A Wild Ride on the Positive Side

            Frequently, people come up to me asking what is the best game to play in the casino and then answer it themselves by saying, “blackjack, right?”  By saying ‘best’, I usually assume they mean the best paying.  As table games go, they are essentially correct, although it may depend on the exact rules being used.  As for the best paying games (not just table games), the answer to that one is without a doubt video poker.  A decade ago, finding a video poker machine paying 99.6% or better in Las Vegas was easier than finding those little sheets of paper with semi-naked girls on them strewn on the strip.  Today, you have to search a little harder, but they are still there.

            While my father, Lenny Frome, added greatly to the popularity of video poker through his hundreds of articles and numerous books, he is also probably partly responsible for the disappearance of these ‘positive’ games.  Let’s be real.  The casinos don’t exactly purposefully put out games over 100% very often.  No one knows exactly why ANY were allowed to hit the casino floor.  We can only assume that because so many players played so poorly in the early days that the casinos never bothered to notice the few who might take advantage of the situation.

            Also, unlike a table game, which focuses more on a table minimum, video pokers focus on a machine maximum.  A $5 blackjack table allows the player to frequently play up to at least $500.  If that table were somehow created to allow a Player advantage, the Player could win a lot of money at $500 per hand.  With a mere 0.65% Player advantage and playing 30 hands per hour, a $500 blackjack Player could win $110 per hour.  Not a bad salary.  A 25-cent video poker machine allows for the Player to play $1.25 per hand.  At 800 hands per hour, this is still only $1000.  A machine paying 100.65% will afford the player a $6.50 per hour profit.  It beats losing, but tough to make a living off of it. 

            Why did I pick 0.65% as the Player advantage?  This happens to be the advantage for a relatively common form of video poker – Joker’s Wild (A-K).  When I say ‘common’, I don’t mean that you’ll find it at every casino.  I’m not sure you can find any 100+% payback machines along the mid-strip area of Las Vegas.  So long as the Players there are in awe of the marble statues while they play short-pay machines, there is no reason for the casino to offer anything but.  According to my friends at VPFREE, you can find these machines in about a half-dozen casinos in Las Vegas. 

            Now, before you go giving up your day job to go play these Player-friendly machines, I have to tell you that the highest denomination you’re going to find is a quarter machine – which will generate the $6+ per hour I mentioned earlier.  The casinos have figured out that a quarter machine will not attract the professional video poker Players and thus they don’t care much if a couple of people walk away a winner every now and then.  But as I said earlier, it beats losing.

            Learning Joker games can appear to be a bit challenging at first.  The strategy table has 50 entries on it which makes it rather long.  However, when you realize that the hands are broken down to Joker vs. Non-Joker, you realize that you actually have 2 relatively short tables to learn.  The fact that game pays for a Pair of Kings or Better (and not Jacks) means that the need to keep track of the number of High Cards is greatly diminished. 

            One of the toughest parts about playing a Joker’s Wild game is the volatility.  If you don’t get your Jokers frequently enough, you don’t stand much of a chance.  Joker hands account for just under 10% of the total number of hands.  The payback when you have a Joker is a whopping 286%!  For the other 90+% of the hands it is a mere 81.3%.  Expect to see wild swings in your bankroll with this one.