Odds favor 100% plus play!

Sep 5, 2005 1:38 AM

The recreational gambler believes that there’s little to no difference between a 100.5% return video poker game and one that pays 99%. The math geek and the savvy professional gambler know better.

The best way to understand the key differences is not to look at the overall theoretical payback percentage, but rather the overall house edge. A 100.5% game gives the player a .5% advantage, while a 99% game leaves the player at a 1% disadvantage. While 100.5 and 99 may look like comparable numbers, there’s no arguing that plus .5% is greatly superior to minus 1%.

Wynn Las Vegas recently introduced full-pay deuces wild (FPDW) to its floor — a schedule that returns 100.76% with perfect play — at the $1 denomination (on select machines). Based on max-coin play of $5 per hand at 800 hands per hour, a solid player generates $4,000 per hour in volume and gets back a theoretical $4,030, earning an expected $30 per hour.

I can hear the non-math geeks crying "foul," claiming that it’s virtually impossible to play this fast without errors. The real truth, though, is that the play of world-class professionals is virtually flawless. But let’s assume that the majority of video poker pros have some slippage, and realize only a .60% advantage rather than the theoretically possible .76% edge. Even at this level, and even at a slowed 500 hands per hour, they’re still "earning" $15 per hour.

Additionally, players are picking up casino comps, cashback and other goodies, likely adding from .2% to 1% to the bottom line.

Again, the non-math people object, contending that this is all theoretical, and that actual results are all that matters. What they don’t understand is that casinos and professional players use the same techniques to get the money. They derive a way to have a long-term theoretical advantage, then it’s simply a matter of attracting enough volume to the game. Over time, the actual results will roughly match the theoretical expectation, provided they don’t put too much at risk by over-betting their bankroll.

As for the short-term, experts understand that they’re increasing profits with every hour they log and that the long-term result will be close to what’s expected. Meanwhile, the short-term ups and-downs are little more than random noise along the way. Results won’t exactly match long-term expectation — some players will experience positive standard deviation during their lives and will make more than expected, while others will experience negative standard deviation and will do worse. But pros deal with this variance, and limit it by making sure their bankrolls are large enough in relation to their risks.

Knowing all this, what video poker games should a casino offer? Clearly, any game paying more than 100.2% at the $1 or higher level is an invitation to have the advantage-playing locusts descend upon their fair casino floor (at the 25¡ level, these games are fine, as the advantage player simply cannot generate enough volume to make a decent wage — he’s frying hamburgers at this level).

Not surprisingly, this is exactly what happened at Wynn, and management had no choice but to pull the plug on its $1 FPDW games. At $30/hour plus comp points, these players most certainly wouldn’t have put Steve Wynn out of business. But they would have been taking money out of the casino while tying up valuable floor space and angering regular customers by monopolizing the machines.

Offering over 100% games is simply not in the casino’s best interest. However, I firmly believe that 99%-100% games are the optimal offerings (the 99.54% payback on jacks or better is the classic example). In these games, the world-class video poker players can still win, but only by playing close to perfectly and craftily maximizing comps, cashback, invitational tournaments, and free-play coupons (not to mention getting a normal share of luck along the way).

One big winner in offering 99%-100% video poker is the decent recreational player who, due to making some mistakes, is probably getting a return that’s about 1% below optimal. This 98.5% player will lose over his lifetime, but will enjoy many winning sessions along the way, which is what he’s looking for out of his casino experience.

(Fezzik is a professional sports bettor and gambler who can be reached at a free web site, Fezziksplace.com)