Video Poker Primer

            It was just over 10 years ago that I started writing for Gaming Today.  I have to be honest, that really blows me away.  That means I've written roughly 500 columns when I take into account off weeks and the fact that for the first 6 or 9 months, my column was bi-weekly.  I remember when I wrote my first few columns, I would wax poetic about how my father (Lenny Frome) had written nearly 1000 columns for a variety of different publications.  I remember when I hit column number 100, I remarked how far behind I was.  Now, my total count is probably about 600-700 columns and I can almost see myself someday surpassing my dad's total.  That said, I definitely don't plan on taking steroids or PEDs to get me there.

            Part of what is so amazing about having written 500+ articles is that I have somehow managed to come up with that many things to write about.  I'm not really sure that there are 500 unique subjects to write about.  I have to remember that if I borrow a subject from 2005 that there is a strong likelihood that if someone reads it today, they didn't read that article from 8 years ago.  So, in that spirit, I'm going to start back at the beginning today and discuss some basics about video poker.

            Video poker is truly a unique game in the casino.   Far too often it is lumped together with Slots, but there is little in common except for the technology.  I don't think of a video blackjack machine as a slot machine and the same is true for video poker.   As the world starts turning more to online gambling, the separation will no longer be about the technology.  Instead it should be about the essence of the game.  Video Poker is a game that is based more on skill than almost any other game in the casino.  This doesn't mean that luck doesn't play a part, especially in the short run.  But, if I were to challenge a random Player to a slot competition, there would be no way to gain an advantage.  If I were to challenge a random Player to a video poker competition, I'd like to believe that I would have a distinct advantage.  The longer the competition runs, the more strategy and skill will rule the day and the less that luck will impact the results.

            How is video poker a game of skill?  Because the Player must make a decision that will clearly impact his results.  This decision is frequently NOT of the 'no-brainer' variety.  Technically, in the game of Casino War, the Player must make a decision to - whether or not to go to War when the Player and Dealer tie.  But, the proper decision is the same all the time - to go to War.  So, while technically, there is 'strategy', I doubt very many people get this one wrong.  In Three Card Poker, there is one strategy decision - to Play or Fold.  The decision is also relatively simple.  If the Player has Q-6-4 or better, he should Play.  As simple as this sounds, many Players don't follow this rule (and I don't mean that they go with Q-6 or Q or better), and as a result, they give up a larger portion of their bankroll to the casino than they need to.

            Video Poker strategy is far more complex than this.  First of all, the decision is not one of Fold or Play, but rather which cards to Discard.  There are 32 ways that a Player can make each of these decisions, ranging from keeping them all to discarding them all.  Granted many of these possibilities will fall into the brainless category.  If you are dealt Three of a Kind and two off-suit kickers, which cards to discard is pretty obvious.  If you are dealt a Straight, then you don't have to discard at all.  Oh wait, what if it is also a 4-card Straight Flush or a 4-Card Royal, then what is the proper play?

            If you are dealt the following:

4♦        4♠        5♠        6♠        7♣

the decisions get a bit more complex.  You might keep the Pair of 4's, or the 4-Card Straight or maybe the 3-Card Straight Flush.  This is 3 of the 32 ways the hand can be played.  The other 29 are quickly discarded, so there isn't a need to go through 32 possible decisions for each hand.  Obviously, you're not going to keep the off-suit 4-7 in this case.

            Unlike table poker (which involves even a higher level of skill), the strategy in video poker is based strictly on math.  You don't play hunches and you're not trying to beat another Player.  You don't have to worry that you might pull your Straight and he might come up with a Flush.  All that matters is the likelihood (aka probability) of each final hand and how much that hand pays.  But, I'll leave that for next week.  For now, I'll be happy if I've convinced you just a little bit that video poker is not slots.


A Slot Upgrade?

             This past weekend, we had some friends over for lunch.  Invariably, the conversation winds up on my relatively unique profession.  Somewhat ironic in this case as one of the other guys is a hedge fund manager who counts as one of his clients one of the top poker players in the world.  Then again, some would argue that we’re both in the same general profession – casino gambling!

