Multi-hand video poker multiplies the jackpots

May 28, 2002 2:00 AM

breakthrough in slot machines. Previous advances were in the bowels of the banditos, mechanical then electronic innovations that raised reliability and versatility. But they offered little apparent change other than wider ranges of probabilities and consequent larger but less likely jackpots.

Poker-oriented games took advantage of the video displays to go beyond the familiar reel idiom. And although video poker is immensely popular, there’s a fundamental problem. Solid citizens seek situations where modest wagers can yield robust returns. And big bucks weren’t in the cards, so to speak, at video poker.

Conventional slots can be readily set so they pay millions of dollars to lucky winners. All that’s needed to raise a payout on these machines is to lower the prospect of hitting it.

Video poker is different. The chance of a royal in a game with no wild cards, or of a top-ranked result like five-of-a-kind with a joker, can’t be specified arbitrarily. For expert play, the odds are around 40,000-to-1 ”” the value determined by the composition of the deck and the time-honored ranking of poker hands, not by whim. This, and the need for acceptable payouts on other recognized "good" hands, limits jackpots to about 800-for-1, 4,000 coins for five in. That’s a mere $1,000 for $1.25 bet. Even progressive video poker hookups rarely exceed 1,000-for-1.

Over the years, the machine moguls tried to boost video poker jackpots. They tested methods like trimming returns for lesser hands or paying bonuses for "special" royals ”” such as one designated suit or 10-to-ace in ascending order. None of these approaches ever caught much fire.

Then, inspiration. The video poker pooh-bahs borrowed an idea from the multi-line nickel slot barons. They produced versions of video poker with proliferations of simultaneous hands ”” three, then five, now 50, and you can only guess how many will be next. In essence, all the hands on which a player elects to bet start with the same initial five cards. The player decides which to hold, and the choice applies to all hands in action. But each hand is completed independently, as if from its own deck.

Think about playing 50 hands at once, especially when they’re all tiny enough to be squeezed onto a single screen. It’s impossible for anyone to keep visual track of what’s going on, and where. But the same phenomenon occurs on multi-line reel-type slots. Ordinary human beings can’t tell by looking at the screen which horizontal, diagonal, or zig-zag lines have won or how much. But, it turns out, nobody really cares. The computer driving the game highlights the winners, mostly for purposes of pizazz, while also displaying the amount returned and the total accumulated credits.

This seems to be enough. And the principle works as well on video poker as at multi-line slots. Players don’t necessarily want to bother seeing anything as droll as winners and losers. Just the net return, if that, before rushing on to a new round.

The possibility of hitting a big jackpot is the key allure of concurrent games. Not just by summing the wins on individual hands. But by means of bonuses for low-likelihood results such as multiple coincident royals.

A second attraction is that a round with enough hands in action almost always gives a return. It may be a net deficit ”” 13 hands losing and two recovering 1-for-1 on high pairs was a 13-coin loss in second grade arithmetic (and still is). Yet, the display shows two units "won" and added to the credit meter. Explaining how you can score on every round but go broke in the aggregate.

Variations on the same theme are rife outside the casino, in what passes for real life. There, too, it has a lot to do with the age-old triumph of emotion over reason. Or, as the celebrated sage of cynicism, Sumner A. Ingmark, sardonically snickered:

Pathetic, or just plain amusing?
Believing that you’ve won, while losing.