Get the Inside Scoop

            Last week I began reviewing the strategy table for full-pay jacks or better video poker.  I got about 20% of the way through the table by volume, but not very far in terms of useful information.  The top 8 hands were mostly of the no-brainer category as they were the pat hands with the exception of the 4-Card Royal.  This week, I'll keep moving down the table and provide some insight into the nuances of video poker strategy.  Please remember that this particular strategy is applicable ONLY to full-pay jacks or better.

            After a Straight, we find the following entries on our table:

·       4-Card Straight Flush
·       Two Pair
·       4-Card Inside Straight Flush
·       High Pair
·       3-Card Royal Flush
·       4-Card Flush

            The first thing you might notice about the above entries is that we have two entries for a 4-Card Straight Flush and a 4-Card Inside Straight Flush.  There is a big difference between the expected values for Straights that are open and those that are Inside (or Double Inside).  The common definition of Inside Straight is when the opening is in the middle and not on the ends (i.e. 5-6-7-9).  However, this leaves off some Inside Straights.  It is more accurate to define a 4-Card  Inside Straight as one that can only be filled ONE WAY.  So, an A-2-3-4 can only be filled with a 5 and thus is an Inside Straight.   With this definition you can see that an Inside Straight can be completed with only 4 cards while a regular Straight can be completed with 8 cards.  Straight Flushes are no different - except they have the possibility of being turned into Flushes as well. 

            In this particular case, there is really no benefit to splitting out the 4-Card Straight Flushes.  The one hand that lies between them can't possibly be a 4-Card Straight Flush (Inside or not).  We show them separately because in some version of video poker, the hands that appear in between may be able to overlap with them and we will find that in some cases we will want to keep a 4-Card Straight Flush ONLY if it is not an Inside Straight Flush.  Also, as we will see as we move down the table, this distinction becomes very important as we take a closer look at 4-Card Straights.

            The 4th entry on the table is a critical one - High Pair.  It is the 4th most common hand.  Thus, playing it correctly is very important.  Looking at the entries above it and below it what we learn is that a High Pair is played OVER any 4-Card Straights and 4-Card Flushes.  We will, however, play all 4-Card Straight Flushes over a High Pair.  But, we will NOT play a 3-Card Royal over the High Pair.  So, if you have a suited J-Q-K along with another Queen, you stick with the sure winner - the Pair of Queens.

            Below High Pair, we have a 3-Card Royal Flush and a 4-Card Flush.  There is much to learn here as well.  The most obvious is that if you have a 3-Card Royal and a 4-Card Flush, we hold the 3-Card Royal.  This can be a tough choice because the likelihood of hitting the Royal is still relatively small.  But, by holding a 3-Card Royal we give ourselves more chances for a Straight.  We might still hit a Flush and we have the longshot at the Royal.  Also, with a 3-Card Royal, we leave ourselves 2-3 cards that can be matched up for a High Pair.  The expected values are not really all that close with a 1.41 for the 3-Card Royal and 1.22 for the 4-Card Flush.  The decision is relatively clear. 

            From these entries we also learn that if the Player has a 3-Card Royal that is also a 4-Card Straight Flush (8-10-J-Q), we hold the 4-Card Straight Flush.  With the 4-Card Straight Flush, we still have many chances for Straights and Flushes so we don't throw away the extra card even if it gives us a chance to get the Royal.

            I've stopped at this particular point in the Strategy Table because the 14 hands I've listed (over the past 2 weeks) are the only ones with an expected value greater than 1.0.  That means these hands are net winners in the long run.  Some will be winners 100% of the time.  Some will not.  But in the long run, we can expect to get more back than we wagered.  These hands make up about 40% of the table and about 25% of the total hands dealt.  Beginning next week, we'll review the hands with an expected value below 1.0.  Even though these are losers in the long run, it doesn't make them less important.  In fact, they may be more important because they account for a larger percentage of hands dealt.


            Every casino game that is more than pure luck has some strategy associated with it.  This goes beyond the basic strategy that simply says you're better off not playing at all.  For many games, the strategy can be summed up with a simple sentence or two.  For Three Card Poker, it is Play Q-6-4 or better.  Four Card Poker has a two sentence strategy that tells you when to fold and when to Raise.  Let It Ride's strategy takes a few sentences telling you when to pull down the 1 and 2 wagers.

            As strategy gets more complex, it is helpful to try and put it into as easy as a format as possible to help a mere mortal to utilize it.  It is relatively easy to program a computer to play a game perfectly.   Very few humans can take every game to this level.  Also, expending that much energy on memorizing a very complex strategy can pretty much sap the fun right out of the game.  Blackjack utilizes a relatively simple matrix that crosses the Player's hand with the Dealer's upcard. 

            Creating a strategy for video poker is quite a challenge.  As said earlier, telling a computer which one of the 32 ways to play a hand is relatively easy.  But, there are 2,598,960 unique 5-card deals from a standard deck.  Coming up with a way to group these together in a way that a Player can use is a whole different story.  I believe it was my father, Lenny Frome, who was the first person who accomplished this.  He grouped hands together in a way that Players could easily understand and hopefully memorize. 

            A video poker strategy table consists of only two columns.  The first contains the hand rank as it was categorized by my father.  The second contains the expected value of the hand.  Ironically, this second column isn't even needed to play video poker properly.  It is there just for reference.  So, that means the video poker strategy table consists of a single column - usually with about 30-40 rows/entries in it.  To play video poker the correct way, you have to memorize the order of these entries.  This is not nearly as daunting as it seems.  About 10-15 of these entries are more than a little obvious.  So, you're left with about 25 hand types that you need to learn.

            Let's start at the top of the strategy table which contain the most obvious hands:

·       Royal Flush
·       Straight Flush
·       Four of a Kind
·       4- Card Royal
·       Full House
·       Flush
·       Three of a Kind
·       Straight

            We'd be having a great night at video poker if these were the only hands we were dealt.  These are all big winners, all with expected values of 4.00 or better.  In fact, only one of these hands is not a sure winner - the 4-Card Royal.  This is also the only hand that might overlap with any of the others, creating the only strategy decision in the bunch.  What do you do if you are dealt a Straight (or a Flush) that is also a 4-card Royal?  Well, now you know the answer.  You have to throw away the sure winner to go for the big winner.  The good news is that if you have a 4-Card Royal, you have a very good chance of still winding up a winner.  There are 47 possible draws, 1 of which will result in the Royal.  Another will give you a Straight Flush.  6 or 7 more (depending on whether you threw away a Straight or Flush) will result in a Flush.  5 or 6 will result in a Straight and a host more will give you at least a High Pair which will seem like small consolation.

            While this decision might be agonizing, mathematically, it is very clearly the proper play.  The expected value of the 4-Card Royal is 18.66.  The expected value of the Flush is 6 and the Straight is 4.  Of course, don't expect to see this hand every hour.  A 4-Card Royal will show up once in about 2700 hands and only about a third of these will be a Straight or a Flush.   One other key point to note.  Do NOT throw away a Straight Flush to go for the Royal.  That Straight Flush has an expected value of 50 which far exceeds the 18+ of the 4-Card Royal.

            Next week, I'll move down the strategy table to the hands that require a bit more thought.

Table your Hunches

            Last week, I described how all casino game strategy is based on expected values.   You hit or stick in blackjack not because you hope the next card is of a certain value, but because there are certain probabilities as to what the next card will be and how it will affect your hand and your chances of winning or losing.   If you're dealt two face cards, you don't give much thought to strategy.  Hopefully, you're not one of those Players who even thinks about splitting 10's! 

            But, if you are dealt a 16 and the Dealer has a 7, you start giving thought to the strategy.  With a 16, you have 5 cards that will help you and 8 that will bust you.  The odds don't look to good and this is why a lot of people stick on this hand, albeit incorrectly.  You can stay put, but with a 16, the only way you can win is if the Dealer busts, which will happen only 26% of the time.  So, your choices are a 61% chance of busting right away or sticking and having a 74% chance of losing that way.  Of course, by hitting you also have an opportunity improve your hand.  All of the 5 possibilities improve your hand.  If you pick up an Ace, you'll be most likely to push.  Pick up a 5 and you'll win more than 92% of the time.  Don't get me wrong, it is not a strong hand and the decision to hit is not an overwhelming one, but it is still the right move.  In the simplest form, if you face this situation enough times - which you will if you play for a few hundred hours, you'll find that you do better by hitting than by sticking.

