This is probably going to blow my mind more than it will yours.
It was 11 years ago that I began writing for GamingToday. I’m not sure of the exact number of columns, but it has been roughly around 550. It’s a staggering number to me.
I didn’t know I could come up with that many topics! Of course, I do repeat some, realizing the nature of a gaming magazine is that many of the readers will pick up a copy while they are in the casino and may not see another until their next trip. Today is one of those weeks where I’m going back to the beginning.
It all started with video poker. Well, it sort of started with blackjack. When my father, Lenny Frome, started going to the Atlantic City casinos with my mom, he used to play blackjack. This was in the late 1970’s.
Personal computers were in their infancy. So, my father surmised that perhaps any blackjack analyses done to that point had not taken full advantage of computers. My high school happened to have one of the top computer programs in the country and I immediately fell in love with it.
So, my dad asked me to start analyzing blackjack on the high school computer. As a result, I can accurately state I have been doing gaming analysis for more than 30 years. However, where blackjack was concerned, there really wasn’t much to add. Analyses that had relied on mostly math models had very accurately determined strategy and payback of the game.
Several years passed and my parents retired to Las Vegas. Here Dad discovered video poker. This time he did the computer analysis himself and discovered that whatever was done before was, well, way off.
No one has ever explained what was done by the manufacturers to determine the paybacks of games in the early years. It would appear somehow no one realized video poker was no different than blackjack – just a bit more complex.
There is only one way to play each hand correctly. In blackjack there are usually two – Hit or Stick. In video poker, there are theoretically 32 different ways to play each hand. Once you are dealt 5 cards, you can discard none of them, all five or anything in between. In total there are 32 different combinations of cards you could hold.
Based on the remaining 47 cards in the deck, there is a value that is assigned to each of these 32 ways. If you choose to hold the cards that were dealt, this value will be the payout of whatever hand you have.
So, if you were dealt a Straight and a Straight pays 4, then this value, which is called the Expected Value (or EV for short) will be 4.0. If you hold 4 cards to a Straight (5, 6, 7, 8) then there are 47 possible draws. Eight of these will wind up as a Straight. We sum up the payouts (8 times 4 = 32) divide by the possible draws (47) and we get 0.68.
This process is completed for each of the 32 possible ways a player can play a hand. Whichever of these ways has the highest Expected Value is the proper way. While it may be called video “poker,” you are not playing against any other players. There is no one to bluff, no raising and no tells. Only one thing matters – probability.
In blackjack, you can card count. The game is played with a shoe, and while the cards are being dealt there is a certain “ebb and flow” of the cards. It is not so much a hot or cold streak as it is that what is left of the shoe changes the probability of certain cards and/or hands from occurring.
Players who learn how to count can take advantage of this. Video poker uses a single deck and shuffles between every deal. At any point, any card not yet dealt has the same probability of being dealt as any other card.
Given this, we can calculate with absolute precision the probability of being dealt any hand from any point in the game. Thus, the strategy does not change from hand to hand (as it might in blackjack by counting). It is a constant and what should be essentially the only driving force in the game.
With his work completed, Dad discovered no one knew how to play video poker. Because the box the game was housed in was similar to that used by slots, everyone just assumed it worked like a slot machine.
Ironically, in those early days, video poker used monitors and computer chips. Slot machines used mechanical parts and potentially some computer components to drive its own type of randomness.
It took my father a long time to convince people video poker is not slots. That crusade, now carried on by me, is in its third decade.
Next week, I’ll explain more how you use expected values and strategy tables to become an Expert Player at video poker.
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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].