By John Grochowski
In the course of a year, I answer more than 100 questions from readers. Multiply that by more than 20 years of writing about gaming, and I’ve seen a pretty good sample of what readers are thinking about. Naturally, there are repeat questions, including some that get asked over and over again.
One of those has to do with video poker and whether results would be the same if you were playing a different coin denomination, such as quarters vs. dollars. I’ve seen that question enough that I assume the reader is asking if a change from quarters to dollars on the same multi-denominational machine would yield the same results. But when I was asked that question recently, my assumption was incorrect.
Let’s tackle the question both ways here, first answering the question I thought the reader was asking, then giving the information she really wanted.
Here’s the question the reader asked in her first email:
“If I receive a royal flush playing nickel video poker, would I have gotten it if I was playing quarter or dollar poker on the same machine?
My interpretation was that she was playing nickel video poker, and wanted to know if she still would have drawn the royal had she changed to quarters or dollars sometime before she got the big hand.
It’s a question lots of players ask themselves, or to anyone around them. A woman playing next to me once drew a quarter royal and said to those around her, “I should have been playing dollars! You heard me say I was thinking about playing dollars.”
But the results probably would not have been the same. The random number generator that determines the cards you see runs constantly, and very fast. Any disruption in timing could mean an extra few dozen random numbers have been generated and disappeared.
The time it would take her to touch the screen to switch to a quarter or dollar game would mean the specific random numbers that gave her the royal would be gone. If she paused to order a drink, say hello to a neighbor, stretch her legs or scratch her ear, the RNG would have moved on. If her actions or timing varied in any way, no matter how small, her results probably would have been different.
I emailed the reader an answer, but less than an hour later, she wrote to tell me she had a different question in mind.
“I meant, are the odds the same on video poker playing nickels, quarters or dollars? It seems I get more royal flushes on nickels, which I assumed the casino doesn’t have to pay out as much that way.”
That’s an entirely different matter. I explained to her that the odds of drawing royal flushes change only with your strategy, not with the coin denomination. Nickel games do not deal more royals than quarter games.
Random number generators are programmed the same way for video poker games, regardless of whether you’re playing for nickels, quarters, dollars or any other denomination. In fact, on many multi-denominational machines, the same RNG is used regardless of which coin denomination you’re playing.
All the RNG does is generate numbers that correspond with cards. Those numbers are applied in such a way that every card has an equal chance of appearing on every hand. Odds of drawing any given hand are the same as if a physical deck were in play.
That’s why we can calculate payback percentages on video poker games. Given a specific strategy, we know how often each hand will occur over a very long time.
In most casinos, nickel games pay less than quarter games because pay tables tend to be lower. I was in a casino recently that had games at 5, 10 and 25 cents on one bank of machines, and 25 cents, 50 cents and $1 on another bank. The first bank had 7-5 pay tables on Double Double Bonus Poker on the 5- and 10-cent games, but 8-5 on the 25-cent game. The second had 8/5 on the 25- and 50-cent games, but 9/6 on the $1 games.
Royal flush frequency varies slightly on those games, at 1 per 40,799 hands at the 9/6 pay table, 1 per 40,066 at 8/5 and 1 per 39,639 hands at 7-5, but that’s because our strategy changes with the pay table, not because the cards are dealt differently.
If the casino put a 7/5 pay table on a dollar game, I wouldn’t play because the expected return with optimal play is only 95.71%, compared to 98.98% with a 9/6 pay table. But those who did play could expect a royal once per 39,639 hands, the same as on nickels with that pay table.
In any video poker game, royal flushes are just one piece of the payback puzzle. Hands that occur a lot more often make up a much larger share of the return. On 9-6 Double Double Bonus, for example, royals make up 1.96 percent of the payback, while pairs of Jacks or better that just get your money back bring 21.1 percent of the return.
Nor do casinos skimp on payback for bigger bettors. It’s always worth checking the pay tables before you play, but it’s common for casinos to put lower-paying games on low-denomination games such as nickels, while bigger players get better odds.
In any case, casinos change payback percentages on video poker games by changing the pay tables, not by changing the frequency of big winners. Player strategies can affect the frequency of royal flushes, but there’s nothing in video poker game programming that would bring fewer royals and fewer big payoffs to bigger bettors.