‘Secret’ strategies

Jul 13, 2004 3:05 AM

Fifteen years ago, when the first expert strategy for video poker was developed, it took the form of an eight-page tipsheet entitled 50+ Tips on Video Poker. It defined Expected Value, gave the strategy table for full-pay jacks or better and a few other general tips. It didn’t give a lot of information about how some of the numbers were really derived.

This was basically for two reasons. The first was that there is only so much you can put into an eight-page tipsheet selling for $3.95. The second was that, at the time, some of this was almost like a trade secret — if an analyst told you how to calculate the numbers, you might just do it yourself. A few years later, Expert Video Poker for Las Vegas came out and a much more detailed explanation of Expected Value was demonstrated. The secret began to be revealed.

Expert strategy was not invented, but rather, discovered and developed by my father, Lenny Frome. From the moment he saw his first video poker machine, he wondered about the claimed paybacks on the machines and the apparent contradictions he saw. So, he sat down to write a computer program that would sort it all out. As he began to realize that the published numbers were wrong and that, clearly, there were flaws in the strategies used to calculate them, he began to publish the correct strategies.

Looking back, I’m sometimes amazed at the fuss that was made. There is no doubt that he was the first to bring video poker strategy to the masses. From a programming standpoint, however, the process to create a strategy table is simply not all that difficult. Today, you have countless authors who have published books, numerous software programs to choose from and loads of amateurs who have created their own analysis programs.

It really is rather simple. When starting with a 52-card deck, there are 2,598,960 ways to deal out five cards. This can be calculated using combinatorial math as is generally regarded as ’52 choose 5’. Once dealt five cards, there are 32 different ways that hand can be played in five-card draw poker. You can throw all five cards, or you can keep all five cards. You can draw one card by discarding any one of five cards. You can draw four cards by keeping any one of five cards. You can draw two cards or three cards each 10 different ways. In total, there are 32 ways to play the hand.

To the human, many of these combinations will be readily deemed silly. Surely you wouldn’t throw three of a kind to keep one high card, but it’s easier to have the computer program play out all 32 possibilities and mathematically compute the best one rather than try and teach the program which are silly plays. The computer program plays each of the 32 possible hands and determines which has the highest Expected Value. It then categorizes the hand according to what is held (i.e. high pair, 3-card straight flush, 4-card straight with two high cards, etc.).

The last part is to simply summarize the numbers by each hand type and sort them from highest to lowest based on the expected value. A strategy table is born!

I realize I’m still simplifying some aspects of this. The key is that there really is nothing magical about a strategy table. It is based on simple math. When dealt five particular cards, what is the best way to play the five cards so as to maximize the amount of money you can win on that hand? It is as it always has been, the hand with the highest expected value. There is no bluffing. There are no hunches. There is only math, and what about math is a secret?

Now, if Lady Luck would learn the simple art of arithmetic, we’d be in business!