JACKS ARE BETTER
Video poker leaves a former slot player confused but enthused
By John Grochowski
Karl is a video poker convert, a slot player who decided to give video poker a go when he learned of its higher payback percentages. Slot percentages vary by jurisdiction and individual casino, but the penny slots that are the most popular games tend to be a few percent below 90, while dollar slots cluster around 93 – 95 percent.
Even a weak video poker game, the kind players in the know avoid, returns 95 percent or so to those who master game strategies. Good games return 99 percent or more with expert play, and the very best – increasingly rare, even in Las Vegas — pay more than 100 percent if you know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.
Still, slots offer chances at big jackpots and pack tons of entertainment value through bonus events, free spins, mystery prizes, stacked symbols, expanding wilds and other pieces in the designer’s toolkit. They’re the most popular games in casinos. Video poker convert Karl is not immune to their allure.
“I still play some penny slots,” he wrote in an email. “The bonuses are fun.”
Mostly, he plays Deuces Wild, but mixes in some other games. On a recent trip, he found a casino that offered full-pay 10-7-5 Double Bonus Poker.
“My eyes lit up,” he wrote. “I’d read about it, but never actually seen it before. It even had a sign on it, saying it was a certified 100 percent-plus game. But I couldn’t win anything on it. It was a quarter game, and it seemed like every few minutes I was going to my wallet for another $20.” That led to some back-and-forth between Karl and myself via email:
Karl: ls (10-7-5 Double Bonus) really a 100-percent plus game?
JG: Yes, with expert play, the game returns 100.17 percent.
Karl: Why did I lose so much so fast? I didn’t get anywhere near 100.17 percent. I lost $160.
JG: All video poker games are fairly volatile because so much of their payback is tied up in rare hands. In IO-7-5 Double Bonus, 1.67 percent of the return comes from royal flushes that occur only once per 48,084 hands. Most sessions will not include a royal, and if there is no royal the average return drops below 99 percent.
Another 3.18 percent comes from four aces (once per 5,030 hands), 4.19 percent from four 2s, 3s or 4s (once per 1,908) and 8.04 percent from other quads (once per 622). If you don’t get a royal and you’re not getting quads, then Double Bonus is going to eat your bankroll fast.
Karl: Just so I’m clear, the 100-percent plus doesn’t mean I’m likely to actually get 100 percent?
JG: As on any other video poker game, the majority of sessions on Double Bonus will be losers. The 100-percent plus represents a long-term statistical average. If you always played 10-7-5 Double Bonus Poker, and you played at expert level over a very long time, with hundreds of thousands of hands, then you could expect a return something very close to 100.17 percent. In the short term, anything can happen. I’ve had two royals and four quads within an hour. A lot more often, I’ve had your experience of not being able to win for losing. Both are normal parts of the game. Your best defense is to never play with money you can’t afford to lose.
Karl: How do you know the game pays 100 percent?
JG: Most players won’t get 100 percent. The strategy for 10-7-5 Double Bonus has more finicky details than strategies for most video poker games, and most players don’t play at expert level. But given expert strategy, the 100.17 percent return is in the math of the game. Early video poker gurus such as the late Lenny Frome started touting it as a 100 percent-plus game in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Today, figures from game testing labs are the same as those calculated with player interests in mind so long ago.
I was shown a sheet from the lab from a casino slot director listing the paybacks on his video poker games, and they were the same as the paybacks you’ll see in any good video poker book or software. In the case of Double Bonus, its full-pay version has been banned in states such as Illinois where 100-percent games are not permitted — regulators know it’s a potentially profitable game for players.
Mathematicians, labs that test games for licensing, regulators and casino operators all agree 10-7-5 Double Bonus is a 100.17 percent game, given expert play.
Karl: If I get four aces in Double Bonus, I’m getting 800 coins back, while in jacks or Better, I’m getting 125. Are the games set so that four of a kind comes up less when the payoffs are bigger?
JG: No, the cards are random, or at least as close to random as humans can program a random number generator to be. In 9-6Jacks or Better, expert strategy will lead to quads on 0.236 percent of all hands. In 10-7-5 Double Bonus, quads occur a nearly identical 0.233 percent of all hands, with the very slight difference coming because of strategy difference dictated by the higher flush payback. In 9-6-5 Double Bonus, where flushes pay 6-for-1 instead of 7-for-1, quads are back to 0.236 percent of hands.
The casinos’ need to offset the bigger quad returns is taken care of elsewhere on the pay table. In Double Bonus, two pairs pay only 1-for-1 while jacks or Better and Double Bonus Poker pay 2-for-1. Halving the return on a very common paying hand is plenty to make up for the higher pays of four of a kind.