Gambling City

We are Cash Back

Deal Me In Poker

Author: Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: Last week you wrote that a royal flush occurs about every 40,000 hands. I’ve had a few over the years, besides, we have decent machines (9/6) where I play that keeps me in the game longer to get one. Well, Saturday night I hit my first, naturally dealt royal flush on a dollar machine. Didn’t even have to hit the hold button. What are the odds of that happening? It has to be way more than 40,000 to one. Jim D.

On a 9/6 Jacks or Better machine -- 9/6 meaning a video poker machine that pays nine for the full house, six for a flush -- a royal flush appears, on average, once in every 40,390 hands. Ah, but that natural royal -- that’s a delight that occurs only once per 649,740 hands. There’s nothing better than no toil and a hand pay of crispy $100’s.

Dear Mark: Four times this past weekend I was dealt four cards to a royal flush, and I didn’t hit one. Why not all five cards as opposed to just four? Also, can a video poker machine be programmed to deal four cards to a royal to encourage continued play on my part, and then be programmed to never allow me a royal flush? Ellen R.

The ever-elusive royal flush, Ellen, is the best hand you can make in video poker. It receives the highest payout available and it occurs whenever you string together an A-K-Q-J-T of the same suit. A four-card royal flush draw is the combination of any of the four cards necessary to make a royal flush, such as a T-Q-K-A of spades.

Getting any royal, even with a draw, is a rarity. Try approximately once every 40,000 hands. With a 52-card deck there are 2,598,960 possible hands, and only four of them can be royal dealt naturally. This means the odds of being dealt a royal flush without the need of a draw are 1 in 649,740. Them’s not very good odds, is they, Ellen?

Preventing big winning hands like royal flushes from appearing their theoretical number of times could be accomplished by secondary decision programming. A good programmer could write code that allows the computer within to stop a hand that is about to be dealt in favor of a different hand. But in a highly regulated industry like casinos, with most jurisdictions following Nevada's regulation that the machines deal from a fair deck, it is safe to assume honesty in the machine you were playing.

Dear Mark: This is not a new money management method but it is relatively new for me to use at video poker. Now that the machines operate off currency and tickets instead of coins, it is pretty easy to set a winning limit, cash in, put the profits away in one pocket and continue play with the original bankroll. As you have pointed out, the casinos want to do everything they can to divert your attention from the fact that we are wagering money, not mere numbers on a screen or tokens. I simply cash in my balance after getting 50 percent ahead on a $20 buy-in, put the 10er in my left pocket and returning the $20 to the fray, I can walk away knowing what I have won, or lost, for the session. Besides, the short stroll to the cashier or ticket redeemer machine serves to refresh my mind. I’ve been doing this for a of couple years and found that it is far more effective than the “I’ll Quit If The Balance Gets To Whatever Method.” The often ended up to be zero even after being ahead by a nice amount. This way, I can at least buy a burger if I have any luck at all. Mike H.

Your system -- per your description of it – has a number of good aspects. Pocketing winnings, right on. Realistic win goals (a Wimpy hamburger) and loss limits, now you’re talking. Oh, and those brief strolls to refresh your mind. Actually, savor them as brief moments when your not physically playing the machine, and the built-in edge of a one-armed bandit isn’t gobbling away at your bankroll. Still, Mike, allow me to add to your modus operandi.

Video poker offers more than a Hobson’s Choice. Your alternatives are better paytables, and game selection. Although you didn’t mention which video poker game you prefer, compared to other video poker games, consider Jacks-or-Better. Measured against other video poker games, Jacks-or-Better has a relatively low volatility so you’ll see fewer swings to your bankroll.

Tighten up your win goals and loss limits approach. When losing half your session bankroll (loss limits) you walk, and when doubling your money (win goals), consider doing the same. If you chose to stay after doubling your money, continue setting aside additional winnings.

Along with identifying the profitable opportunities in video poker by shopping for the best paytables, learn, and then employ, perfect basic strategy. Use your Player’s Club card to get your fair share of comps and cash-backs. With keen play and decent paytables, you can turn video poker into a positive expectation game.

