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One of my ‘friends” on my Gambatria Facebook page recently posted a poll asking people what to play when they go into the casino – table games, slots or other?

I wasn’t sure what to answer. I tend to split most of my time between blackjack and video poker. In the end, I decided video poker was probably the most appropriate answer for me.

So, my first reaction was to check the “other” box, but then I began to wonder if maybe the creator of the poll may have included video poker in the choice for “slots.”

If you’ve read my column over the years, you know how much I hate it when people consider video poker to be slots. They’ve been frequently categorized as such because of the physical similarity of the machines. Once upon a time, slot machines meant mechanical reels in a wooden box, while video poker was a computer monitor in an identical wooden box. Then slot machines went digital, too, and now both are essentially computers in a box.

But, do we REALLY categorize casino games by physical characteristics? It is ironic that originally video poker machines were put into slot machine boxes, and then over time slot machines were put onto video poker computers in those same boxes. While they are not so easy to find anymore, if a player plays a stand-alone video blackjack machine are they playing slots because of the hardware? Not in my book!

As the technology of the casino has evolved, the lines have become even more blurred if we look only at the technology and/or hardware the game is being played on. Some jurisdictions don’t allow live dealers and/or actual cards. They only allow some of the newer hardware in fully electronic tables, where chips and cards are digital and there is either no dealer to speak of or perhaps just a moving image of one.

If you play blackjack on one of these machines are you still playing slots? Or, are you only playing slots if the machine looks like a slot machine and you’re playing in a non-social environment? On the other hand, if you’re sitting at something that looks like a blackjack table (or does it look like a set of new fangled slots all hooked together?) then are you deemed to be playing a table game?

These new electronic tables have proven the folly of considering a video poker machine to be a slot machine. We can’t categorize games by the technology they are played on. A mistake was made a long time ago to not consider video poker machines as their very own category. In most ways, they are actually far more like table games than they are slot machines.

So, perhaps the real mistake was to not recognize that slot machines are like nothing else in the casino industry. They are truly what their long nickname implies – one-armed bandits – only they no longer even have the one-arm!

When you sit down at a table game or a video poker machine, I can tell you the exact payback of every wager on the table. Some of the wagers require learning a complex strategy, others are simple and yet others require no strategy at all. But, even this last category has known probabilities for each of the paying hands.

When you play Pair Plus (of Three Card Poker) you have nothing to do, but you know exactly what the odds of getting a three of a kind are.

Video poker fits this mold perfectly. In fact, the strategy required to play video poker is on the complex end of the scale. It could be argued this is the exact reason why it was created for a digital platform.

In theory, a casino could put out a blackjack table and deal a paytable version of draw poker. Each player could get five cards face down and discard as few or as many as they want. The payback of this game would be identical to that of a video poker game with the same paytable. Voila! Video poker is now a table game!

None of this is true for slots. Not only is there no strategy whatsoever, you also have absolutely no way of knowing what the payback of a machine is. Two machines sitting side by side appearing to be identical could be set to pay either identical paybacks or paybacks differing by 10% or more! A machine could be changed overnight to pay 10% less than it was set to the day before and there’s no way of you knowing this.

Absolutely NOTHING is known about the probabilities of a slot machine by the player and there is no way to get this information.

Saying that video poker is slots would be like saying the space shuttle and a coffee maker are the same thing because they are both machines. It just doesn’t add up.

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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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