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Best of Alan Krigman
Probabilities, Not Casino Bosses, Control the Poker Machines28 May 1996
She: I don't play the poker machines any more.
Me: Why not?
She: They always give you cards you don't want.
Me: Which 'they' do you mean?
She: The casino bosses who control these things.
Trying to set the record straight, I began to explain the pseudo-random number generator that determines the cards a player gets after pressing the button. The glazed look I know so well clouded her eyes. So I tried another tack and suggested she think of the machine as an automatic way to shuffle and deal from a real deck.
"Then why do I always get something like a four when I need an ace?" she demanded.
"Like I said," she smiled, "it's loaded so you don't get the card you need. I'll tell you a secret. They don't want you to win."
"Can I quote you on that?" I asked.
Thinking about this chat later, I realized that good poker players know the likelihood of drawing to make various hands. Maybe not all the exact percentages - the permutations can get complicated - but close enough to decide whether to bet or fold.
Solid citizens who play the machines, though, can learn the optimum hold/discard rules without considering the actual probabilities in any situation. So, when they start with two pair and make a full house, they don't realize they've beaten odds of nearly 11-to-1. And, when they don't get just the right cards for a big payout, they think the machines are set to bedevil them.
Although a big jackpot appears to be only one card away, you can see from the table it's not that simple. The difficulty comes from the probabilities associated with each final result. And these aren't arbitrary figures casino management loaded into the machine. They're inherent to five-card draw - video and kitchen games alike. They're the number of cards that can give you each result, divided by the 47 unknowns from which you draw.
Picture the probabilities by imagining a thousand video poker players lucky enough to start with the proposed hand. Expectations after the dust settles are 21 royals, 21 straight flushes, 150 flushes, 128 straights, 191 high pairs, and 489 firm convictions the machine was fixed to give them a card they didn't want.
Valiant video versifier, Sumner A Ingmark, voiced it vibrantly:
Best of Alan Krigman