Finally, Mike, I hope you understand that your money management techniques will not affect the house advantage, nor guarantee that you will win more money. But what good money management principals will do is to minimize your losses, immunize your winnings, and maybe move you up the food chain from ground round to filet mignon.

Dear Mark: Are video poker payoff odds “for” 1 or “to” 1? It seems that video poker payoffs are different than some of the other ways they pay off games in the casino. Mark L.

It’s best, Mark, that I first explain the difference between “for” and “to” one. Anytime you see odds quoted as 6 “for” 1, it means you get a total of $6 back for every $1 wagered. A 6 “to” 1 bet means your return would be $7; the $1 you wagered plus your net win of $6.

With video poker, you get “for” one, not “to” one. For instance, for a flush on a 9/6 Jacks-or-Better machine, you would win six coins for every one coin wagered, but the original one coin bet is essentially lost. Since your payoff was a total of six coins, therefore the payoff odds are expressed as 6 “for” 1.

Dear Mark: I inserted a credit slip into a progressive dollar video poker machine that had a meter reading of over $12,000. It wouldn’t accept my ticket so I tried it on the machine right next to it. It worked, but, between moving to the neighboring machine, a man walked up, inserted a $20 bill, and on the first hand, bang, hit a natural royal flush. I believe I got screwed out of that royal. Frank B.

Know how you feel, Frank, but sorry to say, it wasn’t your royal to begin with. The gentleman hit his royal only because he hit the deal button at the exact millisecond that the royal combination was chosen by the random number generator (RNG). With the RNG crunching possibilities, with millions polled every second, the final verdict was calculated at the exact millisecond that he pressed the deal button.

More than likely, you would have started the game earlier and not at the exact same instant, so unless you pushed the deal button at the correct millisecond, Frank, the proverbial royal flush would not have appeared, and your hand combination would have been completely different.

Dear Mark: Could you please explain what you mean by a “full pay” in regards to video poker? Jenny A.

Full pay, Jenny, means the best payoff schedule offered for a particular game, and where the Maximum Average Payback is usually in the neighborhood of 100%. For example, a full pay Deuces Wild machine has a maximum average payback of about 100.7%, and a full pay Jacks-or-better machine has a Maximum Average Payback of about 99.5%.

Dear Mark: Are exposed cards in poker always declared dead? Ned M.

Not necessarily, Ned. All poker rooms have various rules regarding cards inadvertently exposed, such as, ruling the card is not legally playable (dead), or dead some of the time, but not others. Allow me give you a couple examples. In draw poker (high), an exposed card during the initial deal is often not declared dead, but is dead at any time during the draw.

In stud and flop games, down-cards inadvertently exposed by the dealer are usually ruled dead.

Or, take lowball. During the initial deal, some card rooms rule that any exposed card six or higher is automatically declared dead, but any card Ace through five can be kept by the player. Yet, during the draw, any exposed card is considered unplayable to whom it was dealt.

Dear Mark: Deuces Wild is my favorite video poker game. The casino where I normally play offers only a four coin return for four-of-a-kind. You suggest finding a machine that returns five coins for four-of-a-kind. How much more of an edge am I giving the casino? Grant S.

Plenty! Try six percent. With maximum coin play and perfect strategy, a five-coin return for four-of-a-kind gives you a slight edge against the house-a 100.76% return versus 94.34% if the machine returns just four coins.

Dear Mark: Just reading your column, I now do two things religiously. Play on games that have less than a two percent house advantage, and always use basic strategy. The two games I play the most are $1 Jacks-or-better video poker on a 9/6 machine, when I can find it, and $5 blackjack. All things being equal, would you advise playing video poker or blackjack? Ted M.

First, Ted, congratulations on employing basic strategy when doing battle against the casino. A blackjack player who knows basic strategy narrows the house edge to less than half of one percent, while the average player bucks more like a 2 to 2.5 percent house advantage. Yet with video poker, even with keen play, minus the royal, which happens once every 40,000 hands and accounts for approximately two percent of your overall payback, you’re up against a 2.5 percent house edge.