            In blackjack, you don't have to memorize all of the math behind the game.  You don't have to figure out how many cards will bust you or bust the Dealer.  To learn to play blackjack, many Players use a simple strategy table.  It is a simple little chart that shows every possible Player hand and each possible dealer upcard.  It then shows what to do - hit, stick, double, split, surrender, etc..  Guys like me have already done all the number crunching for you.

            Video poker is no different than blackjack except the decision making process is far more complex.  In blackjack, the result is essentially binary - you win or you lose (okay, you can tie also, so it is not really binary).  In video poker, you can have 1 of many results - ranging from a Royal Flush down to a High Pair or you can lose.  Since each of the different winning hands pays a different amount, the specific result must be taken into account.  If someone invented a game of video poker in which all hands above a certain rank paid a fixed amount, then we'd be able to lump all the hands into win or lose.  But, we need to know the probability of each final outcome with a different payout in order to appropriately determine the value of getting that hand.  Surely, it is more valuable to wind up with a Straight Flush than just a Straight.

            Video poker is also more complex than blackjack in that there is more than just a handful of different possibilities for each hand.  The Player can hold all 5 cards or discard all 5 cards or anything in between for 32 different possible plays.  Yes, most of these possibilities will be quickly discarded, but they still must be considered from a mathematical perspective.  They are only discarded because the human mind can quickly recognize possible draws that would clearly not be the best strategy. 

            Despite the extra complexity of video poker, the similarities are still stronger than the differences.  In the end the decision still comes down to the expected value.  Like in blackjack, you don't have sit there trying to figure out how many cards you need to complete a Straight or the like.  Again, guys like me have already done the job.  We have looked at every possible deal, every possible draw for every possible deal and summed up all of the final hands.  Using this distribution, each possible draw is assigned an expected value.  Whichever draw has the highest expected value is deemed the right play.  The last step in the process is too try and categorize the way each hand is played into a format that a human can use to play the hands.  We call this a strategy table.

            Unlike blackjack where the strategy is a matrix that crosses Player hands with Dealer hands and tells you what to do, a video poker strategy chart lists all the possible playable hands in order in a simple table.  The table usually contains the expected value of each hand too, but this is just for information.  To use the strategy table, you basically work from the top and find the first hand that your dealt hand can make and that is the way to play the hand.  So, if you are dealt a hand that is a 4-Card Straight and a Low Pair, you start at the top of the table and work downward.  If a 4-Card Straight appears first, you play that.  If a Low Pair appears first, you play the hand that way.  If you can't find any hand that matches the hand you were dealt, then you fall to the bottom of the table and find a RAZGU which means throw all five cards.

            Next week, we'll begin breaking down a strategy table for full-pay jacks or better.  You'll be on your way to becoming an Expert Player.

The Advantage of Expert Play

            This morning, I had a discussion with a friend of mine about a game he is developing.  I explained that playing 'perfect' strategy would be nearly impossible due to some subtle complexities of the way the game is played.  As a result of this, the game would not likely play anywhere near its 'theoretical' payback.  Many games have this 'problem'.  Blackjack pays 99.5%, but very few players play anywhere near this.  Ultimate Texas Hold'em has a payback well into the 99% range too, but stats from the casinos make it clear that very few Players, if any, can manage this high of a payback.

            My friend stated that he thought that he would be able to play the game close to the theoretical because he is an accomplished Poker Player.   I asked him if he was an accomplished video poker Player and he said that he wasn't.  I told him that any table game against a Dealer was really nothing more than playing video poker and had no resemblance to poker even if the game resembles poker.   Poker is about reading Players, understanding their betting patterns and their tells.  Video Poker is about one thing - math.   There is no one to bluff.  All that matters is what is the probability of all final hands given what I choose to discard.   Let's take a look at a simple example:

5♠        5♦        6♣       7♥        8♦

            In theory, there are 32 ways to play this hand, but I think we can quickly rule out 29 of them.  I don't think anyone is seriously going to consider holding only the off-suit 6-8 or holding all 5 cards (which would result in an immediate loss).    There are really on 3 possibilities, 2 of which are identical.  The Player can either hold the Pair of 5's or the 4-Card Straight (hence, the 2 identical possibilities as it doesn't matter which 5 the Player keeps.)

            If the Player keeps the 4-Card Straight, 8 cards will result in a Straight and the rest will result in a loss.  So, if we add up the total payout, we'd have 8 Straights at 4 units each for a total of 32 units.  There are 47 possible draws.  We divide the 32 by 47 to get 0.68.  This is called the Expected Value (or EV) of this hand using this possible discard strategy.

            Calculating the Expected Value of holding the Pair is a bit more complex, but easy enough to calculate using a computer.  There are 16,215 possible draws if the Player holds 2 cards.  We look at these possible draws and look at the final hands.  The Player can wind up with a Four of a Kind, Full House, Three of a Kind or Two Pair.  We add up the total payout of all of these winning hands and divide by 16,215.  The result is an EV of 0.82. 

            This Expected Value is greater than that of the 4-Card Straight, so the proper play is to hold the Low Pair.  When Playing video poker (and virtually every other casino game), the proper play is to follow the one with the highest EV.  You don't go with a 'hunch' that a 5 is coming up or that you just feel a 4 or a 9 is going to fill out that Straight.  There is a distinct probability of each of these events occurring and we use those probabilities to our advantage.  This is what allows a Player go achieve the theoretical playback of a game. 

            It is an 'advantage' because most Players don't play this way.  Because of this, the casinos can off the games with a relatively high payback, knowing that they can rely on human error to pad their profits.  For the Players who play according to the math, they have the advantage of being able to play to the theoretical payback over the long run.

            Mastering video poker takes some significant effort.  The strategy is a complex one and learning whether to hold the Low Pair or the 4-Card Straight is merely one example of where a strategy where you play by what you think is right may in fact be quite wrong.  The good news is that thanks to guys like me, the toughest party of learning the strategy (creating it) has already be done for you.  The next step is learning that strategy and putting it to practical use.  We'll save more of that for next week.

Why Play Max Coins?

            Generally speaking, I advise players to play max-coins when playing video poker.  For most versions, this means 5 coins.  The penny Player puts up 5 cents, the nickel player 25 cents, the quarter player puts up $1.25 and the dollar player has to put up $5 per hand.  This is done for one simple purpose.  On most video poker machines, the top payout - the Royal Flush - changes from 250 for 1 to 800 for 1 when that 5th coins is put in.  If you are playing a Progressive, the only way to win that jackpot is to play 5 coins.

            A payout of 800 for 1 on the Royal is worth approximately 2% of the total payback of the machine.  A payout of only 250 reduces this down to about 0.65%.  So, the Player is giving up more than 1.25% of payback if he plays below max-coin.  In similar fashion, if the machine is offering a Progressive, which should push the Royal payout to above 800, then the Player would be surrendering even more payback by playing below the max-coin level.

            The notion of playing max-coin does NOT mean you should wager 5 times the amount you feel comfortable wagering.  Instead it means you should consider lowering your denomination to the next lower level and then play 5 coins.  So, rather than playing 1 quarter, you should play 5 nickels.  This, of course, assumes that all things are otherwise equal.  It is certainly possible that when you go to a nickel machine (or change to the nickel option on a multi-denominational machine) that the paybacks may change as well and you may find that the payback on the nickel machine is well below that of the quarter.   This makes things a bit more complicated.  If the quarter machines pays 99.5% at max-coin, then it will be closer to 98% if you play 1 quarter.  If the nickel machines pays 98.5% at max-coin, then you'll still be better off playing max-coin nickels.

            There are a few times when you may want to play less than max-coin.  The first is when you are first leaning how to play.  As you are more apt to make mistakes at this point, you might be better off simply playing 1 nickel at a time.  Yes, you will be playing at a lower payback, but at this point, your goal is to become a better player while playing on a real machine.  Ideally, you'd spend most of your 'learning' time playing on your computer (or phone or tablet) at home for free ,but I realize that playing for free may be a lot less exciting than even playing for a single nickel.

            Another reason that you may not want to play max-coin is your bankroll.  If your bankroll is not large enough to support playing max-coin then you might be better off playing single-coin.   Once your bankroll is gone, you're done and you need to make sure you have enough money available to ride out the cold streaks.  Of course, one solution to this issue is again to simply drop down in denomination.  So, this advice really only applies if machines of a lower denomination are not available.  Since the advent of the multi-denominational machine, finding machines that play the denomination you want to play has become much easier, however.   So, this second reason may have limited practical applications.  But, if you find yourself in a situation where your bankroll will support 5 nickel play, but you only have quarter machines available, you may want to consider playing a single quarter as opposed to five quarters.

