Video poker far different from slots

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I’ve been writing for GamingToday for about 12 years now. I’m not sure of the total number of articles I’ve written, but it’s been about 550. The majority have been about video poker.

It is almost hard to believe I have been able to come up with 350 or 400 different topics. Then again, I really haven’t. I do repeat topics from time to time. This is for two reasons.

The first is there’s a good chance the people who read a column in 2008 are not necessarily the same readers in 2014. The second is some topics need to be repeated because it is very obvious the vast number of players haven’t gotten the message, even when they are regulars.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to someone in my community who is a regular at the locals casinos here in Vegas. Admittedly, he’s not a big player, but he does play $20 or $40 on a regular basis. He plays a variety of games, including slots and video poker.

Despite being a regular, it was fairly obvious he didn’t understand the basic workings. He wondered why he noticed that certain (slot) machines seemingly pay out more than others on a regular basis. He also wondered why it seemed as if the person who plays after him on a particular machine would frequently do much better than he did. Both of his concerns show a lack of basic understanding of slot machines.

His first observation that certain machines pay more often than others may be very real. A casino can have a bank of a particular set of slot machines that all look identical, but one may be programmed for a 94% payback while the others for 86%. Slot machines are programmed for multiple potential paybacks according to a set of approved pay tables and winning combination frequency.

This is a major point of difference between slots and video poker. With slot machines, the frequency of a winning combination can be changed at will (per approval of regulating body). Video poker does not allow the frequency of winning hands to change in order to control the payback. The only way to do it is to change the payout of hands.

Slots do not have to be what-you-see-is-what-you-get. A winning combination of five symbols can be set to occur 0.055% on one machine and 0.058% on another, which will impact the overall payback of the machine.

In theory, if a casino has 10 machines of a particular type, it could rotate on a periodic basis which one pays 94% while the others continue to pay 86%. I don’t know that any casino actually does this, but it is 

quite possible, not very difficult and quite legal. The player may never know this is what is happening.

To my friend’s second observation, I would say this is just a part of selective memory. The casinos don’t have favorite patrons. Well, okay, maybe they do, but they don’t pick the winners and losers at the slot machine. Every hand/spin is completely independent of every other. This means it doesn’t matter if the last 10 spins were winners or losers, the probability of the next hand/spin being a winner is whatever the machine was programmed for.

On the video poker front, my friend seemed to not realize it is completely math driven. The concept wasn’t completely lost on him. He certainly realized it was quite different than poker room poker. There’s no bluffing a video poker machine. But, his strategy to this point was a bit similar to the one he would use in a 5-card draw poker game.

If you have a Pair of 3’s with a 4-card Straight draw in a poker game, there’s a good chance you’ll go for the Straight. A Low Pair has little value and even Trip 3’s can easily get burnt. But, if you pull the Straight, you may be looking at a big win.

Video poker math looks at things quite differently. First of all, you don’t have to take into account how many players are still in or how large the pot is. A Straight pays what a Straight pays no matter what. There is no chance you get beat by a Flush. Thus, a Straight has a set value to a player and, in turn, so does a 4-card Straight draw.

In similar fashion, a Pair of 3’s has a set value as well (Zero to be exact). A pair of 3’s before the Draw, however, has a value based on the probability of drawing Two Pair, Trips, Quads or a Full House. To determine if you should play for the Low Pair or the 4-card Straight, you simply need to compare the value of each of the pre-draw hands. Whichever has the higher value is the right play.

To prove my point to my friend, I asked the age-old question. Which do you hold – the Low Pair or the 4-card Straight? The Low Pair or the 4-card Flush? I was not surprised when my friend answered essentially the same for both. He goes for the 4-card Straight or Flush. The problem is he is only half right.

The proper strategy is go for the 4-card Flush over the Low Pair, but to go for the Low Pair over the 4-card Straight. In simple terms, the Flush has 9 cards that can complete the Flush (and potentially a few that will give you a High Straight). The Straight only has 8 cards that complete the Straight and you are not as likely to have High Cards if you had a Low Pair.

Also, a Flush pays 6 and a Straight pays 4. So, you have less chances and you get paid less for the Straight. The impact is that the Low Pair is now worth more than the 4-card Straight but less than the 4-card Flush.

The good news is by the end of our discussion my friend wanted to get a copy of my books so he could increase his knowledge of video poker. It’s a good place for him to start.

Buy his book now!

Elliot Frome is a second generation gaming analyst and author. His math credits include Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Mississippi Stud, House Money and many other games. His website is www.gambatria.com. Contact Elliot at [email protected].

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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