            I got asked the usual question of what the best games to play are and how I got started in the profession.  At one point, the subject turned to slot machines.  There was both good news and bad news to report here.  On one hand everyone seemed to agree that these were amongst the worst payers in the casino.  On the other hand, not everyone admitted that they would never play one.  For those whom are intimidated by the table games, the slots still are the mainstay – no matter how bad they pay.

            I remarked how I had just read an article talking about a comeback that is being made by ‘old fashioned’ mechanical slots.  Everyone in the room agreed that the older slots were better than the newer ones.  A few reasons were cited.  One was that they actually had a handle to ‘pull’.  Another was the clinking of the coins coming out when you won.  I actually commented that I wasn’t sure if the machines making the comeback are ticket-in/ticket-out or truly old-fashioned in that they accept and pay out real coins. 

            One of the reasons I cited for the popularity of the mechanical machines was that you could actually tell when you won or lost.   As I’ve written many times in my column in Gaming Today, I have occasionally put a $5 machine into a penny or nickel video slot machine in order to kill some time.  I then press a button that says “Play max lines” and press another that says “Spin”.  When the reels are done ‘spinning’, the machine then tells me that I either won some number of coins or that I lost.  No matter how many times I try to figure it out, I can’t tell on my own WHY I’ve won when I do!

            I’ll see several identical symbols on the same line only to find that’s not really a line to this 5 ‘reel’, 27-line machine!  Someone should tell some of the slot manufacturers that a ‘line’ usually denotes a STRAIGHT line between two points, not an up and down line that looks more like a heart monitor!  Is it any wonder that people are not having fun playing slots anymore?  It wasn’t good enough when the casinos were essentially taking the Player’s money with 92-93% slot machines, now they have to do it in a way that most Players have absolutely no idea what is going on?  For anyone reading this, please tell me – are you really having fun playing the newer video slots?  I’m sure it’s a lot of fun when you get to a Bonus Round on something like Wheel of Fortune, but do you even know why you got there? 

            I remember playing one slot machine that put me into some sort of Bonus Round.  I won about $25 (on a nickel machine) in under 5 minutes.  I couldn’t tell you why I wound up in the Bonus Round or what I was trying to do while in it!  It just kept telling me to pick boxes and I did.  Each time it opened one, I won more coins.  Hey, I was very happy to win $25 in a few minutes, but I have to be honest.  I can’t really say I had any fun doing it.  I could’ve just as easily lost my bankroll (okay, it was only $5 for the slot machine) and been just as clueless.

            As I raised this point to my guests, there was universal agreement.  While some of them admitted to still playing them, none said they had fun while doing it.  My hedge fund manager friend does all he can to dissuade his wife from playing the slots at all – just based on their horrible paybacks.

            Of course, I have mixed emotions about a comeback for the mechanical slots.  They still have the worst paybacks in the casinos and I would much prefer that slot machines go the way of the dodo bird.  There are SO many better games to play in the casino with better paybacks and that are more fun.  I know that one of the reasons people avoid them is sometimes they are intimidated to play new games that they don’t know how to play.  So, we try to make it a bit easier with our books and booklets.

            Today, May 12th, 2011 would have been my father’s (Lenny Frome’s) 85th birthday.  So, for the rest of May, we’re offering some special prices on our titles:
  •         Winning Strategies for Video Poker and Video Poker: America’s National Game of Chance (both books) for $19.26 (his birth year)
  •          Expert Video Poker for Las Vegas or Expert Video Poker for Las Vegas for just $5.12 each.
  •          Any of the Expert Strategy series books (Three Card Poker, Four Card Poker, Let It Ride, Spanish 21, Caribbean Stud Poker, Mississippi Stud or Blackjack Switch)  - 1 for $4.85, 2 for $8.85, 3 for $11.85 or all 7 for $19.26

            To learn more about any of these titles, go to my website at and click on the “Products” tab.  If you would like to order any products, just send a check or money order to Compu-Flyers, P.O. Box 132, Bogota, NJ 07603.

The Storm After the Calm

            After Three Card Poker takes the casinos by storm, there is a bit of a lull in activity of new games.  That’s not to say that there weren’t many attempts, some with some success.  Up until Three Card Poker, casinos were not exactly chomping at the bit to put in new games.  Of course, as Three Card Poker grew in popularity and casinos started making that much more money even AFTER paying for the table, they probably began to realize that there was more money to be made with yet newer games.