Next we need to figure out the overall cost per hour of play. Video poker is a much faster game than blackjack. You’ll conservatively play 400 hands an hour at video poker versus 60 at a blackjack table, so in an average one-hour session, minus a royal, you’ll lose a whole lot more money at video poker ($50) than at blackjack ($1.50). Then again, you don’t have the opportunity to win $4,000 (a royal) betting $5 a pop at blackjack.

So, Ted, all things being equal, I would personally lean towards blackjack, but not based exclusively on the math, but also on the fun factor. I just happen to enjoy blackjack more than video poker. My recommendation, though, would be to play the game you have the most fun at, and if it is video poker, and you get your fair share of royals, then there is no need to fret the up-front house edge.

Dear Mark: In my favorite casino, the Caribbean Stud progressive tote is at $55,200 for a royal flush. How good a wager, and when is it mathematically in my favor? Jimbo M.

Sorry, Jimbo, I can't recommend this wager to anyone. First, note there are 2,598,960 possible poker hands using a standard 52-card deck. Now divide that figure by four (the different suits) and you'll come up with 649,740. Because you don't get to draw any cards in Caribbean Stud, this mathematically is the odds of hitting a royal. Jimbo, one in 649,740 is too big a differential from the $55,200 they plan on paying you for me to endorse this play.

Dear Mark: We have a fairly new casino where I live that locals have nicknamed “the Outhouse,” because it’s impossible to get it a Flush there. Get it? It is so obvious that I actually have taken pen and paper and kept track of the action. A couple of times, I have kept a four-card flush 24 times before filling it, but the norm is between 14 to 17 hands. What are the real odds of filing a four card flush with a deck of 52 cards? Dick L.

“The Outhouse.” That’s funny. A flush is a hand ranking directly below a full house and immediately above a straight that contains five cards of the same suit. Once dealt four of an alike suit and you discard the loner, the odds of hitting a flush with the four similar suited cards is nine of the remaining 47 cards, which is 19.1% or 5.222 to 1.

Here’s the deal, Dick. Video poker results are determined at random. Just because you didn’t catch a flush with the frequency predicted by barnyard math, it doesn't mean that you are being ripped off. You are just experiencing the randomness of video poker machines against your relatively short gambling timeline.

Also, Dick, I hope you are not keeping some four-card flushes in lieu of better hands. You should always keep a high pair over a typical flush, like a 2, 5, 9 and Queen of spades, but a non-paying four-card flush hand with more value than a high pair is a four-card royal flush and any four-card straight flush. Both of these hands have a higher Expected Value than a high pair and should be held intact.

Dear Mark: I really enjoy your column on the internet, but I have yet to see a discussion on two new table games on the floor: Let it Ride and Caribbean Stud Poker. Obviously, if they have a house advantage above your recommended two percent, I'm not interested. So exactly how high is the house edge on these new games? Dan C.

First, Dan, I must commend you for being the rare breed of gambler who looks at the casino advantage before making a wager.

The house edge for Let it Ride is 3.5% and 5.3% for Caribbean Stud Poker. As for the progressive bonus side bets, the house advantage is 46 an 48 percent respectively.

Dear Mark: Why is it that every time I'm dealt one card short of the royal flush, when I draw I never get the card I need? Just yesterday I was dealt all but the queen of spades, and sure enough, I got the lousy three of hearts. It makes me believe the casino controls who and when someone hits a jackpot. Why can't that queen of spades show up just once? Katherine R.

What do you expect, Katherine? The queen of spades represents Athena, the Greek goddess of war. Pull out a deck of cards and look at her closely. She's the only armed queen in the deck. Even Homer in the Illiad, described her as a fierce battle goddess who continually intervened on the side of the Greeks in the Trojan War. Expect her to arbitrate on behalf of the casino every time.

Seriously, Katherine, I could bore you to tears by trying to explain how the pseudo-random number generator determines the cards you will get, but instead, I'll simply describe the difficulties you're up against when fate blesses you with four of the five cards needed for a royal flush.

