variety of rookie mistakes or a desire to chase for Royals, and a misguided player could easily take 2 or 3 percent off of the payback and increase the house edge by 400 to 600 percent. So, you sit down at a 99.5 percent machine, but the strategy (or lack thereof) you are playing brings it down to 96.5 percent.   You’re still better off playing a 99.5 percent machine over a 97.5 percent machine (which will play like a 94.5 percent machine with poor strategy), but you’ve just greatly reduced the advantage of playing a video poker machine over playing a slot machine.

I’ve used video poker machines as the example today, but the same rules apply to almost any game in the casino. In some cases, it might only be the first rule, if the game has no or nearly no strategy.  In the game of Casino War, there really is no strategy. Technically you have to decide to make the War wager or not when there is a tie, but the right strategy is to always make it, so it is almost like having no strategy.  The choices you have are to play the game at all knowing the payback – around 97.8 percent. 

If you have the option to play a six-deck shoe over an eight-deck shoe, you should take that option as the payback is a tiny fraction higher. Then you can decide not to play the Tie Bonus wager with its 81-82 percent payback. You can make these choices because you know the actual payback of each wager exactly and with certainty. The fact that you have no real decisions to make once you start to play does not impact you.

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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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