The value of luck

Oct 10, 2005 2:33 AM

There’s been so much written and said about the skill vs. luck factor when it comes to what some people like to call beatable casino games such as video poker.

For instance, one writer recently e-mailed me and asked, "Rob, I see no other way to win without good fortune. After all that math and optimal play hype, what it always seems to boil down to for us is a simple lucky hit now and then — something that comes far too seldom. What’s wrong?"

Well Steve, welcome to the real world of playing video poker. Welcome to the fact that no matter what the casino game, all the skill in the world will not guarantee anything but bragging rights, the sales of numerous gambling items, and maybe a high score on your next test. To help illustrate this, let me break away from the machines for a moment by looking at the most popular of casino games as followed by the TV cameras these days.

Live poker championship matches have taken the country by storm. When I see how the Bride of Chucky (Jennifer Tilly was one of my favorites even before she hooked up with our "Friend to the End") started romping through tables of experienced players, it all points to the factor that I know is at least 90 percent of the reason why anyone wins at video poker: good luck.

The commercialization of poker has given rise to a number of famous names who the media always seem to embrace. That’s why I like it when they get stomped by some twenty-something from Tibet or a truck driver from everywhere USA. And how do these big names get their tails kicked by a bunch of nobody’s? Simple — plain old-fashioned luck.

I regularly come up against those who disagree. They believe the game is controlled by skill more than luck.

When I ask how, the first thing out of their mouths is "You don’t see the same famous names sitting at the championship tables for nothing." But because there are so many "famous" players out there, the odds are you’ll always see someone you’ve heard of or seen on the tube before in the finals. Plus, they get invited more often, and/or they have the cash or the sponsorship to enter tournament after tournament.

While poker on TV may look analytical as we see instant and interesting computer-generated percentages beside each set of cards, even Einstein wouldn’t be helped without knowing what other people have been dealt.

I agree some players have a keen sense for nuances at the table — and that’s really the only talent I see here — but if the cards don’t fall then the master of the universe isn’t going to beat Joe Schmo.

Likewise in video poker. There’s been too much written about playing dealt hands mathematically perfectly. Experts say that’s the best route to take because a 1.4 percent chance is better than one that’s .79 percent. Well, the numbers certainly add up in their favor, but we’d all be a whole lot better off if we instead asked the machines.

For instance, in Double Double Bonus you’re dealt 7-7-4-4-K. For the amount of time you’re playing, does a full house with 45 credits really mean that much to you? Aren’t you playing this game to catch special four-of-a-kinds, hopefully with kickers?

And do you actually think that on this one single hand, the best possible mathematical draw will show up while you’re playing? The computer doesn’t know if there’s a geek or a sensible person sitting in the chair, so intellect isn’t going to influence the outcome one single bit.

In my strategy, the full house worth going for when hitting it helps attain a win goal. Otherwise, it’s go for the special quad.

And what does it take to hit it? Luck, of course, which is the same luck that accounts for any winning hand.

Winning hands in video poker have noting at all to do with skill, playing mathematically perfect, making optimal plays, or scientific principles. Just as in live poker, if the cards don’t fall then you do.

At the end of the day it pays to know the game you’re playing inside out. It also pays to know everything you can about the casino, its slot club, the machines, and where you’re most comfortable playing.

But you will never gain a mathematical edge by making believe you’re outsmarting a computer that can and has bitten the hand that feeds it millions of times. In gambling you need good fortune, and how you handle it when it comes along is the whole game.