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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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New Versions of Video Poker May Be Trickier Than They Look

29 June 1998

Whenever you visit a casino, new versions of video poker seem to wink at you from screens near where you like to sit. The most noteworthy novelties are knickknacks such as wild cards and fixed or progressive bonuses; more subtle modifications pertain to payouts for conventional winners. True, the basics don't change. You form the best possible hand in a solitaire form of draw or stud. And you're paid according to the "poker value" you achieve.

Innovation is introduced into video poker for several reasons. None entails casinos becoming great philanthropic trusts, concocting slots to eliminate need for welfare as we know it.
* They broaden the gaming experience. This involves satisfying the desires of a spectrum of players, some of whom may set their gambling goals on more but necessarily smaller hits, while others may seek larger but correspondingly fewer wins.
* They hold the interest of patrons who are bored or disillusioned with yesterday's action. This appeals to folks who relish the casino environment, and enjoy games requiring decisions, but prefer the machines to the tables.
* They create an illusion of being more rewarding than the old standbys. This is smoke and mirrors. But, hey, everyone knows smoke and mirrors are what casinos are all about.

* They typically offer theoretical payback equal to or higher than more traditional games. However, the new variants are often more complex and therefore tougher to play perfectly, so - in practice - the house gets a higher edge over the bettor because of player "errors."

The last point is at the crux of the matter. I'll explain.

I'm often asked whether new games are potentially profitable and what special strategies are needed to exploit them. There's no general answer. Each game must be analyzed individually.

Pretend you've studied a good video poker book - not one of the glib gambling guides Swift's hundred gibbons at their typewriters scrapped on their way toward replicating the works of William Shakespeare. You've memorized how to maximize expectation in a deuces-wild game with a certain set of payoffs for winning hands. And you know where to find machines with precisely those payoffs.

Your book has rules for every initial hand on your specific game. For instance, it may tell you to hold the five-of-a-kind when you're dealt 2-2-2-4-4. This isn't guesswork. The return was noted for the hand as-is. "Expected value" was then computed for tossing the fours and drawing two cards, based on the payoffs and probabilities associated with all possible final results. The former was greater, so the optimum strategy was to stand pat.

But what if you encounter a machine with a slightly lower payback for a non-royal straight flush and a bonus for four deuces? Unless your book gives rules for just these cases, you can't be confident of using the correct tactics. You could be hurting yourself by standing pat if the four-deuce bonus were high enough, or by discarding the fours if it were not.

Or, picture a game paying less for a three-deuce four-of-a-kind but more for a royal with deuces. Payoff particulars would determine whether it would be more advantageous to hold or to break the five-of-a-kind trying for a royal or the four deuces. And the situation would differ for 2-2-2-J-J and 2-2-2-4-4. Why? Because discarding the jacks in the one would leave less chance to make the royal than throwing away the fours in the other.

Poker machines offering special bonuses and jackpots have their place. They're fine for solid citizens who believe gambling's all luck and are hell bent on risking their entire stakes trying for big scores. But what if you the greatest overall chance at making at least some money? Or you crave maximum playing time? You're more apt to succeed by mastering a standard, readily-found game than attacking machines with subtle nuances you may not know exist. Sumner A Ingmark, to whose poetry the primates will aspire when they're done with Shakespeare, put it this way:


Ideas and objects most sublime,
Are those that pass the test of time,
And live to realize their prime.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.