The Crusade

            This is probably going to blow my mind more than it will yours.  I began writing video poker columns more than 11 years ago.  I'm not sure of the exact number of columns I've written but it has been roughly around 600 of them.  It's a staggering number to me.  I didn't know that I could come up with that many topics!  Of course, I do repeat some, realizing that the nature of a gaming magazine is that many of the readers will pick up a copy while they are in the casino and may not see another until their next trip.  Today is one of those weeks where I'm going back to the beginning.


            It all started with video poker.  Well, it sort of started with blackjack.  When my father, Lenny Frome, started going to the Atlantic City casinos with my mom, he used to play blackjack.  This was in the last 1970's.  Personal computers were in their infancy.  So, my father surmised that perhaps any blackjack analyses done to that point had not taken full advantage of computers.  My high school happened to have one of the top computer programs in the country and I immediately fell in love with it.  So, my dad asked me to start analyzing blackjack on the high school computer.  As a result, I can accurately state that I have been doing gaming analysis for more than 30 years.  However, where blackjack was concerned, there really wasn't much to add.  Analyses that had relied on mostly math models had very accurately determined strategy and payback of the game.


            Several years passed and my parents retired to Las Vegas.  Here he discovered video poker.  This time he did the computer analysis himself and discovered that whatever was done before was, well, way off.  No one has ever explained what was done by the manufacturers to determine the paybacks of games in the early years, but it would appear that somehow no one realized that video poker was no different than blackjack - just a bit more complex.  There is one way and only one way to play each hand CORRECTLY.  In blackjack there is usually 2 possible ways to play - Hit or Stick.  In video poker, there is theoretically 32 different ways to play each hand.  Once you are dealt 5 cards, you can discard none of them, five of them or anything in between.  In total there are 32 different combinations of cards you could hold.


            Based on the remaining 47 cards in the deck, there is a value that is assigned to each of these 32 ways.  If you choose to hold the cards that were dealt this value will be the payout of whatever hand you have.  So, if you were dealt a Straight and a Straight pays 4, then this value, which is called the Expected Value (or EV for short) will be 4.0.  If you hold 4-cards to a Straight (5, 6, 7, 8) then there are 47 possible draws.  Eight of these will wind up as a Straight.  We sum up the payouts (8 times 4 = 32) and divide by the possible draws (47) and we get 0.68. 


            This process is completed for each of the 32 possible ways that a Player can play a hand.  Whichever of these ways has the highest Expected Value is the proper way to play a hand.  While it may be called video 'poker', you are NOT playing against any other Players.  There is no one to bluff.  There is no raising.  There are no tells.  There is only one thing that matters - probability. 


            In blackjack, you can card count.  The game is played with a shoe and while the cards are being dealt there is a certain 'ebb and flow' of the cards.  It is not so much a hot streak or a cold streak as it is that what is left of the shoe changes the probability of certain cards and/or hands from occurring.  Players who learn how to count can take advantage of this.  Video poker uses a single deck and shuffles between every deal.  At any point, any card not yet dealt has the same probability of being dealt as any other card.  Given this, we can calculate with absolute precision the probability of being dealt any hand from any point in the game.  Thus, the strategy does not change from hand to hand (as it might in blackjack by counting).  It is a constant and what should be essentially the only driving force in the game.


            With his work completed, he discovered that no one knew how to play video poker.  Because the box the game was housed in was similar to that used by slots, everyone just assumed it worked like a slot machine.  Ironically, in those early days, video pokers used monitors and computer chips and slot machines used mechanical parts and potentially some computer components to drive its own type of randomness.  It took my father a long time to convince people that video poker is not slots.  That crusade, now carried on by me, is in its third decade.  Next week, I'll explain more how you use expected values and strategy tables to become an Expert Player at video poker.