It’s Kong vs. Godzilla

May 28, 2007 4:27 AM

For some of you who have read my column the past two weeks, you must be wondering what is going on. Why is the son of the ”˜godfather of video poker’ writing about the reason to play blackjack over video poker? Just because my father was the godfather of video poker doesn’t mean he didn’t like table games too.

In fact, blackjack was really where it all started. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on my high school teacher’s face when I asked if I could use a terminal all day (this was the early 80s and we didn’t have PCs like today!) so that I could run a blackjack simulation.

My dad wasn’t convinced that the existing books had necessarily gotten all the strategy correct, especially before the computer age. We spent a lot of time working on the simulations and the strategies. In the end, we broke no new ground.

What made blackjack so compelling was that it was known to be a game that paid 99.5% or so. So, if you could find a slight edge, perhaps you can turn the game positive.

At the time, there wasn’t much else to pick from in the casino. You had craps and roulette on the table game side and slots on the slots side.

Along came video poker and blackjack finally had a challenger for a game with an equivalent payback. What made video poker so compelling early on is that it appeared that no one knew what the payback of the games were!

By now, you’ve all heard the story of how my father saw two apparently identical machines with signs above them announcing very different paybacks. This time, he hit gold. The computer analysis showed that a fair number of video poker machines actually had paybacks OVER 100%, but only if you played their relatively complex strategies correctly.

The fact that video poker was new territory and blackjack had already been analyzed to death is what made my father turn towards video poker. I suppose he could’ve written a book on blackjack too, but I’m not sure he could’ve added much to that which was already published.

Where video poker was concerned, not only was nothing published, but it was a game that the average player actually had a reasonable chance to win at. My father gave the public the strategies they needed to have this chance. By writing about them in numerous magazines and by selling them in his books, he helped to increase the popularity of video poker and the name "godfather of video poker" was bestowed on him.

I think sometimes people forget that he also wrote books on the many table games that would become popular in the 1990s — Spanish 21, Caribbean Stud Poker and Let It Ride. He had nothing against table games. Table games at least afforded players respectable paybacks (most of the time), while rewarding the players who were willing to learn the strategies with the higher paybacks relative to those that chose to ignore the math.

That is why he hated slot machines so much. With slots, nothing matters but luck, and because you never know the payback of any particular machine, even good luck might not be enough to overcome the payback the machine was programmed for.

The bottom line is that it is not so odd that I should suggest that there are times that you’d be better off playing table games over video poker. In places like Las Vegas, it is hard to find paybacks higher than video poker, AND have the luxury of playing them at relatively low denomination.

Unfortunately, not every place is the video poker heaven that Las Vegas is. In those cases, there is nothing wrong with hitting the blackjack tables (or any other table game with a strong payback). The key is to play the game with the right strategy and to have fun along the way.