            One critical point to consider.  Just because you switch a machine from quarter play to nickel play, do NOT assume that the paytable is the same even if you are switching to the same variety of video poker.  There are no requirements that state that a machine must use the same paytable when you move from one denomination to another.   In similar fashion, don't assume that a bank of similar (or identical) looking machines all have the same paytable.  Casinos frequently and presumably purposefully mix the machines up, making sure to sprinkle higher paying machines in with lower paying ones.  I dare say that you may find no rhyme or reason to the pattern of machines on the casino floor.


Think Loss Rate

            How much of a difference is there in terms of payback from one casino game to another?  Most table games have a payback between 97 and 99.5%.  Video Poker can range from about 95% to 101%.  Slot machines probably range from about 85% up to 95%.  Sidebets, quite frankly are all over the place, ranging from just over the legal limit of 75% and going up to the low-mid 90%.  While there is a lot of overlap, one of the largest determining factors is strategy.  More complex strategy means a combination of more human error and/or Players not even trying to follow it.  Simple strategy is much easier to learn and follow.  Three Card Poker has one simple strategy rule.  Follow it and you should approach the theoretical payback of about 98%.  Don't follow it and you can only do worse.

            Video Poker has paybacks considerably higher.  Not all of the versions, but you can still find plenty of them well above 98%.  Video Poker's strategy, however, is far more complex than Three Card Poker's strategy.  The average Video Poker machine has more than 30 different strategy items that need to be memorized and in the appropriate order so that you know how to play the hand.  So, first you need to review the hand and determine the realistic ways the hand can be played and then you have to know which of these ways has the highest expected value, which tells us which way the hand should be played.

            In most games, many of the hands are pretty obvious even if you knew little.  If you're dealt a 6-7-8 in Three Card Poker, I don't think you need to have read a book to know what to do.  What if you are dealt K-3-2?  What about Q-8-2?  What about Q-3-2?   For each hand, the Player is really asking himself if he is better off Playing or Folding.  Those are the only two options in Three Card Poker.  The answer is pretty obvious for the Straight and a good deal less obvious for the other three hands.  The strategy is determined by the math behind the question of whether the Player is better off Folding or Playing.  By Folding, the Player forfeits his original wager (one unit).  By Playing, he wagers an additional unit.  If Playing can return at least that additional unit (on average), then the hand is worth Playing.   The Player does not have to perform some complex calculation on each hand.  The decision is to Play or Fold and the math works out very neatly.  For every hand stronger or equal to Q-6-4 the Player is better off Playing.  For Q-6-3 or less, he is better of Folding.  You've just become an expert at Three Card Poker strategy.

            Video Poker is not nearly this simple.  First of all, there is no folding and no additional wagers.  You make an original wager and your only goal is to maximize the amount of money you get back on average for each hand.  If you're dealt a Straight off the deal, there isn't much to think about - unless of course it is also a 4-Card Straight Flush or a 4-Card Royal - then what?  What if you're dealt Three of a Kind and 3-Card Royal?  How about a Pair and a 4-Card Flush?  Does it matter if it is a High Pair or a Low Pair?  (Yes, it does!)  

            In Video Poker, the hands are categorized into about 30-40 different hand ranks and partial hand ranks.   Each of these is assigned an expected value.  This expected value is calculated by looking at ALL the possible draws for that hand and tabulating the total units won for each final winning hand.  We then divide this total by the number of possible draws so that we can compare apples to apples.  So, to look at a simple example.  Suppose you are dealt the following hand:

4♥        5♥        6♥        7♥        8♦

            The decision here should NOT be driven by your favorite Clint Eastwood line ("are you feeling lucky, punk?").  It should be driven by the math.   The straight has an expected value ("EV") of 4.00.  There is no draw in this case and the EV is simply the payout of the hand.  If you decide to discard the 8, there are 47 possible draws.  2 will result in a Straight Flush, 5 will result in a Straight (remember that you would have discarded a card that could also have made it a Straight) and 7 that will result in a Flush.  All other cards result in a losing hand.  So, do you throw away the sure 4 units to go for the Straight Flush?  When we add up the payouts of the winning hands, we get 162 units (2 x 50, 5 x 4, 7 x 6).  We divide this by 47 (the number of possible draws) and get 3.45.  As this is less than the EV of the Straight, we keep the Straight.  In the long run, this will be the better move.

            While most Player would play this correctly (I guess?), the simple reality is that except for those that learn the right strategy, there will be a significant number of Players who will NOT play this correctly.  Throw in the roughly 25% of hands that require a real decision and the casinos can count on Player error to help pad their winnings.  This is why they can offer the 99.5% paybacks on so many full-pay jacks or better Video Poker.   Someone like myself might sit down and get the 99.5%, but the vast majority of Players will play well below this level.   They are likely to play in the 97-98% range if they have some idea of what is going on and perhaps as little as 95% if they just 'wing it'.   The difference between 99.5% and 96% may not seem like a lot, but I always suggest you turn that around to the loss rate - 0.5% vs 4%.  Now there is a 700% increase from one to the other.  The impact to your bankroll could be staggering.

The Nature of the Game

            My elder son has finished up his year in college and came home the other day.  As we do our best to keep him entertained while in Vegas, we went to the Laugh Factory at the Tropicana the other night.  Invariably, when comedians are in Las Vegas, they will tell jokes about the dry heat and about losing money while gambling.  I think I've been very honest about the odds of long-term winning while gambling.  With the rare exception of some tough to find video poker games and/or the ability to count in blackjack, you're simply not going to win in the long term.  But, this doesn't mean that you have to 'lose your shirt' either. 

            A few weeks ago, I showed how playing blackjack for an hour, a $5 Player should expect to lose only a little over $1/hour.  This, of course, assumes playing properly.  If you are too timid to double down on soft hands, or don't like splitting 2's looking into a 7, then, well, all bets are off as to what your payback will really be.  The comedian was hopefully joking when he talked about struggling to add up his cards while playing blackjack.  If you're really struggling with this, maybe you should try Casino War or Three Card Poker.

            In that same column where I talked about the average you can expect to lose while playing blackjack, I also spoke of the average you can expect to lose while playing full-pay jacks or better video poker.  As the two games have similar paybacks, the only real difference is the average amount you wager in an hour of each game.  Much to many Player's surprise, a max-coin quarter video poker actually wagers more in an hour than a $5 blackjack Player.  That said, however, the game of video poker is far more volatile and while the average loss rate by only be a couple of bucks an hour (depending on speed of play), actual results will wind up all over the place.  Blackjack is a much less volatile game and we will find that our actual results will really tend to be very close to the theoretical amount.

            To help illustrate this point, I ran 100,000 multi-hour sessions of blackjack, each consisting of 100 hands.  I then tabulated the amount won or lost, rounding to the nearest dollar.   First of all, the Player had a winning session nearly 46% of the time.  He lost 49% of the time, with the remainder being breaking even.  Around 32% of the time, the Player will wind up within $20 of his starting point, with only a slight slant towards the losing side.    He will wind up within $40 of his original bankroll more than 55% of the time.   He will wind up losing $100 or more only 5% of the time.  To be clear, this is NOT the same as saying that if he starts with $100, he will go 'bust' only 5% of the time.  The simulation I ran does NOT take into account a Player who may have at some point been down more than $100 and then came back to lose less than $100.  This will not be a huge number, but it will add to the total.

            I'm not downplaying the impact of losing $100.  This is not a small amount and could be considered to be a high cost for 2+ hours of entertainment.  At the same time, we are only talking about a 1 in 20 chance.  At the same time, the Player has a 4.4% chance of WINNING $100 or more.   That's why it is called gambling.

            But, the overall point is that the notion that everytime you gamble you're going to lose your shirt is simply not accurate.  If we assume that 'paying' up to $25 is a fair price for the 2-3 hours of entertainment value, then we find that the Player will meet this goal 62% of the time.  In fact of this 62%, he will actually wind up winning money nearly 75% of the time. 

