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I received an e-mail regarding last week’s article about slots. In that article I talked about how casinos can legally, and do, make sure slot machines are created so they produce a large number of near misses to make the player feel like he almost won.

A reader wanted to know if the same is true of video poker. He wrote:

I’m always interested in the little things casinos do to try and influence how a player thinks. Your article spells out an excellent example of how a slot machine display can create the illusion of coming close to a big win.

I was wondering if the same thing applies to some extent to video poker. If I’m holding three to a royal flush and my two new cards don’t create a winning hand, but one of those two I need for the royal, then I might be influenced to think that I was close to hitting a royal – even though the hand is as much of a winner as any losing hand.

Do you think that VP machines are set up this way as well?

My answer depends on the definition of “set up.” Are video poker machines specifically programmed to have players get more near misses than one would expect to occur randomly? Absolutely not (in most jurisdictions).

In places like Nevada the law requires that any game that uses a real life object (like a deck of cards or die) in digital form must play as randomly as the real-life object. In other words, if the game uses a deck of cards, every card must have exactly the same probability of being dealt as every other card.

Thus, the casino cannot program the video poker machine to have one of the two remaining cards for the royal flush to be drawn just so it looks like the player came close to winning – even if it doesn’t change the overall outcome of the hand.

So, if the player is dealt a suited 10-J-Q and the two cards that are supposed to be dealt are the 8D and 5C, the machine cannot change the 8D to the suited king just so the player comes closer, but still loses.

What makes video poker so superior to slots, in my opinion, is that there is no need for the casinos (or the manufacturers) to do this. One of the beautiful things about almost any game being played with a deck of cards is that the suspense is built into the game by the very fact that a deck of cards is being used.

True, once in a while a hand is so bad there is no suspense, but this is infrequent. How many times have you played a hand of video poker where the first two cards are a pair or two cards of a royal flush? Your heart skips a beat as you begin to be believe you’re about to be dealt four of a kind or maybe a royal.

That suspense quickly disappears when the final three cards are a mess and don’t help your hand.

Conversely, how many times have you been dealt very little (a single high card) and you wind up being dealt a flush, a straight or even four of a kind? Nobody is forcing these hands to come out of the machine. They occur because of the nature of the random deck of cards, which generates near misses for us.

When we look at my reader’s question about a three-card royal being dealt one of the necessary cards, we find it is not such an unusual occurrence. For an easy way to approximate the likelihood of this, we simply have to know we are going to be dealt two cards and we are looking at least one to appear.

This is roughly equivalent to giving us four chances to be dealt one card from 47 cards in the deck. This works out to be around eight-plus percent of the time, hardly making it a rare occurrence.

Does it really matter if near misses are occurring because of the nature of a random deck of cards or if it is purposefully being programmed in by the manufacturers? Quite frankly, by itself, I don’t think so. However, I believe what this tells us about video poker machines and slot machines is the critical part.

Everything about a video poker machine is the result of using a random deck of 52 cards. So, while it is random, we also know all of the probabilities with 100% certainty and thus we can calculate a payback, determine a strategy and know what to expect over the long run.

We can look at the pay table and know everything there is to know about the machine. We know that if we see two machines with identical pay tables, they have identical paybacks.

With slot machines we know nothing! We can look at two slot machines standing side by side with identical pay tables and still know absolutely nothing about either of them. We have no idea how often winning hands will occur.

We have no idea which losing hands are programmed into it and how often it will “tease” us with near misses. A moment ago I gave a rough estimate of how often we can expect to get a near miss when drawing on a three-card royal. This can be calculated with absolute precision, too (8.3256%).

You can’t do this with a slot machine just by looking at it.

I guess in the end it comes down to the difference between NFL football and WWE wrestling. I don’t know who will be the next champion, but I prefer the NFL version where it comes down to the best team, not the WWE format where someone decides who should win and then puts on a good show to make it happen!

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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