Winning at Video Poker: Is it luck or is it skill?

February 06, 2001 7:10 AM
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Rob Singer

When people ask me this question, they usually expect a long, drawn-out discussion due to the subject matter. But it really doesn’t need to be. Video poker is almost exclusively a game of luck — at least 90 percent to a mere 10 percent skill — over any term.

What everyone’s probably used to is all those confusing articles they’ve read, telling us how the writers use mathematical calculations to convince themselves they are somehow playing more efficiently because of their abilities after many thousands of hands. That type of thinking is "way out there somewhere."

Several people try to argue with me over this, but it’s really no contest — especially if you gamble even occasionally. Think of playing video poker the way we all do it: You put in your bill or coins for credits, and then you hit the DEAL button. Any skill involved so far? Ten cards are randomly dealt, the first five of which you are allowed to see, with cards six through 10 waiting in the wings. Was it a lucky deal? If you didn’t receive a winner and need to discard from one to five cards, you really don’t know if you’ve been lucky yet.

If a winner popped out on the deal that requires simply holding all five cards, you’ve been very lucky. If not, here’s where skill is involved — and we’re told by the math gurus we must study and practice (and buy their many video poker aids) for long hours to get to an acceptable level.

The simple fact is common sense for nearly all players dictates just what cards to hold at least 98 percent of the time. And since we all play in short-term bursts in casinos — even if we play every day — who’s to say that holding the wrong cards 2 percent of the time, either by mistake or on purpose, isn’t going to produce a big winner occasionally, thereby wiping out the expert play "advantage?" Studying, practicing at home, or even going to a class is great for basic game knowledge, but it won’t increase anyone’s chances at these machines one bit.

Now you choose what cards to hold, hit the DRAW button, and hope for the best.

Any skill there?

Well, let’s hope you hit the buttons correctly! If a winner — or improved winner — results, you’ve been very lucky. If you get a loser — or fail to improve on the initial winner you were dealt — you’ve not been so lucky. And since each and every hand is independent of one another, this type of action occurs over and over again. No amount of time or number of hands played will ever change that.

Keep this in mind the next time you play, and remember that such unforgiving gambling machines as video poker weren’t put in the casinos to be beaten without extreme luck.