            As stated earlier, this all assumes playing properly.  This tends to be what trips up Players far more often that the basic nature of the game.  Blackjack has a payback of about 99.5% when played properly.  Played improperly, the payback could drop dramatically,  If you drop it to 98%, which is still a respectable payback for most table games, this may not seem like a lot.  However, turned around, it means the casino advantage increases fourfold.  If I were to simulate such a strategy, we would find that the numbers are not so generous to the Player, and the likelihood of losing one's shirt will go up considerably.

            Thus, while the nature of the game it still one where the Player will lose in the long run, the Player can still greatly control (within reason), just how much will be lost by learning to play using the right strategy.

Win Frequency Overrated

            Why does a good blackjack Player stick on bustable hands aginst a Dealer 6?  The quick answer is that with a 6 upcard, the Dealer is likely to bust.  Of course, this is not completely accurate.  The Dealer's bust rate with a 6 is 'only' 42%, which means 58% of the time, he won't bust.  So, first he is not 'likely' to bust.  He is just more likely to bust with a 6 than with any other card.  58% of the time, he will wind up with a 17 through 21 and will beat your hand.  So, why stick?  Well, we need to take into account how often the Player will bust if he takes a hit.  If the Player busts, it doesn't matter what the Dealer does.  This is all a wordy way of saying that the Player is more likely to win if he sticks than if he hits.  Or, in other words, his expected value is higher if sticks than if he hits.  Depending on his specific hand, it might be a relatively small difference between these expected values or it might be a big difference.  But, the difference doesn't matter.  The correct play is the one that has the highest expected value.  This is the key thing to learn for EVERY casino game.

            Blackjack is essentially a binary game.  You either win or lose your base wager.  With the exception of blackjacks itself and Doubles and Splits, the wager is a single unit and the outcome is either even money or the Player loses.  Thus, the critical factor becomes win frequency because for the most part, one win is worth as much as any other win.  In video poker, the outcomes are a bit more varied and thus the analysis is actually a good deal more complex.  If we define 'winning' as any hand that is Jacks or Better, that leaves us with a win frequency of 45% (roughly), but not all wins are created equal.  There are essentially 9 different levels of winning, ranging from Royal Flush down to a High Pair.  The payouts range from 800 for 1 down to a push (which is all you get paid when you have a High Pair). 

            This explains why when playing video poker the win frequency is not very relevant.  Take the following hand as an example:

8♣       9♣       10♣     Q♣      Q♥

            There are two ways to play this hand.  A Player can keep the pair of Queens and have a sure winner.  He'll still have a chance to improve to Two Pair, Trips, Full House or Quads.  But, his win frequency will be 100%.  His other choice is to go for the 4-Card Inside Straight Flush.  If he chooses to go this route, his win frequency will be around 30%.  Of the 47 draws, 8 will result in a Flush, 3 in a Straight, 2 in a High Pair and 1 as a Straight Flush.  The other 34 will result in a loss.  If you're motivated by win percentage, then the right play is to stick with the pair of Queens.  If you're motivated to use the proper strategy, you use expected value to guide you.  When the math is all done, we find that the 4-Card Inside Straight Flush has an expected value of 2.39.  The Pair of Queens has an expected value of 1.54.  It's not really much of a choice.  The 4-Card Inside Straight Flush is by far the superior play.

            Decisions for casino games are made based on the criteria of expected value.  This is not a concept unique to any particular game.  The same methodology that developed blackjack strategy is essentially the same one used for video poker or Three Card Poker or Ultimate Texas Hold'em.  Some of the toughest decisions are of the type I just described where the Player might have to give up a sure winner to go for a hand that in the long run will pay more, but will have a significantly lower win frequency.  The example I gave here is probably not all that hard to follow.  Since the sure win is only a single unit, it won't feel like you are giving up much.  

            But, you may have to make a similar decision if you are dealt a Flush that is also a 4-Card Royal.  If you're playing max-coin quarters, you'll be giving up a sure $7.50 to go for that big payout of $1000.   IF you're a dollar player, you'll be risking $30 to win $4000.  Definitely worth it, but it might just be a little harder to walk away from that sure $30.

The Definition of Payback

            I never get through a holiday without a serious discussion of what I do for a living with someone I've never met before.  Family (and friend) functions tend to bring together people for a large meal leaving them with loads of time to discuss all sorts of things.  As I have one of the more unique jobs around, my vocation tends to take up a larger than proportionate amount of the time we spend together.  This past holiday season was no different.

            First I listened to one person tell me how he has a system for roulette.  Admittedly, he didn't get a chance to explain it to me in much details when I had to tell him that it doesn't work.  No system does.  He told me how each time he came to Vegas, he would use this system and invariably walk away with a few hundred dollars.  Of course, his sample size was about 6-12 sessions, which isn't exactly statistically significant.  Based on what he told me, I commend my new found friend for his discipline which can be an important part of any successful gambling story.  Know when to get out when you are ahead.  But, that said, if you really have a system that nets you $400 in an hour or two, it is forever repeatable, which means you do it every night and then you send out a team of people to repeat your system.  No 'real' system could work only if you use it once every few weeks.

            Next up in the discussion came my favorite topic (ha!) - slot machines.  The system here was to attempt to outguess when the machine was going to pay off by altering the amount wagered for each 'pull'.  It was hard to keep a straight face when we got to this point.  I've heard of people varying their bet when playing blackjack in an attempt to guess the next cards.  If you do this well, it is card counting.  If you simply try to outsmart the shoe, you're just guessing.  If you try it with a slot machine, you are definitely guessing. 

            We've all seen the disclaimer that says 'past performance is not an indication of future returns'.  Nothing could be more true with slot machines.  What happened in the last spin has absolutely no bearing on what happens in the next one.  A slot machine is programmed to have a winning spin some percent of the time.  Every time you spin the wheels, the chance of winning is this exact percent.  With some combinatorial math we can also say that the probability of having X winning hands in Y spins will be some percent (assuming we know the probability of winning in any given spin).  But that is only true for the next Y spins.  We absolutely, positively CANNOT use any of the past spins in our calculation.  If the past 100 spins were losers, the probability of winning on the next spin is still whatever it is.  If the past 100 spins were winners, the probability of winning on the next spin is the same percent. 

            When I suggested to my new friend that he might want to avoid slot machines due to their 92+% payback, which makes them some of the worst payers in the casino.  Of course, when you look at the machine you have no way of knowing if it is programmed at 98% of 85%, which is as much as part of the problem as the average of 92+%.  My friend wanted to know how this payback was calculated especially when taking into account the way he plays - altering his wager from spin to spin.

            I explained that the payback used for any game is the highest payback that can be obtained by a Player assuming he plays using the best possible strategy he can.  For a game like video poker this means he uses perfect strategy to play each hand and that he plays max-coin in order to get the benefit of the 800 for 1 payout for Royal Flushes.  For slot machines, there is no strategy, so that does not impact the payback.  With slots, the impact of max-coin can frequently be even greater than with video poker.  Not only do you buy additional lines with additional wagers, you sometimes also buy additional combinations of winning hands.   As a result, playing less than max-coin can be even more punishing to your bankroll.  The payback of a slot machine thus assumes a max-coin play on each spin.

            Payback (for any game) is the amount that a Player can expect to have returned out of the TOTAL amount wagered.    The amount you buy-in for is completely irrelevant to this definition.  If you sit down at a blackjack table for $20 and play 100 hands of a $5 table, you'll wind up wagering about $565 (when you account for splits and double downs).  With a 99.5% payback, you can expect to lose about $2.80.  This works out to be 14% of your buy-in, but if you had bought in for $100 it would've been 2.8%.  Just further proof that the buy-in is not relevant to the payback discussion. 

            If you play 1000 hands of video poker (quarter machine, max-coin), you'll wager $1250.  If you're playing full pay jacks or better with a 99.5% payback, you can expect to get back $1243.75.  No matter how much you put into the machine, you should expect to have lost $6.25.  If you play less than max-coin, your expected loss will be higher.

            Slot machines are no different.  If you spin the wheels 1000 times on a nickel machine with 27 lines, you'll wager $1800.  You won't know the exact payback of that machine, but if we use a generous 95% payback, you can expect to get back $1710 of that $1800 wager and sustain a $90 loss.   If you choose to vary your bet from spin to spin, your payback might be even lower, raising your expected loss.

            In all these cases, the paybacks are expected 'long-term' paybacks.  Long-term can mean different things to different games.  In a 2-3 hour session of playing, your results can and will greatly vary from the examples shown here.

