‘Wrong’ keno

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  It’s not a life or death proposition

Last week my editor forwarded me an e-mail from a reader, who suggested we might write an article for all the unwashed masses who still play the “wrong” video poker, keno and slot machines.

By “wrong,” I mean machines that have poor pay tables and/or payback percentages.

Here is a portion of what the reader, Al, had to say:

“Because I enjoy video poker and keno, I pay attention to what the pay tables are for the machines I play. I make sure that I know what the best pay table is for each video poker game.

“Anyway, I occasionally talk to keno and video poker players when I see them playing, say, a bad nickle pay table at video poker when playing short-coin quarters would be better, or a bad pay table at keno and ask them if they have any idea about what the pay table means or if they even ever look at it.

“Many times, of course, they have no clue.

“Do you know of any extensive survey that’s ever taken place regarding how many people pay attention to pay tables and know what the best ones are? Any idea how many people would switch from playing low denomination bad pay tables to short-coin better pay tables if they were shown how much better off they’d be?

“This is what I’m proposing you have someone on your staff write about and, if that’s not possible, let me know if you’d like me to tackle it. I know that without Keno Lil’s articles, I wouldn’t know what the right pay table was. At about 92%, the standard pay table for keno is better than most slot machines of any denomination, and it’s a shame more people don’t learn about the games they play.”

Thank you, Al, for your comments. I’m happy to see you’ve taken a serious interest in playing the “right” machines in the casino.

However, I’d like to point out that some things, such as the payback percentage, isn’t always understood by players (just what it means), and that its significance is highly overrated.

The mistake that players make is thinking that, if a machine has a high payback percentage, such as 99 percent or higher, then they will have a better chance of winning; or that they will get a higher return on their investment, as if it were a bank or mutual fund.

That’s simply not true. Assuming you’re playing a video poker or video keno machine, the chances or odds of hitting anything, such as a royal flush, four deuces, four aces, a solid 7-spot or what-have-you, should remain the same.

The only difference with a lower payback machine is that some of the payoffs are smaller.

With the payoffs being smaller, the house edge is slightly higher. This is what I call the machine’s “breakage” factor.

In Nevada, the slot machines actually have the smallest house edge or breakage in the country, about 6.1 percent collectively in 2009, according to Nevada regulators.

Other games had considerably higher breakage factors last year: blackjack, 11.3 percent, baccarat, 11.6 percent, and horse race betting, 16.5 percent, to name a few.

Very often the most vehement adherents to the notion that video keno and other electronic games are unplayable are the sports bettors, who like to cite their handicapping skills as enough to overcome their breakage, which usually varies between 6 percent and 7 percent – which is about the average hold on most slot machines.

No one, myself included, has ever advocated that you can beat any game on a consistent basis. Luck is always a factor. And since our play takes place in the short run, anything can and does happen to cause the hold percentage to vary wildly.

What’s key to me and other keno players (and video poker players) is the odds to win versus the payback.

 For instance, one of the reasons I stopped playing video poker is because the payoff for a royal flush is so far removed from the odds to hit it. Most machines pay only 800-1 for a natural royal, whose odds are a whopping 41,000-1.

By contrast, catching 7-out-of-7 on a keno machine pays a healthy 7,000-1 at about the same 41,000-1 odds. Stated another way, for about the same number of games, the keno jackpot pays off nearly nine times greater!

Other winners such as 7-of-8, 6-of-6 and 8-of-9 offer similarly lucrative payoffs. For instance, 7-of-8 pays 1,650-1 – more than double that of a royal flush – but the odds of hitting it are only 6,232-1, about one-seventh the odds of catching that elusive royal flush.

So why do most video poker machines have a higher return percentage to the player? Because they have more frequent payoffs of the “small” variety – all those pairs, three-of-a-kinds, straights, etc.

If there’s an advantage to playing video poker, theoretically, it’s your bankroll will probably last longer because you’re getting more frequent paybacks, even if its just a return of your bet for jacks or better.

The higher house hold or breakage associated with video keno becomes a significant factor when you don’t have a large enough bankroll. If you only have $20 and you choose to play a dollar machine, you limit yourself to very few games. Thus, you’d be better off to play a nickel machine where you can give yourself a greater sample in which to capitalize on those lucrative payoffs.

The situation is not unlike one for the astute poker player, who may be holding a relatively poor hand, but because of favorable pot odds, will win in due course – if he has a large enough bankroll to weather the down periods when he doesn’t catch the right card on the river.

As noted, I won’t claim that I can win at will. I don’t think anyone can, even those snobbish sports bettors, who have to overcome a 10 percent breakage on their average straight bet (25 percent or more for parlays).

But I do enjoy playing the game, especially when you find something – cluster of numbers, cashing out frequently, etc. – that seems to “work.” The rewards are well worth the shot.

Picking the right pattern

I wanted to mention a kind of “trend” that seems to occur when I play either Four Card Keno or 20-card keno, and I have patterns marked on the first two (or last two) columns.

Ordinarily, I mark six overlapping patterns within, say, the first two columns. They include the two adjoining 8-number columns; the top and bottom 8-number boxes; and the two “cross-over” or stair-stepper patterns, utilizing the top left four numbers with the bottom right four numbers, and the bottom left four numbers coupled with the top right four numbers.

I was thinking about this the past weekend, and this probably happens about 90 percent of the time when I’m playing these patterns: one of the patterns will invariably fill in 7 of the 8 numbers.

You never know whether it will be the box, column or cross-over, but in most sessions seven numbers will, at some point, jump in.

Now, if you’d marked 8-spot cards, then you’d have a nice 7-of-8. If you had marked 9-spot tickets, using a single “orphan” number outside the two columns, then you would need the orphan to hit in order to take down a nice 8-of-9.

In any case, try those patterns and let me know how you do.

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