Take the time to read the tables

Jan 9, 2006 2:12 AM

Let’s say it’s the holidays and you’re on vacation in Las Vegas. You stop at the first video poker machine you see and after 15 minutes, in disbelief, you hit a royal. You’re up a cool $1,000. You’ve got five more days in town, but that’s it, you’re done for the week. How many of you could really quit?

Since I’m a betting man, I’m gonna say that at least nine out of 10 of you would not stop gambling for the week. Most of you wouldn’t even stop for the rest of the day. Maybe, you’ll take a breather and go get something to eat. Or even buy a new leather jacket in the hotel gift shop.

The majority of the people who play in Las Vegas are there on vacation. They’d love to win, but, quite frankly, winning is really not the top priority. Playing is the top priority. Most likely they’ve determined that they will play a set number of hours per day.

They may have a maximum dollar amount they can lose per day or per visit, but no amount of winnings will significantly alter the amount of time that they will play.

Now, assuming our vacationing couple plays 600 hands per hour, gambles for five hours a day for six days, each will play 18,000 hands. Statistically speaking, this is not a large sample for video poker. With 18,000 hands, any given machine will not necessarily demonstrate its overall payback to its player. Given that royals should show about every 40,000 hands, if a royal were to show up during this six day trip, the machine will likely be positive and pay far above its calculated payback.

So, if you are one of these vacationers, what does this mean to you? It means that picking a machine should not be random. It doesn’t mean you should go looking all over town for just the full pay machines. You’re on vacation, and here to have fun, not to go on a scavenger hunt. Unfortunately, full-pay machines are not as common in Las Vegas as they used to be.

First of all, you have to find a game that you ENJOY playing. Many machines today play multiple varieties of video poker so this shouldn’t be too hard. Lastly, once you’ve determined the variety of game and the denomination, you should look around a bit for the best pay table.

Once at Bally’s, a member of our party noticed that their 50-play machine had a terrible pay table, but around the corner was a 100-play machine with better pay tables. So why would anyone play the 50-play machine with the lesser pay table, when five feet away, you can play the same games with better pay tables.

Of course, somewhere across town, there is probably a 100-play machine with even better pay tables. But for a variety of reasons, we had decided we wanted to play at Bally’s. Once there, we wanted to make sure we played the best pay table we could find.

Now, if my wife sits down at the 50-play machine and I sit down at the 100-play machine, does that mean in a one- or two-hour session that I’ll wind up winning more than she does (or perhaps lose less), assuming we both use expert strategy? Simply put, no.

Even over the six-day, five-hour sessions, there would be no guarantee that the person playing the better pay table will do better than the person playing the lesser paytable. However, the likelihood is that the person playing the better paytable will outperform the person playing the lower paytable.

As luck would have it, on this particular afternoon, my wife and I were actually playing together, on a Double-Double Bonus machine. Over the course of no more than 10 hands, my wife was dealt three 2’s and hit six four-of-a-kinds, two of the bonus variety. A few hands later, I was dealt three aces, and hit for four four-of-a-kinds, two for the 400-coin payout.

Which machine were we playing (the 50-play or 100-play)? Does it matter? If you’re going to hit 10 four of a kinds over about 500 to 1,000 hands (10 hands dealt times the 50 or 100 hand machine), does it really matter what the lower end of the paytable looks like? Of course not!

But when you first sit down at a machine, you don’t know what you’re going to be dealt. If you’re going to sit down and play 30 hours of video poker on your vacation, you want to maximize your chances of winning (or maybe minimize your chances of losing).

There’s an expression in sports that any team can beat any other team on any given Sunday. Over a season, though, things tend to even out. In video poker, there is just pure and simple (okay, not always so simple) math at play.

The more hands you play, the more likely the machine will begin to approach its calculated payback. It’s true that in order to have a very strong likelihood of being very close to that payback that you need to play nearly a million hands. That doesn’t mean that when you’ve only played 20 or 30 thousand hands that you won’t have an advantage by playing the better paytables, assuming a similar distribution of hands on each of the machines.

Of course, if you sit down for an hour and hit a royal flush, it really won’t matter if a full house pays 8 or 9 credits. That’s if, of course, you can walk away for the rest of the week.

In reality, though, you’re not likely to hit that royal, and you’ll walk away at the end of your trip with more money in your pocket if you just take some time to read the paytables.