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.


Betting on Grades?

            A few months ago, With my eldest son heading off for college, my sister sent me an interesting article that she read in USA Today.  It was about a website that actually takes wagers on how a student will do in his college courses.  It started last year allowing students from only two universities to get in on the action.  This coming academic year it has expanded to 36 colleges.  Students can actually wager on whether they will get an ‘A’ or a ‘B’.  The website investigates the specific course at that college and requires that the student allows access to his records in order to determine the appropriate odds.

            Much of the article centered on the legality of this website.  Was it technically online ‘gambling’ and thus currently illegal in the United States?  The owner of the website argues that it is not gambling because the entire wager is based on the skill of the student.  Luck plays no part in it.  This argument reminded me of a story that my father told me some twenty years ago about a court case (I believe in Pennsylvania) as to whether or not video poker was a game of skill or a game of luck.

            In that particular guess, two scenarios were developed.  The first where the Player played perfect strategy as we all know it.  In the other, a simple strategy was used whereby the Player played as one might expect him to play if he just attempted to use some common sense.  Keep in mind, that this was a lot of years ago before there were dozens of books and countless software programs readily available for the average Player.  Video poker was in its infancy.  The simple strategy was probably not far from the strategy most Players were using.

            The computer simulations for our two scenarios showed about a 7-10% difference in the paybacks.  Certainly my father felt that showed a considerable amount of success or failure at video poker was skill.  Knowing which cards to hold significantly reduces the loss rate.  The courts at the time, however, saw it differently.  Despite the significant difference in paybacks, they saw that a significant portion of the return comes from which cards you are dealt or draw and not those that you choose to hold.  No matter how much you might try to sabotage your hand, the ‘luck of the draw’ is still going to allow for a return of a significant portion of your wager .

            In the end, it really comes down to the definition of how much of anything in life is ‘luck’.  Does one baseball team beat another because of luck or skill?  Undoubtedly there are elements of both in the outcome.  How much luck is really involved can be rather subjective and then deciding how much is allowed before the outcome is based more on luck than on skill is also subjective.  Playing roulette requires no skill.  You make a wager, a random number is essentially chosen and you win or lose based on this.  Yes, some wagers have a lower house edge and you can save your bankroll a bit by choosing these options, but the overall outcome is based on how lucky you are at picking where the little ball chooses to stop.

            Video Poker undoubtedly relies on a greater degree of skill than roulette.  As was shown in the court case, a Player can absolutely increase his payback by playing correctly relative to someone who doesn’t know what they are doing.  But, is it enough to say it is more a game of skill than a game of luck.  On a relative scale for casino games, I think absolutely.  When we compare it to the notion of betting on one’s college grades, I have to admit that video poker has a higher degree of luck than college GPAs.  However, even with grades, there can be an element of luck.  So, does this make it gambling?  I don’t know.  I guess I’ll just have to see how it plays out.