Because there are 2,598,960 possible poker hands using a 52-card deck, you're going to feel pretty good when your hand is one card shy of gaming ecstasy. But although the big jackpot appears to be only one card away, your chances are really only one in 47 or just over two percent. Another way to visualize its difficulty is taking a thousand video poker players lucky enough to start with your proposed hand. A ten of spades, jack of spades, king of spades, ace of spades and a three of hearts. Naturally, all in my controlled group will discard the three of hearts, leaving only 21 mathematically hitting the royal flush, then 150 flushes, 128 straights, 191 high pair hands and 510 who think, like you, the big fix is on.

Sorry, Katherine, it's just not as easy as it seems, but keep trying. Someday Athena may look favorably on you.

Oh, yes, a final thought. In case you want to know what the remaining better halves of the kings represent? The queen of diamonds is Rachel, wife of Jacob and mother of the twelve sons who founded the twelve tribes of Israel. The queen of clubs is an anagram of Regina, signifying queen. The queen of hearts is Judith of Bavaria, daughter-in-law of Charlemagne. And of course, we've already met Athena.

Dear Mark: I would like to know a little about the four suits and their rank from highest to lowest. Does one suit on a video poker machine rank higher than another? Joe C.

Generally no, but occasionally a casino will have a promotion with designated video poker machines paying higher jackpots if certain straights, flushes or royals are in a particular suit. There are also a few video poker machines that pay a mega-jackpot if you hit a royal flush in a predetermined suit with cards in sequential order. (Example: 10 of Hearts, JH, QH, KH and Ace of Hearts.) And what are the possibilities of hitting a consecutive card royal in a prearranged suit? Let's just say, Joe, it's easier to hit your New York state lottery.

Now for some bar stool trivia. Though cards have existed since the earliest Asian civilizations, France had the greatest influence on the creation of the modern deck. They eliminated the major arcana and combined the knight and page, reduced the size of the deck to 52 cards and simplified the suit symbols to red diamonds and hearts, black spades and trefoils (clover leaves). They were produced in mass quantity after Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1455, and the four suits reflect the structure of the medieval society. Hearts-priesthood; spades-nobility; clubs-peasantry; diamonds-the wealthy merchant class.

By the way, after Gutenberg printed the 1,284-page Gutenberg Bible on the printing press, the second impressions made were of playing cards.

Dear Mark: Recently I got my first royal flush. That was the good news. The bad news is I only had two coins in it when it hit. Would I have still gotten a royal flush had I inserted the maximum amount of coins? Jennifer G.

No, but not for the reason you're probably thinking. Many, many players believe that video poker machines are programmed to avoid a royal flush because the maximum amount of coins was inserted. As stated many times in this column, machines do not operate with artificial intelligence programmed to hit royals when you have less than the maximum amount of coins in the machine.

The reason you would have received a different hand, Jennifer, is because in the short amount of time it would have taken to insert the additional coins you didn't play, the machine's random number generator (RNG) would have cycled to another outcome. A video poker machines RNG will typically continue to crunch those 1s and 0s until you hit the deal button. As many as a million hands per minute. So unless you pushed the deal button at the correct millisecond, Jennifer, no, the proverbial royal flush with five coins inserted would not have appeared.

Dear Mark: With all the different types of video poker machines to select from, how's a customer to choose which machine to play? Gerry B.

There are more than a hundred different video poker machines to choose from. Games like Joker Poker, Louisiana Jacks, Gator Poker, etc., offer you a supermarket selection, but all have different paytables needing distinct playing strategies.

I recommend learning and limiting your play to two, like my favorites, Deuces Wild and Jacks-or-Better.

Dear Mark: On the weekends, do casinos make adjustments on their video poker machines to make more money? Sam K.

Do you mean do casinos take a screwdriver to their slots on the weekends to tighten them up? No way. It is not cost effective for the casino to continually alter the payouts on their machines. To alter the percentage return in their favor on a video game, the casino must, by law, make a hardware change. You do this by swapping out an internal component, the ROM portion of the microprocessor chip. ROM, or read only memory, is a chip the slot manufacturer provides the casino. This is the chip that tells the video poker machine to pay 9 coins for a full house, 6 coins for a flush.

