Remembering video poker legend that was Lenny Frome

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This week marks 22 years since my father’s (Lenny Frome’s) passing. It’s been 30-plus years since he first started writing about Video Poker. It goes back to that day when he saw two video poker machines with identical paytables but signs stating different paybacks. 

This didn’t make any sense to him. If the cards dealt in a video poker machine were random like a real deck of cards, then the paybacks of two machines with identical paytables should be identical.

That led my father to begin coding his first video poker program. The goal was to play every possible draw of every possible deal. Given the speed of computers back then, he certainly didn’t literally play out every hand. Instead he used some combinatorial math to speed it all along. 

I’ve seen this program. It’s not pretty. My father was not a programmer. He was an electrical engineer with an incredible mind for math, which is probably what made him go down this path in the first place.  

The goal of this program was not just to figure out what the real payback of the game was, but to somehow categorize hands so that players would have a strategy that they could follow. He realized that each five-card deal had an optimal way of being played so as to maximize the expected number of coins returned. 

The term ‘expected value’ was created. Patterns began to develop in similar hands and my father was able to essentially sort and categorize all the results into what is now called a Strategy Table — which lists all the playable hands in expected value order from highest to lowest.

One of the things I remember my father telling me when he first did all this was the surprise he found early on. It dealt with one of the most common sets of hands. The Low Pair that was also a 4-Card Flush or a 4-Card Straight. If you go back to the late 1980’s, there was no developed strategy yet. Whoever was playing video poker was doing so using a variety of methods — from intuition, to educated guesses, to using poker room strategy.

It is the latter that probably got most people to do one of two things — hold the Low Pair or hold the 4-Card Straight/Flush. I doubt very many people figured out the reality of the situation.

There are nine ways to complete a Flush when you have a 4-Card Flush.  There are only eight ways to complete a Straight when you have a 4-Card Straight. The Flush pays six. The Straight pays four. The Flush has an expected value of 1.15 (9 x 6 /47). The Straight has an expected value of only 0.68 (8 x 4 /47).

That’s a huge gap. One that you can drive a Low Pair through. Calculating the expected value of a Low Pair was not as easy. Certainly, not a calculation that even my father could do in his head. But his program did it. The expected value of a Low Pair is 0.82. So, quickly, he learned that you hold the Low Pair when you also have a 4-Card Straight, but if you also have a 4-Card Flush with that Low Pair, you go for the Flush.

As his delved into the details further, he would discover an exception. If the 4-Card Straight has 3 High Cards, then it gets played over the Low Pair. So, if you have 10-10-J-Q-K, you hold the 4-Card Straight. It was quite a revelation for the early days of video poker. 

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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