When 2 is better than 3

            When my father developed the first strategies for video poker, a few surprises definitely showed up.  Playing 4-Card Flushes over Low Pairs was not such a surprise, but playing the Low Pair over 4-Card Straights was.   One of the other significant surprises was how to play the numerous hands that contain High Cards.   If you had 3 High Cards of the same suit, it wasn't much of a surprise to hold all three.  Even if one of those 'High' cards was only a 10.  A 3-Card Royal is a pretty strong hand, even if it takes a bit of a long shot to actually hit the Royal.

            Without the mathematical analysis of video poker to guide the Player, most found themselves holding on to all cards Jack or Higher.  This would probably be the right play if you were sitting at a Poker table.  When playing Poker, there is little benefit to drawing a Royal over a Straight or a Flush.  All are very likely to leave you as a winner and the amount you win will not change based on your final hand value.  In the meantime, you'll increase your chance (or will you?) of grabbing a High Pair which will may be enough to win the hand.

            But video poker is not table poker and a Royal has a good deal more value than a Straight or a Flush - 200 to 130+ times as much.  This makes taking the risk of getting the Royal far more worthwhile in video poker than table Poker.  As a result, the decision of what to do when you're dealt a J♥, Q♦, A♥ not as clear as one might think.  Let's take a look at the detailed analysis.

            If the Player holds the 3 High Cards, there are 1081 possible resulting draws.  32.2% of the time the Player will wind up with a High Pair.  If the Player holds only the 2 suited High Cards, he will wind up with a High Pair 30.3% of the time.  So, the probability is a little less, but we're not talking a huge difference.  The Player may only have 2 High Cards instead of 3, but he will draw 3 cards instead of 2 helping to even things out a bit.

            Moving on, with the 3 High Cards, the Player will draw a Two Pair about 2.5% of the time.  With the 2 High Cards he will pull a Two Pair about 4.4% of the time.  The score has been quickly settled with the High Pair frequencies.  For as often as the Player will wind up with fewer Pairs he will wind up with more Two Pairs.  Given Two Pairs pay twice as much, this puts the 2 suited High Cards in the lead.            The pattern continues with Trips, with the Player drawing about twice as many by holding onto only the 2 suited High Cards.  

            Things turn around when we look at Straights.  It should be no surprise that the probability of drawing a Straight goes way up when you hold 3 High Cards as compared to 2 High Cards.   The exact probabilities will be impacted by the specific cards, but in this particular case the probability with 3 High Cards is about 1.5% vs 0.3% for 2 High Cards. 

            For the 3 High Card hands, the hands stop there.  There is ZERO chance of drawing a Flush, Full House, Quads, a Straight Flush or the Royal.  For the 2 High Card hand, we still have a 1% chance of drawing a Flush and slim, yet possible chances to get a Full House, Quads or the elusive Royal.  In this particular case, there is no chance for a Straight Flush, but if I had chosen a suited J-K for my example, this would exist as well.

            If we were to ignore all the hands Flush and above, the two hands would have nearly identical expected values, with the 3 High Card hand slightly higher, However, there is no reason to ignore these hands.  In fact, we specifically play the 2 High Card hand for the specific reason that we have the opportunity to draw all these relatively high paying hands simply by discarding the 1 off-suit card, all while barely impacting the overall expected value of the lower hands. 

            As a result, the decision is not really a hard one to make, even if it was an originally surprising part of the strategy.  Our 2-Card Royal with an Ace has an expected value of about 0.58.  Our 3 High Card expected value is a mere 0.46%. 

            This type of hand is a fairly common one and repeatedly playing it the wrong way will take a bite out of your bankroll.  This is why the 'seat of your pants' approach or using table Poker strategy can be quite ruinous to your results.  Sometimes, 2 can be better than 3.

Strategy is Underrated

          I can't stress enough the importance of using the right strategy when playing in the casino.  Over the years, I've heard all sorts of excuses for why people abandon strategy, ranging from it doesn't matter in the short run to some anecdotal story about how someone they know threw strategy to the wind and it paid off massively.  Yeah, that's nice.  If you're a sports fan, you know the importance of having a good coach or manager.  There are reasons why Pat Riley, Joe Torre and Bill Parcells are in such high demand.  Yes, it is because they win.  And they win because the utilize the right strategies for their respective sports.  This doesn't mean that once in a while their strategies won't fall apart.  Nor does it mean that there won't be times that they'll execute their strategy perfectly, yet still the other team will win due to a bad bounce.  I doubt any of these coaches would abandon their strategy over a bad bounce or a single loss.

            The same is true when you walk into the casino.  The coach/manager of your 'team' is you.  You decide which game to play.  This is the first key step in your strategy.  In fact, this leaves you with more power than any of the aforementioned coaches.  I'm sure many of them wish that they could pick their opponent on any given day, but they don't get to.  You on the other hand can decided whether to play slots, video poker or a table game.  If you decide on video poker (always a good choice), you decide which variation and to some degree, which paytable.  You can choose the short-pay paytable or make sure you find the full-pay paytable for the game of your choice.   Joe Torre isn't going to hit the field with only 8 fielders, why should you play jacks or better video poker that pays only 8 for a Full House instead of the full 9?

            Once you decide on your game and paytable, the real nitty gritty part of the strategy begins.  There are 52-cards in the deck.  There are 2,598,960 ways you can be dealt 5 cards from a 52-card deck.  There are 32 ways to play each of these deals, ranging from discarding none of the cards to discarding them all.  You have to make a decision on each of these hands which ones you will keep and which ones you will discard.  Fortunately, in about 75% of the cases, it is fairly obvious which ones you want to keep.  The other 25% is the challenge.  Back to our baseball analogy.  Most of the time, there isn't a lot for the manager to do.  He doesn't really have to tell his leadoff batter to 'get on base' every time he comes up.  I think it is fairly obvious that's what he will be trying to do.

            Unlike the baseball manager who has to outguess the opposing manager and players, the video poker Player doesn't need to outguess anyone or anything.  Video Poker is a game of pure math.  For each of those 32 possible ways to discard, there is a finite number of ways the hand can be completed.  Using computers, we can determine the final hand rank of every one of those hands and determine, on average, how many units the Player can expect to have return to him.  It is true that we don't know exactly which cards will come up this time, but we do know that over time, the actual results will approximate our expected results.  Based on this, we learn that the best play for the Player is to play the hand whichever way results in the highest expected return of units.  We call this 'expected value' or EV for short.

            This concept is used for EVERY single decision made in the casino in every game with any strategy.  The decision to hit or stick in blackjack is decided by which of these two decisions results in the higher expected value.  We Fold on Q-6-3 in Three Card Poker and Play on Q-6-4 because in the case of the Q-6-4, Playing has a higher Expected Value than Folding.  The opposite is true for Q-6-3.

            You are in complete control of how to play these hands.  In the case of video poker, the decisions you make are ones that can result in the machine you are playing having a 100.5% payback or a 96% payback.  One payback means you will win in the long run and the other means you will lose (and lose a lot more) in the long run.

            Does playing the right strategy mean you will win every session?  Absolutely not.  It just means your chances of winning increases greatly.   In today's world, the manager that utilizes matchup charts that show how hitters have done against certain pitchers is likely to be far more successful than one who just feels that now is the right time for a certain pinch hitter - he's due to get a hit.    Utilizing the right strategy is important in a variety of situations.  I can't stress enough that the casino is most definitely one of these situations.

Quads are the Key

For those of you who read my column regularly, you are probably now well aware that a full-pay jacks or better video poker machine pays 99.5%.  Many people are still confused, however as to what this means.  It does NOT mean that if I start with $100 I will walk away with 99.5% or $99.50.  It means that in the long run, you could take the total amount you wager (NOT your bankroll) and multiply it by 0.5% (the 'loss' rate or 100% minus the payback) and this should be the amount you have lost over time.  So, if you play 10,000 hands over the course of a year (or a month or a decade) and you play max-coin $1 machines, you would have wagered $50,000 and can expect to lose about $250. 

            In video poker, however, 10,000 hands isn't really the long run.  Don't get me wrong, it is certainly approaching the long run.  But, given that a Royal Flush should occur about every 40,000+ hands, it would be hard to declare 10,000 hands to be the long run.  If you've hit at least one Royal, you would be ahead of the game.  If you haven't, it would be totally fair to say you are behind because you still have 30,000+ hands to go.  Royal Flushes account for about 2% of our payback.  So, if you were to NEVER hit one, you'd theoretically be playing only a 97.5% game.

