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Sometimes it’s OK to
go back to square one

Oct 18, 2004 11:12 PM

The last few weeks I’ve taken a detour from video poker to focus on some table games. This week, I’m back on video poker. It seems only fitting to go to my roots, as today essentially marks my first anniversary writing for GamingToday.

More than 15 years ago, my dad, Lenny Frome, created his first tipsheet, entitled 50+ Tips on Video Poker. Who knew what that tipsheet would start, not only for my dad and myself, but for the entire gaming world?

I still occasionally get an order for this tipsheet. I find it to be one of the best and most reasonably priced introductions to the game of video poker. To the best of my knowledge, it is also the first published (and accurate) strategy table for any version of video poker. Today, most video poker players would be unimpressed by this tipsheet. With all the books, software and strategy cards that exist, what’s the big deal about an 8-page tipsheet about one type of video poker?

In order to fully appreciate the value of the tipsheet, you have to go back in time 15 years. My dad, who lived in Las Vegas, walked into some casinos and saw video poker. It was essentially a brand new game. The casinos, in order to promote the game, put big signs over the machines boasting the high paybacks. What puzzled my dad was that different casinos were posting different paybacks for games with the same rules and the same paytables.

Given that in Nevada any game that uses a real life item (such as a deck of cards), must play using normal random probabilities, my dad realized something wasn’t right. He sat down at his computer and began to program what was probably the world’s first video poker analysis program. What he basically discovered was that neither of the casinos were posting the correct payback, and generally speaking, they were posting paybacks that were lower than the actual ones. Thus, by accident, the era of high payback video poker was born.

The problem was that the strategy for video poker was hardly intuitive. Playing using what might be considered the type of strategy one would use in a standard 5-card draw poker game against other players, will reduce the payback by at least 5-10 percent, turning a high payback game into nothing more than a glorified slot machine. My dad felt compelled to get the word out, and a new career was born. There’s no doubt that 15 years later many more people understand the benefit of the Expert Strategy that my dad created. There is also little doubt that only a small percentage of people actually utilize it or anything even close to it.

Some days, I wish I could just get a skywriter to write in really big letters over the Las Vegas Strip: Video Poker Is Not a Slot Machine.

Slot machines require no skill whatsoever. You put in your money, you pay full-coin for maximum payback and you pull the handle. Oh wait, newer machines don’t even have a handle. So, I guess you press the spin or start button. The machine spins the video reels and then you get paid. Just for fun, on one of my last trips, I put a few nickels into a machine. I’ll admit, I turned $5 into $20 in about five minutes, but I have no idea why I won. There were so many lines and so many symbols, I have no idea what I hit to win the money. Surely, this is not a game of skill!

Video poker, on the other hand, is a game of skill. This does not mean that there is not an element of luck. Virtually everything in life has some element of luck. However, unlike slot machines, we can affect the outcome of our session by using proper strategy. This is the essence of Expert Strategy. Every time a video poker machine deals the initial five cards to a player, the player has to make a decision. There are 32 possible ways the player can play that five-card hand, ranging from keeping all five cards to throwing out all five cards. There are five ways to hold one card, 10 ways to hold two cards, 10 ways to hold three cards, five ways to hold four cards and one way each to hold none or five cards.

About 75 percent of the hands will be pretty obvious as to the correct way to play. It’s the other 25 percent that require a bit more work. Do you hold the low-pair or the four-card straight? What about the high-pair or the four-card straight flush? The answers to these questions can be calculated with mathematical certainty. The draw that will result in maximizing the amount of coins returned in the long run is the one that is the proper one to pick. This is what is called the expected value or EV of the hand. By properly analyzing the pre-draw hand and selecting the right draw using the hand’s expected value, a player can achieve the very high paybacks (99+ percent) that video poker has to offer. Next week, I’ll go into more detail on how the expected value is calculated and how it is used to develop a strategy table.