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Too good to be true

Dec 24, 2007 2:46 AM

It’s been about 10 years now, but it remains as clear to me in my mind as my last royal flush a few months ago in Tunica: The video poker machine in Almaty, Kazakhstan that was too good to be true. And just like all the tempting deals that rope in players every day at casinos all over the country, this machine was a one-of-a-kind with all the bells and whistles that drew players to it.

Even a decade ago I had enough insight into the game that told me not to play it, but I did. And just a few days ago a former colleague of mine who still works the former Soviet Bloc circuit called me to say he found that exact machine that I’ve written about in the past, and it did him in just as it is supposed to do.

As far as I know there is no other machine like it anywhere. Manufactured by a well-known American gaming company that has their video poker machines practically everywhere, it is very brightly lit, it emits all kinds of musical tunes and sounds on the deal and draw whether or not you have a winning hand, and it actually speaks the name of your winning hand — the better the hand the more exciting the voice.

But as much as the sounds coming from this entertaining machine make it mesmerizing to the player, its real draw is the game itself. It is a 1-100 coin full-pay Jacks or Better game, and it has several very interesting twists which we will never see in Nevada: It uses a 57-card deck that comes with five jokers serving as wild cards with an extraordinary pay table for a typical 5 credit bet:

Pair Sevens or Better: 5
Two Pair: 10
Three of a Kind: 15
Straight: 20
Flush: 30
Full House: 45
Four of a Kind: 125
Straight Flush w/Joker: 500
Straight Flush no Joker: 500
Five of a Kind: 1,000
Royal with Joker: 4,000
Royal no Joker: 4,000
Five Jokers:


One credit in local currency was worth about 15¡, and yes my friends, should you be lucky enough to hit a royal flush with 100 coins in, that’s a win of 800,000 credits — or about $120,000. But having been to this particular casino multiple times, good luck collecting even $100 of it. No player, however, goes in with that mindset, which is exactly what the casino counts on.

While this is interesting to many people, there’s a few points I’m making about what this type of game represents. First, the one time I played it I blew through $100 faster than playing a very cold 50¡ machine over here. Playing just 5 credits at a time, I got two full houses (both dealt), one flush, no quads or straights, and I saw a total of two jokers the whole time. And nearly every time I chose the double-down option, a 10 or higher was dealt.

Are you getting my drift yet? First, the expected value of this game is astronomical if it were random, but obviously it is not, and really no player could ever lose even if they never held a dealt card. Next, why would my friend run over $700 through it even though he had up-front information on it being a vicious loser?

Well, it may seem stupid for him to have wasted his money, but that sort of thing happens every day at casinos around the country. Players chase promotions all the time out of the anxiety and anticipation of getting something for nothing, yet for most the day ends in disappointment.

Yes, very intermittent stories written by excitable people on big wins during promotions are extremely provocative to most players, but what these people lose during their mostly silent times is what players like me look at and understand. Its basis is elementary: beautiful hotels and casinos with players providing the profit. Get them in often and with their bankrolls, and you will be successful. Period.

The other point within this story has to do with the fairness of the machines. The 5-joker game talked about in this article is about as biased as it gets, and as much as I believe online casino video poker is gaffed, this is the worse I’ve seen.

But what about other locations that most people trust to be fair? That’s up to you to decide. I personally completely trust places like Nevada, New Jersey, Mississippi, etc. where the states regulate the games. I do not trust Indian casinos anywhere because I’ve never been able to get a clear, consistent, traceable answer to the randomness question in the locations I’ve attempted to play.

At the end of the day, what the 5-joker machine shows is how easily it is to make the machines do whatever their owners desire. I’ve been to video poker tournaments in Las Vegas where royals and straight flushes pop up multiple times during a 10-minute session. It sort of spoils you when you get back to reality. It also should make you never want to play video poker in Kazakhstan.