            With a hand frequency of 1 in 40,000+, Royals sort of march to their own drummer.  You might hit 2 or 3 in 40,000 hands or you might go 100,000 hands without hitting one.  When you hit one, you're going to have a very good month and when you don't, well, it will be harder to even break even.

            Four of a Kinds, on the other hand, should occur about 1 in about 420 hands.  With the average Player playing hundreds of hands per hour and perhaps thousands in a session, this hand becomes critical to our chances of success over a session or two.  It accounts for 6% of our overall payback.  Relative to the other hands, this is not necessarily large, but it is a hand that is frequent enough that you expect to hit it over a session, but not frequent enough to be sure you'll hit your fair share over a few nights.   If you were to play 10,000 hands, you'd probably find that the frequency of High Pairs and Trips and Straights are very close to what they should be.  Royals will by very definition have to be either more frequent or less frequent than expected, but Quads can be just about anywhere over that period of time. 

            In theory, you should hit about 24 of them over that time.  The math says you very likely could hit only 12 or as many as 36.  If you hit 12, you're about 3% short in payback.  Assuming you haven't hit a Royal and you're now 5% short.  The odds of coming up a winner over that span is very unlikely as you'll be playing at 94.5% and hoping the other hands come up big - which simply isn't very likely.

            Conversely, if you've hit36 of them, you'll be at 100.5% EVEN if you haven't hit a Royal.  A winning session is not guaranteed but certainly more likely.  Over time, the frequency of the Quads will slowly head towards that 24 per 10,000 hands, but your results in the short or medium run is heavily dependent on hitting your four of a kinds.

            As with anything video poker, the number of Four of a Kinds you get is at least partially attributed to luck.  We've all played for hours and been dealt dozens of Three of a Kinds to watch NONE of them turn into Quads.  We've also all sat there and drawn 3 Kings to a single King.  Nothing that happens is truly out of the ordinary.  However, you can increase your chances by playing the right strategy.  If you hold a 4-Card Straight OVER a Low Pair, you are going to greatly reduce your chances of Quads.  If you hold 3 High Cards instead of just the 2 that are suited, you will lower your chances for getting Quads.  The reason why we hold only the 2 suited cards is both to give us a chance to hit the Royal AND to increase the chances of Quads.  Both of these hands are reduced to ZERO CHANCE if you hold 3 off-suit High Cards!

            Of course, if you choose to hold a Low Pair OVER a 4-Card Flush you may increase the frequencies of Four of a Kinds, but you'll do so at your own peril.  Quads are important, but not so important that you should be throwing the proper strategy out the window.

The Penalty Box

            In last week's column, I analyzed a particular hand that could be played multiple ways.  The hand was as follows:

J♠        8♦        Q♦       3♥        9♦

            From a quick glance, one might think to play the hand as a 4-Card Inside Straight with 2 High Cards, a 3-Card Double Inside Straight Flush with 1 High Card or simply as Two High Cards.  As always, the decision comes down to which of the hands has the highest Expected Value (EV).   In last week's column, instead of simply relying on the EV in a strategy table, I used a program that I created that allows me to put in the EXACT 5 cards and tell it which ones I'm holding and which ones I'm discarding.  It then gives me the exact EV of the hand in question.  Why do I do this instead of just using the value in the strategy table?

            The values in the strategy tables are averages of all hands of that particular type.  The accuracy is thus dependent on a few factors, ranging to the nature of the specific hand to the specificity of that hand.  For example, we list the Expected Value of a 4-Card Flush as 1.22.  In reality, there is not a single 4-Card Flush that has that EV.  While there is always the same number of possible ways to draw the Flush (9), the number of High Cards in the hand will impact the exact expected value because it changes the number of ways we can pick up a High Pair.  If we have 0 High Cards, the EV is 1.15.  With 1 High Card it is 1.21 and with 2 High Cards it is 1.28.   We could just as easily list these three hand separately on the strategy table, but it wouldn't change the strategy we would employ at all.  There are no other hands that have an EV between 1.15 and 1.28.  So, in this case we lump all the 4-Card Flushes together and show the average EV for all 85,512 possible 4-Card Flushes.

            In a similar fashion, we have a single entry on our Strategy table called the 4-Card Royal which has an expected value of 18.66.  but not all 4-Card Royals are created equal.  We might have 10-J-Q-K which allows for pulling the suited 9 and picking up a Straight Flush.  Or we can pick up an unsuited 9 for a Straight.  However, we also only have 9 ways to pick up a High Pair.  Thus the EV of this hand is rather different from that of J-Q-K-A which has no way to pick up a Straight Flush and also has only one way to pick up a Straight (both ends are NOT open).  But, we get 3 additional cards that will give us the High Pair.  

            But, there is another item that can affect the specific Expected Value.  What happens if we are dealt a Flush 3-J-Q-K-A.  The Flush has an EV of 6.00 while the 4-Card Royal has an EV of 18.66.  But, when we discard the 3, we lose one opportunity to draw the Flush.  This will certainly NOT drop the EV of the 4-Card Royal to below that of a Flush, but we should recognize the impact of the specific card we discard.  When we discard a card that could help improve the final hand, it is called a 'penalty card'.  In this particular case, there is no impact to our strategy as a result of discarding the 3, so we are safe to lump all 4-Card Royals together.

            However, as we go down further on our strategy table, we begin to break apart the hands into smaller groupings.  We don't have all the 4-Card Straights listed together the way we do the 4-Card Flushes.  Because a Straight only pays 4 and there are only 8 ways to complete them, the EV of Straights drops to the point where it is very close to many 3-Card Straight Flushes, 2-Card Royals and even High Card hands.  Many of these hands also tend to overlap a lot, as in the example at the beginning of this article.  The hand is 2 High Cards, a 3-Card Straight Flush and a 4-Card Inside Straight all at the same time.  Slight changes in the hand make up could make it other hands all at the same time.

            When a hand overlaps as this one does, there is usually at least some penalty card situations.  In this case, if we choose to play the hand as 2 High Cards, discarding the 8 and 9 create the penalty card situation.  We wouldn't want to draw an 8, 9 and 3, but we wouldn't mind drawing an 8, 9 and 10.  While this may not be the most common outcome, it is one that would complete the Straight and give us one of the highest possible payouts for the 2 High Cards.  So, discarding them may reduce the ACTUAL Expected Value slightly from the one we may find under 2 High Cards in the strategy table.

            Likewise, when we hold the 8, 9 and Q, we are discarding the Jack which is a penalty card.  It can be used to complete a Straight or we might pick up another Jack to make a High Pair.  So, I calculate the exact Expected Value in last week's column to make sure the result was 100% accurate.

            As I've said many times in my column, you don't need to memorize the Expected Value of any hand because the value itself is meaningless.  What matters is the relative value.  You need to know which hand has the higher EV.   Once in a while, a penalty card situation will cause a hand as it is shown on the strategy table to have an ACTUAL Expected Value that actually drops it to below that of another playable hand from that same 5-card draw.  This in essence creates an exception condition to how the hand should be played when using a strategy table.  The hand should STILL be played according to which has the higher Expected Value, but because we are using the 'average' shown on a strategy table, we don't actually do this.

            When my father, Lenny Frome, developed Expert Strategy, he was well aware of this situation.  He felt that the impact on the payback of these exceptions was too small to be concerned with relative to the idea of listing out what could be several to dozens more lines on the strategy table.  Learning Expert Strategy can be enough of a challenge.  He didn't want to complicate it further by trying to list out hands that might look something like this:

·         4-Card Straight with 2 High Cards, EXCEPT if there is a 3-Card Straight Flush, but ONLY if the 2 High Cards are part of the 3-Card Straight Flush

            I tend to agree with my father and learning these extra rules are only for diehards and even then, the risk of error might be more than the extra 0.001% it might yield in payback.

Rare Gems - Straight Flushes

            One of the ironies about video poker paytables is that they don't always reward hands more for being more rare.  If I were to ask you which occurs more often in video poker - a Flush, a Straight or a Full House, I'm guessing most of you would say a Straight, followed by a Flush and lastly a Full House.  It is really a trick question.  Without knowing what the paytable is, there is no way to answer the question accurately.  The only thing we know is that, in general, a Full House outranks a Flush, which outranks a Straight. 

