Take a look past payback

Mar 6, 2006 2:07 AM

Payback is NOT the only thing that matters. As you read that, you must wonder if I’ve lost my mind or if perhaps I’ve slipped to the dark side. Not at all.

For nearly two decades, readers have been reading columns by my Dad and me that talk about how important expected value is. Payback is nothing more than the expected value of the machine, so what else could there be?

Well, in one respect, there are things like volatility and wager size that can greatly affect the game, but that’s not the point of my column today. The point of my column today is that the payback is completely meaningless if you play the wrong strategy. What good does a 99% plus machine do you, if you’re playing a strategy on it that is only going to get you 97%.

This past week, I had a conversation with a colleague about the game known as Multi-Strike video poker. This is a relatively unique game. Basically, you bet four coins to play a hand. You can play up to four rounds per hand.

In Round 1, the game essentially looks and pays like a standard video poker game. If you get a pair of Jacks or higher (assuming you are playing the standard jacks or better version), you go on to Round 2.

If you don’t win anything in Round 1, the game ends and you’ve wagered four coins to get nothing. A set percent of the time, the game will also give you a free ride to Round 2 to help you out.

In Round 2, all payouts are doubled, so a three of a kind all of sudden pays 6 credits. Again, if you get a pair of Jacks or better, you go on to Round 3 where payouts are quadrupled (trips pay 12), and if you win there, you go on to the top round, Round 4 where payouts are eight times the standard payout.

The goal of this column is not to teach you the strategy for Multi-Strike. The point is that the strategy required to play this game is far different than standard Jacks or better, even though the average player who sits down to play it will think he is just playing Jacks or better with a twist.

I have not performed the analysis on this game to calculate an exact payback, but from what I understand, the payback of Multi-Strike is actually HIGHER than the base game.

That is, if you play Mutli-Strike Jacks or better with what appears to be a 97.5% paytable (8/5), it is possible to achieve higher than that as a payback when playing the Multi-Strike version.

But, this is only if you alter the strategy as required. If you play standard Jacks or better strategy, you’ll actually do far worse because of the progression that the game utilizes. I’ll save the details of this for another day.

So, if Multi-Strike offers better paybacks, why is the game not more popular?

It has done well, but it seems to have a kind of "cult following" that doesn’t make it a huge success. I believe this is because many people simply don’t know that there is a different strategy.

So, they sit down and play it like Jacks or better and lose their money very fast (this game is VERY volatile and playing wrong will lead to a quick disastrous session). After a couple of sessions of this, they figure they are better off playing something else.

As my colleague and I talked, I expressed how surprised I am that so many of the manufacturers and casinos are unwilling to publicize the strategies more. He responded that they are scared that it will cost them money because people will play better.

I looked at him and asked him if he thought that Video Poker had done better or worse since my father (Lenny Frome) published the first strategy for Jacks or better 15 or 20 years ago. He looked at me and said "Better."

So, if publishing the strategy then helped build video poker into an empire, why would publishing a strategy for a new game like Multi-Strike be a bad thing? After all, what good does a 99% machine do for anybody if nobody is playing it because nobody knows the right strategy?