            Enter Four Card Poker.  My initial reaction to hearing the name of the game was that I hoped it was NOT just Three Card Poker with four cards.  Fortunately, it is not.  Four Card Poker holds an interesting place in my heart.  On one hand, it is one of the few successful table games that was NOT analyzed by my father or myself.  It was developed after my dad passed away and before I jumped into the profession.  Nonetheless, it helped speed my entry into the profession. 

            Shortly after starting to write for Gaming Today in 2003, I received an e-mail from a reader about my Three Card Poker article.  He asked me if I had ever heard of Four Card Poker.  I had just read about the game earlier that day and the gentleman and I had an exchange of a few e-mails.  I finally asked him if he had a financial interest in the game (based on his questions) and he told me that he had just become the President of Shuffle Master (Paul Meyer).  Obviously, he had not been using his company e-mail address.  A few months later, after completing an analysis of Four Card Poker, I wrote an article about it in Gaming Today.  Again, I received an e-mail from Paul, this time commending me on nailing the math for the game.  I had accurately repeated the original analysis of the game.  Paul wound up putting me in touch with Roger Snow, then Manager of Table Games for Shuffle Master.  Roger gave me a few small projects to ‘test’ me and the rest is as they say ‘history.’  Roger and I have been working together ever since.

            Four Card Poker does have some similarities to Three Card Poker.  It is broken down into two games – the Ante/Play and the Aces Up wagers.  The latter is like Pair Plus.  The Player is paid if dealt a Pair of Aces or better.  Despite the name of the game, neither Player NOR Dealer get dealt four cards.  The Player is dealt five cards to make his best four card hand.  The Dealer, in the meantime, is dealt SIX cards to make his best four card hand.  One of his cards is dealt face up, but this makes only a minor amount of difference to our strategy.  To help compensate the Player for the Dealer’s ‘extra’ card, the Player has the opportunity to bet up to 3 times his base wager as part of Ante/Play.  So, he can Fold (forfeiting his Ante), Play 1 times his Ante or Play 3 times his Ante.  Also, there is no qualifying in Four Card Poker.  Once you decide to Play it is your hand vs. the Dealer hand.  There is one additional benefit to the Player in Four Card Poker.  The Player wins all ties.  Ties mean identical four card hands.  The cards not used to make the four card hands are NEVER taken into consideration.  If the Player’s hand beats or ties the Dealer’s hand, he is paid even money on his Ante and Play Wagers.  Additionally, the Player is paid an Ante Bonus if he has a Three of a Kind or better.

            With 5 Player cards and 6 Dealer cards, there are 28 TRILLION possible hands that can be dealt.  This makes creating a program to run all of them impractical.  Instead, we go in search of the beacon hands.  These are the hands that are at the strategy points.  In the case of Four Card Poker, we need to find two of them.  We need to know when to Fold vs. Play 1x and we need to know when to Play 3x instead of 1x.  Much to my surprise, Shuffle Master provided a basic strategy for the game on their information card.  When I simulated this strategy, I found a payback of 98.41%.  When I performed a more complete analysis, I found that I could push this up to 98.60%, but it requires memorizing a strategy that is a bit more complex.

            The basic strategy is as follows:
  • Play 3x if you have a Pair of 10’s or Better
  • Play 1x if you have a Pair of 3’s through 9’s
  • Fold if you have a Pair of 2’s or less

            The Expert Strategy I developed has 6 rules for when to Bet 3x which more fully takes into account the Dealer upcard.  While the additional 0.19% might not sound like a lot, it cuts the house edge by about 12%, which is significant.  If you’re interested in learning more about Four Card Poker, you can order Expert Strategy for Four Card Poker for $5.95.  Send a check or money order to Compu-Flyers, P.O. Box 132, Bogota NJ 07603.

            Four Card Poker was an important milestone in table game development as it showed that Three Card Poker wasn’t just a fluke success.  The Players were looking for more games with more excitement than the casino standards of Blackjack, Craps and Roulette.  Four Card Poker would soon lead to Crazy 4 Poker and then the Texas Hold’em craze started to build.  You can read about some of these other games on my website at or you can just stay tuned here and I’ll be covering them in the coming weeks.