            On a full-pay video poker machine, assuming you use Expert Strategy, you will actually hit more Full Houses than either of the other two.  A Straight will occur just slightly more often than a Flush.  Upon close inspection, we realize that this is by far a product of the payouts for each hand than it is a product of the hands themselves.   If we take a look at the game of All American Video Poker - which would appear to now be obsolete - we will see a very different pattern develop.  In All American, a Straight, Flush and Full House all pay 8.  With no reason to go for one or the others, the pure probabilities of hitting each hand begin to show up.  As a result, the frequency of Straights and Flushes increase dramatically, to the point where they occur nearly twice as often as a Full House.

            A similar phenomenon occurs with a Straight Flush.  Generally speaking, it occurs just about 4 times as frequently as a Royal Flush, while paying only 1/16th of the amount.  Or we can look at it the other way and say that it is more than 20 times as rare as a Four of a Kind while only paying twice as much.  When we throw in the Bonus Video Pokers, it only looks worse.  This far more rare hand might actually pay LESS than many of the Quads we can hit, which are far more common.

            Of course, I'm wondering how many of you have hit nearly as many Royal Flushes as you've hit Straight Flushes.  I doubt you remember your Straight Flushes as vividly.  Winning $62.50 on a max-coin quarter machine isn't quite as memorable as a cool $1000, but that isn't my point.  If you use Expert Strategy on a jacks or better machine, you should hit a Royal every 40,400 hands or so and a Straight Flush every 9200 hands.  The key phrase is "if you use Expert Strategy."  Since most Players, at best, use pieces of strategy, I'm guessing that the Straight Flush shows up far less often because the partial Straight Flush is frequently overlooked when the Play.

            If dealt the following, what's the right play?

J♠        8♦        Q♦       3♥        9♦

            Do you play the 4-Card Inside Straight with 2 High Cards, the 3-Card Double Inside Straight with 1 High Card or the 2 High Cards?  As always, there is just one way to determine the right play.  We go to the Expected Values of each.

            Calculating the Expected Value for the 4-Card Inside Straight is fairly easy.  We can draw the Straight with 4 cards and we can draw a High Pair with 6 more.  This will return 22 units to us.  Divide by 47 and we get a result of just below 0.47.  For the other two, I ran them through a program I have that calculates the exact Expected Value given the specific discards.   The Two High Cards have an Expected Value of just below 0.50 and the 3-Card Double Inside Straight Flush has an Expected Value of just below 0.53.  This is the proper play. 

            While the odds of hitting the Straight Flush are 1 in 1081, this is still far greater than hitting it with either of the other two hands (it is zero in these cases).  Ironically, it is not the tremendous payout of the Straight Flush that causes us to play the hand this way.  By holding a 3-Card Straight Flush, we give ourselves numerous chances to hit just Straights and Flushes - a combined 1 in 20 (roughly).  Throw in opportunities for Three of a Kind and Two Pairs and this hand simply beats the others.

            Now, no one expects you to calculate the Expected Value of even the 4-Card Inside Straight on the fly or to carry a small computer to run my program that calculates the exact Expected Value for each hand.  It is much easier to simply use a strategy table that lists out each playable hand.   If we look up the three hands in a strategy table, we find a 3-Card Double Inside Straight Flush has an Expected Value of 0.54, the Two High Cards have an Expected Value of 0.49 and the 4-Card Inside Straight with 2 High Cards doesn't even make it onto our strategy table because the Two High Cards always outranks it.  These values are the average of all hands of that type so they don't always equal the exact Expected Value taken into account the exact discards.

            In the end, the frequency of a hand occurring is a product of the paytable and following the right strategy.  If you want to get your share of Straight Flushes, you can't do a lot about the former, but the latter is fully in your control.

Still Wild About Deuces Wild

            A few weeks ago, I wrote about full-pay deuces wild video poker and it's 100.6% payback.  It has gotten harder to find 100+% payback machines, but this one can still be found in many of the casinos that cater to the locals (i.e. OFF the strip!)  People are still amazed to find that such machines exist at all.  As I've written many times, the casinos don't mind leaving a few of these around in lower denominations.  This way they can say that they have positive payback machines, but they don't really have to worry about the professionals swarming on them.

            Even if you are an Expert Player who can play at 800 hands per hour, you're dropping $1000 in the machine every hour.  At 0.6% advantage, you can expect to win $6 per hour.  It certainly beats losing, but no one is getting rich at $6 per hour.  If you're willing to sit in a casino for 40 hours per week just as you would any other job, you might be able to clear $12,000 per year.  Of course, you won't be collecting a regular paycheck.  Some weeks you're going to lose and others you're going to hit the big payout.  But, at the end of the year, should be fairly close to that $12,000.  This will be your reward for playing roughly 1.6 million hands of video poker and putting into the machine a mere $2 million!

            I'm not going to recommend you quit your day job and try this.  In fact, I won't even recommend you give up looking for work, if you currently are, and become an professional video poker Player.  For almost everyone reading this column, you are a recreational player and video poker is a form of entertainment.  Some nights you win, some nights you lose.  Depending how long you play for per session, you'll lose roughly 2 out of every 3 times you play.  But, if you pick the right machines and learn the right strategy, your night out might cost you $20 and you can get some entertainment and a few drinks.

            With a 100.6% payback, you would definitely be picking the right machine with Deuces Wild.  So, the only other thing for you to do is to learn the right strategy.   At first glance, the strategy table for Deuces Wild might look daunting due to its size, but when you look closely, you'll see it is broken down by the number of Deuces.  If you make sure to learn it this way, you'll find it much easier to learn AND you'll be doing yourself a huge favor in terms of learning to play properly.  Deuces is not a hard game to learn.  It is just so vastly different from any other game, that people make lots of mistakes.

            One of the most important things to learn is when to hold just the Deuces when drawing.  it is so tempting to want to hold the best possible portion of a hand, but sometimes you simply box yourself into a corner by doing so.  For example, if you are dealt the following:

2          2          6D       7C       QD

            You may be very tempted to hold the 4-Card Straight figuring that there are so many possible cards to complete the Straight (a 3, 4, 5, 8, 9 or 10).  If you pick up a 6 or a 7, you'll have Quads.  This is clearly superior to going for the 4-card Flush, which would require one of the remaining 11 (or 10 if the 2 was a Diamond) diamonds to make a Flush or a 6 or Q to complete the Quads.

            The problem with either of these is that they completely eliminate the possibility of any of the bigger payouts while in essence targeting some of the lower paying hands.   Further, we the two Deuces, we can do no worse than wind up with Trips, so it is not like we are giving up a sure winner.  Proper strategy says that unless you have a Royal, Five of a Kind, Straight Flush, Four of a Kind or a 4-Card Royal, you hold ONLY the two Deuces.

            When we take a closer look at the strategy, we find that we ONLY go for a 4-Card Straight or 4-Card Flush IF we have NO Deuces.   Be very prepared when dealt Deuces in Deuces Wild to frequently play them 'bare' (hold only the Deuces).  Of the 2,598,960 possible 5-card initial deals, 48 will consist of 4 Deuces (obviously, you're done when this happens).  Three Deuces will occur 4,512.  About 90% of these will be played as just the three Deuces.  Two Deuces will happen 103,776 and nearly 75% of these will be played as just the two Deuces.  A single Deuce will be dealt 778,310 times.  About 45% of these will be played as the single Deuce.  This is the 3rd most common hand in Deuces, following a Pair and a Razgu. 

            If you want to learn to play Deuces Wild, we have three different products that can help you.  You can find the strategy tables for full-pay Deuces Wild in our book Expert Video Poker for Las Vegas ($5).  We have the strategy table for full-pay Deuces Wild plus a variety of variations of full-pay Deuces Wild in Winning Strategies for Video Poker ($5).  Lastly, we have our Deuces Wild Tipsheet ($2.95) which contains the strategy tables for 3 different Deuces paytables and has the most detailed information on the full-pay variety of any of our 3 sources.  You can order any or all of these directly from us.  Send a check or money order to Gambatria, P.O. Box 36474, Las Vegas, NV 89133

Jackpot Power

            As we get deep into the political season, we're all going to be frequently reminded how it is possible to make numbers say just about anything we want them to.  Quite frankly, it is not just the arena of politics this happens in.  It can be done with all types of math - casino math, included.