Additionally, they would have to physically change the glass payout schedule on their machines.

What you could see is a seasonal wholesale change to improve their theoretical hold by making all 9/6 machines to 8/5 bandits. By changing to all 8/5 machines, the house holds an additional 3% edge on each and every machine.

Dear Mark: Is there a way that the casino can program a video poker machine so that a royal flush never appears? Shanon B.

Can, yes. Would? Never!

What you have described is called secondary decision programming. A good programmer could write code that allows the computer within to stop a hand that is about to be dealt in favor of a different hand. This would prevent big winning hands like royal flushes from appearing their theoretical number of times.

In a highly regulated industry like casinos, it is safe to assume honesty in programming.

Dear Mark: When I am dealt the first five cards on a video poker machine, are the draw cards already sitting behind the cards I want to discard, or are they dealt from the top of the deck? Ed. P.

It depends, Ed, on the company who produced the slot or how old the machine is. In the past, the majority of video poker machines operated using parallel dealing. This is where all 10 cards are dealt simultaneously, meaning, you are dealt both the display cards and their draw replacements. Discard that dreadful four of clubs and the seven of diamonds, which you didn't need, was sitting behind it all along. Today, the new machines employ serial dealing. Here replacement cards are dealt right from the top of the deck-similar to a live poker game.

Because the cards are shuffled and displayed randomly, neither way has any effect on the outcome.

Dear Mark: I was wondering, isn't it better to play on a loose jacks or better 6/5 video poker machine than on a very tight full-pay jacks or better 9/6 video poker machine? Stanton T.

No such animal exists in the green felt jungle. Because every hand is dealt randomly, tightness and looseness of a video poker machine are strictly based on the machine's paytable. A 6/5 paytable (6 coins returned for a full house, 5 for a flush with one coin inserted) would be considered tight, no, very tight; whereas a 9/6 machine (9 for a full house, 6 for a flush) would be loose.

Dear Mark: I am planning my first trip to Las Vegas. The only game I play is Video Poker. Any recommendations on where to play? Annie C.

One of the great things about playing video poker, Annie, is that the casino actually tells you which machines are better than others. How? Just by reading the paytable displayed on the machine's faceplate. So who has the best paytables in Las Vegas? Have your cabby drop you off at the Stratosphere. By offering "certified" 100+ payouts on quarter machines, the Stratosphere may very well be, according to their claim, "the best place to gamble on the planet." My personal favorites are their 10/6 and 9/7 Jacks or Better machines. With perfect play, the 10/6 machine will return 100.7 percent and the 9/7 machine 100.8 percent. Throw in some slot club card perks, Annie, and the Stratosphere is actually paying you to gamble.

Dear Mark: I am having a minor dispute with a friend about 'jack's or better' five card draw. Is there usually (obviously house rules vary from place to place, but in general) a requirement to prove you have a pair of jacks or better to open? When I learned this game, there was no such requirement and you could actually bluff the open. My friend now tells me that this is not the case and penalties like matching the pot are usually imposed if the opener does bluff. What is your experience on this issue? John K.

When I was growing up, John, if I misplayed a hand in pinochle, fraudulently or not, the chastening was not only getting the heave-ho from the game but castigated for piss-poor play and an additional penalty of washing all the dishes. This is how I learned that honesty prevails in card play. But I'm writing about a friendly, or in my case, a hostile game environment at the kitchen table where local rules apply.

In casino poker rooms, they don't offer a jack's or better game for one simple reason. SHOW ME THE MONEY! Casinos can't pay the lighting bills on the many dead hands that a Jack's or better game would create. You can't 'rake' a pot that isn't there. The rake, the money that the card room charges, is usually a percentage or flat fee taken from the pot after each round of betting. Every time a dealer pitches out a hand, your miserly casino owner wants a piece of the action.

As for home rules, I've heard of everything from matching the pot to forfeiting the hand, and in a worst case senerio, the bucking up for all the booze and burgers.

So in the future, John, let whoever is gracious enough to let you spill beer and chip dip all over their carpet make the rules of the house.