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Dealing at random

Feb 16, 2004 11:44 PM

One of the most common questions asked of me is, "How legit is video poker?"

Usually the person asking the question is really asking one of two questions. The first is that they are wondering exactly how random the cards are dealt.

The second possibility is that they are aware of the concept of randomness of cards, but aren’t so sure they believe that the game is in fact random.

Let’s take a closer look at these questions. "How random is video poker?" Most jurisdictions in the United States (but not ALL), including Las Vegas, regulate video poker, and dictate that the cards must be dealt randomly from a single deck of cards.

Obviously, the deck varies depending on whether there are Jokers or not. Also, games such as the hard to find Five Deck Poker, (aka Five Deck Frenzy) uses separate decks for each card.

What does random really mean? Most computers have the ability to generate what is called a random number. This is a number from 0 to .9999999. The application program, in this case, the video poker program, manipulates this number so that it represents a number from 1 to 52 (in the case of a standard deck), which represents each unique card in the deck. This random number really comes from an internal list of random numbers. Because of this, they are technically considered to be pseudo random numbers.

How long is this list of numbers? For the most part, no one really knows (except maybe the programmer who created the list). Each computer may actually have its own list that is created when the computer chip is created. The bottom line is that no human is going to be able to predict what the next number is going to be. As a result, the deal for the purposes of video poker, is 100% random.

Of course, this tends to lead to the next question. How are the cards dealt? When a game starts, does it deal five cards out that you see and five cards down in case you discard that particular card?

Or does it deal five cards up and then deal the next one to five cards based on how many you draw? I don’t mean to be rude, but who cares?

The method of the deal doesn’t change a thing in terms of the long term draw. The specific cards for a specific hand may turn out different, but no way to tell if it will be better or worse.

But for those who are curious, I’ll try and answer the question. Most machines deal five cards up and immediately deal five cards down behind each card. If you discard the up card, you wind up with the card that was face down.

Now, to the trickier part of the question. How honest are the machines? In areas where they are not regulated, I would find their honesty highly suspect. In a regulated locale, I feel very confident that the games are 100% legit.

As a programmer, I know it would take only a couple of lines of code to rig a video poker program. This could be done so many ways that I can’t even begin to list them all. This is why I wouldn’t trust most machines in non-regulated areas. It’s SO easy to make them pay at whatever payback the casino wants without regard to the paytable.

Basically, the video poker game is reduced to nothing more than a video slot machine. Perhaps worse, because of the expectation that strategy will actually benefit you!

As for the regulated areas, I’ve always believed that the large casinos are completely legitimate for all games. Why? I have come to this conclusion for two reasons. The first is the risk vs. the reward. Since the locale is regulated, the risk is very grave. A casino could face a significant fine, lawsuits and certainly some serious loss of customer satisfaction if it were found to be cheating its patrons.

While the reward could be significant in terms of extra winnings, the risk could very well equate to the "death penalty." I can’t see a large corporate casino operator risking everything for this advantage. I also can’t see how a large casino would ever keep this quiet. Somewhere there is going to be a programmer who coded the modification. Somewhere there are going to be people who know that a modified chip is being used. All it takes is ONE whistleblower, and the results could be quite severe.

The second reason I don’t think any casino would use rigged machines is because simply put, they don’t need to. Despite the few dozen professional players, and the hopefully thousands, if not tens of thousands, of video poker players who have achieved expert status, countless more continue to throw their money into the machines without a clue as to what they are doing.

Computer analysis has shown that other playing strategies can easily cost the player anywhere from 5% to 20% of the payback. This is not to say that ALL alternate strategies result in this, but that many common sense simplified strategies as well as the "playing it like table poker" strategies of holding kickers can prove to be costly in video poker.

With so many people playing video poker with such reckless abandon, the casinos don’t really need to bother with the small percentage of expert players who are holding their own or even winning especially with cashback.

Given that casinos also have the ability to legitimately reel in the paybacks through lowering the paytable, I see no reason for any casino to play it any way but totally above board.

So, with that all said, how can I explain all those near misses you get? More than likely, you’re just seeing cards exactly as they are meant to come”¦randomly. Near misses are just a part of the game. It’s what makes you keep coming back for more!

Elliot Frome is a 2nd generation gaming author and analyst. His father, Lenny Frome was considered one of the premier authors of video poker books. Titles include, Expert Video Poker for Las Vegas (recently updated for 2003!) and Winning Strategies for Video Poker, which includes the strategy tables for 61 of the country’s most popular versions of Video Poker, and the just released Expert Strategy for Three Card Poker. Check out Compu-Flyers website at for their full product catalog, or drop Elliot an e-mail at [email protected]