            By now, many of you well know that a full-pay jacks or better machine pays about 99.5%, which is a very solid number for a casino game.  Many of you may even be aware that the Royal Flush contributes 2% of this amount.  But what does this really mean?  It means that if the machine was defective and NEVER dealt a Royal Flush, but dealt all the rest of the hands in the frequencies we would expect, the payback of the game would be closer to 97.5%.   This is about the same payback we would get from a short-pay (8/5) jacks or better machine so should we expect roughly the same experience?

            ABSOLUTELY NOT!  One of the measures I like to use is what I call a 'session simulator'.  This process simulates a session of play for a particular game.  For video poker, I use 3 hours of play at 700 hands per hour.  For this particular demonstration, I ran 1000 of these sessions under 2 conditions.  The first was a full-pay jacks or better machined that NEVER paid a Royal Flush.  To be clear, the only way this could ever really happen would be if the machine was broken or rigged.  As I don't believe the latter happens in any reputable casino, nor would a broken machine likely stay on the floor for this many hands - this is merely for illustration purposes and to prove a point.

            In this scenario, the Player still managed to walk away a winner about 28% of the sessions.  This compares to about 29% when a regular full-pay jacks or better is played.   Why is there such little impact to this?  Under normal circumstances, the Royal would hit only about every 20 cycles or so.  Some of these cycles would already be winners, so the Royal Flush doesn't change this.  It only changes the magnitude of the win.  In the cases where the session was about to be a loser, the Royal most likely flipped ONLY these into winners.  However, when we look at the long run, the overall payback of ALL the sessions put together was where we expected it to be - at about 97.5%

            When we put the 8-5 jacks or better machine (with the Royal occurring as it should), we find that the Player wins only 14% of his sessions.  His winning sessions are cut by half!  The overall payback of all the sessions is also what we would expect it to be at 97.5%.

            So, why do two different machines paying about the same amount create such different short-term results?  This goes to a concept of volatility.  There is a mathematical formula for volatility, but I'm afraid if I start explaining it at that level, you're all going to turn the page.  That is why I like to use the session simulator as a means of explaining what volatility does and is.  When a large amount of the payback is concentrated into a very infrequently occurring hand, there is a larger degree of volatility.  In the case of the full-pay jacks or better game without the Royals, I removed a large degree of the volatility.  This is why a game with a considerably lower payback that the original version can still have a not very different short-term result.

            So, what does this all mean for you?  There are two points I'd like you take away from this week's column.  The first is to realize how important the Royal Flush is to your long-term results in video poker.  If you are on a cold streak of Royals, your short-term results may not look all that different from 'normal', but you may find that your larger bankroll is suffering.  If you play for 3 hours at a time, you may find that you're still leaving the casino a winner 3 out of 10 times, but for some reason your wallet still seems a lot lighter than it should.  The good news is that in the long run, those Royals will show up as often as they should (assuming you are playing Expert Strategy).  Ironically, when the Royals are running hot, you'll still walk away a winner about 3 out of 10 sessions.  But, a few more of those sessions will be big winners.

            The second point I want everyone to think about is if a 'mere' 800 unit payout occurring roughly every 40,000 hands can make this type of impact to a game, imagine what happens on a slot machine that can pay hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars for a 'hand' even more infrequent.  The average payback on a slot machine is ONLY 92-93%.  If we consider that many of them will have a massive top pay that might occur only every few hundred thousand hands (or million hands), what % of the overall payback does this account for? 

            With these occurrences being so infrequent (and COMPLETELY unknown as to how frequent), the payback of the machine without the jackpot could easily be 80-90%.  I'd put this through my session simulator but as it is not possible to know the frequency of all the payouts, there is no way to do it.  Just for fun, I built an 82.5% video poker paytable and put it through the process and it showed that the Player will walk away a winner only 5% of the time.  As we've already shown, it would then be possible to create an infrequent, very high paying jackpot which will push the overall payback up, while barely changing the short-term results. 

            The end result is one that we know all too well for slots.  Very few people walk away a winner even in the short run, which pays for the handful of people who win the big jackpots.  I'll take video poker any day!

Deuces Gone Wild

            I love getting fan mail and/or e-mails from readers.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is that it is always nice to know that someone is actually reading my column.  It is especially gratifying when someone tells me that they ALWAYS read my column.  The second reason is that a question from a reader can frequently become the basis for a particular week's article.  There are times I sit down to write my column and I simply don't know what I want to write.  I think of a topic and realized I covered it at some point.  Of course, being that I have now been writing for Gaming Today for more than 8 years, it is possible that I last wrote about the topic in 2005 and by now there may be some new readers.

            This week, I received an e-mail from someone who was questioning some of the strategy for Full Pay Deuces Wild.   Full Pay Deuces can be found in several casinos in Las Vegas.  As is the case for most 100+% machines, you won't find them on the strip.  You're going to have to head to some of the local casinos (such as Station Casinos) if you want to find them.  My source ( shows that there should be 100+ machines scattered about at a variety of denominations up to a quarter. 

            While I've never been a big fan of Deuces Wild, this is just a personal choice.  Any game that pays 100.6+% is hard to criticize and is a good game for the regular Player to learn and master.  The strategy table is rather long, but when you break it down by the number of wild cards, you realize that it is not really a hard strategy to learn.  With a paytable that begins paying at Three of a Kind, you don't have to worry about counting High Cards.  The one thing, I strongly advise the beginner to learn is how to recognize hands with lots of wild cards in them.  It can become very easy to not realize that 2 6D 9D 10D KH is a 4-Card Inside Straight Flush with 1 Wild Card. 

            The question I received this week was specifically about holding a 4-Card Inside Straight (presumably with no Wild Cards) versus throwing all 5 cards as a Razgu.  The strategy table tells us that we hold the 4-Card Inside Straight.  If you look at the strategy table in Winning Strategies for Video Poker, however, it lists both hands as having an expected value 0.3+ - although it does list the 4-Card Inside Straight higher meaning its "+" is greater than the Razgu "+".

            While I write extensively on Video Poker in Gaming Today, I spend most of my time analyzing table games.  Many years ago I did write my own video poker engine that allows me to analyze most video poker paytables.  One of the limitations is that it does NOT do wild card games.  Fortunately, I have both other resources available to me and the ability to quickly create a program to help determine exactly how much those "+" are worth.

            Calculating the expected value of the 4-card Inside Straight was very easy.  There are 8 ways to draw the Straight (4 Wild Cards plus 4 of the 'natural' way to complete the Straight).  Each pays 2 units so we have a total return of 16 units.  Divide this by 47 ways to draw and we have an expected value of 0.3404.

            The Razgu is a bit more complicated.  As I've written about in the past, the overall expected value as shown in a strategy table for a hand like a Razgu is the actually the AVERAGE of all the possible hands of that type.  Often, no single hand will actually have EXACTLY the expected value shown. 
            About 20% of all hands in Deuces Wild are classified as a Razgu, each with their own subtleties.  The exact make up of suits and ranks will have some impact on the exact expected value.  For each 10 through Aces that is in the hand, there will be less chances to make a Natural Royal.   The exact suit composition of the initial deal will impact the number of possible Flushes that can be made if we discard all five cards. 

            In this particular case, however, the reader was talking about a 4-Card Inside Straight, which does limit the possibilities.  In order to get a more exact expected value, I quickly set up a program that had the initial deal set to 3D 4C 5H 7S 8S.  I figured that by leaving in all of the High Cards I would leave the expected value about as High as it could go and we could see just how close of a decision this really is.

            The expected value of this specific Razgu came back at 0.3267.   So, it would be more accurate to say that a Razgu is about 0.33- and a 4-Card Inside Straight is 0.34+.  It is not exactly a canyon between the two expected value, but there is a clearly superior choice.

            To help me prove my work, I realized that we also sell a Deuces Wild tipsheet that my father created a long time ago.  It has more detailed numbers on it.  It actually lists the expected value to two decimal places.  It lists the 4-Card Inside Straight 0.34 and the Razgu at 0.32.  (When all the possible Razgus are considered, the average must wind up at below 0.325).   It was good to know that my quick and dirty program was able to produce accurate results!

            If you're interested in learning the strategy on Deuces Wild, we have the tipsheet for $2.95.  It includes the strategy tables for Deuces Wild, Double Pay Deuces Wild and Triple Pay Deuces Wild.  Or you can order Winning Strategies for Video Poker which includes these 3 paytables plus dozens more for only $5.  Send a check or money order to Gambatria, P.O. Box 36474, Las Vegas, NV 89128.