Going for the gold!

Nov 1, 2004 11:33 PM


One of the first times I ever played golf, I found myself about 30 yards from the pin, while my buddies were already on the green. They straddled the pin as I made my approach shot. What should’ve been a nice chip shot turned out to be a mean line drive. As my friends scattered from the bullet heading their way, the ball bounced a few feet in front of the hole, hit the pin square, and dropped about 12 inches from the hole. If I told you that ever since that time that’s how I play all my approach shots, you’d either laugh at me, ask me if I break 200 on a golf course or both.

Video poker isn’t really any different. There’s a right way to maximize your return in the long run, and then there’s the wrong way. In the short run, sometimes the wrong way, with a little luck turns out to be the better way. This doesn’t change the facts. The problem with using anecdotal stories to guide you is that more often than not, you already remember the time you used the wrong strategy and got lucky and don’t tend to remember the dozens of times the wrong strategy did just what it was supposed to. I don’t often tell stories of the hundreds of times I sent an approach shot off the other side of the green, deep into the woods. It’s just not that interesting of a story!

Recently, on a video poker chat board, I came across the conversation regarding playing the high pair vs. playing a 3-card royal. The original question asked which is the proper play. Immediately, the math types on the board responded with the high pair, as it’s expected value is considerably higher than the 3-card royal (1.54 vs. 1.41).

Naturally, it didn’t take long before a few people chimed in with stories about how they frequently hold the 3-card royal and how a few times it had turned into a royal flush and the big payday. Well, there is no doubt that you will never draw a royal by holding a pair, and that you WILL hit the royal about 1 in 1,000 times by holding the 3-card royal.

But, I doubt anyone keeps track of just how often they DIDN’T hit the royal by holding the 3-card royal, and more importantly, how often they threw away a sure winner in favor of a 3-card royal that turned into nothing. The human brain will undoubtedly only remember the day you pulled the royal. Just like I don’t remember the details of sending a ball into the woods when I wasn’t lucky enough to have it hit the pin!

Of course, the irony of using anecdotal stories as proof is that sometimes they work in your favor. In the same chat thread, someone attempting to debunk the notion of expert strategy told the board how they often throw away a full house with three aces in Double Double Bonus, and recounted how often the machine had rewarded them with four aces and a kicker.

As the person so eloquently put it, "So much for those experts." Someone reminded this particular person that expert strategy in fact dictates to hold only the three aces and go for the four of a kind. The good fortune that had smiled on this person was merely the math behaving exactly as it was supposed to.

Stories can be amusing, but they are not a substitute for sound strategy. We’ve all seen the guy at the blackjack table who splits 10s and is dealt two aces. I’m sure when this happens he’ll make a lot of noise. But more often then not, he’s going to turn his sure winner into two mediocre hands. As my father used to like to say, "Even a blind pig can find an acorn once in a while." But that doesn’t mean you want to bet on it!