This week's column comes courtesy of a letter I received this past week. A Gaming Today reader ordered a copy of Winning Strategies for Video Poker to help him identify full-pay machines as he and his wife had no clue how to go about finding them. Winning Strategies is actually an excellent choice for this. It really isn't a beginner's book on video poker. For that, I would recommend Expert Video Poker for Las Vegas (or Atlantic City version if you are on the East Coast). These two books will explain everything there is to know about video poker. It will go through the process of explaining why we play the hands the way we do, what expected value is and help with finding some of the right machines. Winning Strategies on the other hand, simply lists out 60+ different paytables, let you know what the payback of those paytables are and provide you with the strategy table for each. If you don't know what a strategy table is or how do use one, you'd do better with one of the other books.
For those of you reading this column who may wonder the same thing my reader did, we need to start by explaining what a full-pay machine is. It is the highest payback commonly found paytable for a particular variety of video poker. For example, when looking at your basic jacks or better machine, the full-pay paytable is as follows:
Royal Flush 250/800
Straight Flush 50
Four of a Kind 25
Full House 9
Three of a Kind 3
Two Pair 2
Pair J's or Better 1
This paytable has a payback of 99.5+% You're not likely to find a higher paying paytable for jacks or better anywhere. Is it possible one exists? Sure. Some casino somewhere might choose to pay a little more on one of these payouts (maybe 30 for Four of a Kind or 299/999 for the Royal). But, you'd be wasting your time going in search of it because it might be 1000 miles away from where you are. The paytable above (affectionately known as 9/6 or 'full-pay') can be found in many jurisdictions in relative abundance. Albeit, less so than 5 or 10 years ago. As Players have gotten better, the casinos have found it more difficult to put out machines paying over 99%.
Even more abundant than full-pay machines are the short-pay machines. These are the countless ones that pay less than the full-pay machines. The paytable may reduce one or more of the payouts. Unlike its slot counterparts, a paytable tells you everything about the game. Assuming you are talking about the same variant, it is not possible for a machine to have an obvious lower payouts but a higher payback. On a slot machine, the probability of the winning combinations can be altered so that what appears to be a lower paytable might actually achieve a higher payback.
The next question should be why does it matter. It matters because it is your money. The most common short-pay paytable for jacks or better is the 8/5. A one unit reduction in the payout of the Full House and Flush may not seem like a lot, but the payback of this paytable is about 97.5% This is a 2% reduction in the payback. It seems a bit more dramatic when you look at it from the other side of the equation. The house advantage of the 9/6 paytable is 0.5%. The house advantage of the 8/5 paytable is 2.5%. This is an increase of 400%.
The impact on your bankroll can be dramatic. The likelihood of winning after two hours of play drops dramatically. When you keep in mind that without a Royal Flush, the payback is 2 points lower and if you didn't hit a Royal you are looking at a 95.5% payback. Winning in the short run is going to be very hard. At 99.5%, when you throw in comps and cashback becomes very close to 100%. You'll lose some money over time in the casino, but get a fair amount back in cash back or a free meal. You'll still get these freebies on the 97.5% machine, but you'll still be 2% shy of even.
The Expert Player seeks out full-pay machines because, quite frankly, it can save you a LOT of money especially if you are a regular player. This is also not a case of needing to learn another strategy (although there are minor strategy adjustments between the two paytables. No strategy change will make up a significant portion of that 2%. The end result is more money in the casino's pocket and less money in your own.