Lower freebie rates for video poker players reflect payback realties
By John Grochowski
In the eyes of casino operators, not all players are created equal. Depending on what we play, how fast we play, how much money we put at risk and how often we return to do it all again, some of us are more valuable to the house than others.
This becomes apparent up at comp time, whether we take our rewards in cash, free play, meals, hotel rooms or other amenities. Those whose playing patterns are most likely to pad the casino’s bottom line get the most stuff.
This brings me to an email I received from a disgruntled video poker player, who was unhappy with his take from a player rewards program. It was from a reader named Jack, who asked, “Can you tell me why they now penalize video poker players by awarding us fewer points than slot players?”
This is easy enough to answer. Many, perhaps even most casinos give fewer rewards points on video poker because payback percentages are higher than on slot machines. If I’m a casino operator who offers 9-6 Jacks or Better, returning 99.5 percent with expert play, am I going to hand out as much free play per dollar played as I do to a penny slot player who spots me 10 percent by playing games that pay 90 percent or less? No, I am not.
Hence the dual reward formulas that are common in casinos today. I’ve seen many a program that requires twice as much play to earn a point on video poker as it does on slots. I shrug it off, play the games I want to play, and take whatever rewards come my way.
I ran this past my brother Jay, an occasional video poker player who sometimes dabbles in the low-denom slots, to make sure an average player would get it. “That only makes sense,” he said. “They want to give an incentive to come back to the players who leave the most money behind.”
Yep, that’s it. Still, the question hit home because one of the casinos on my regular rounds had just made a major change to both the quality of its video poker games and the structure of its rewards program. In the last few years, it has reduced video poker pay tables, then reduced them again so that even choosy players could do no better than games with about a 97 percent return with expert play.
Downturns can become upturns, and in December their pay tables on at least a few machines returned to their former glory, with a Joker Poker version that returns 99.9 percent with expert play, Not So Ugly Deuces Wild (99.7), 9-6 Jacks or Better (99.5), 8-5 Bonus Poker (99.2) and more.
The tradeoff? Lower rewards rates for the selective players who seek out those games. And not just rewards reduced by half. Rewards that were reduced tenfold from other video poker games, which are already half of those on slot machines.
Here’s the way it works. It takes 100 points to redeem for $1 in free play. Slot players get a point for every $5 wagered, and most video poker players get a point for every $10 wagered. But those who choose the cream of the crop video poker games must wager $100 to earn a point.
To put it on a percentage basis, slot players get 0.2 percent of their wagered returned to them in the form of free play. Most video poker players get 0.1 percent. Those who play the best video poker games get only 0.01 percent.
And you know who’s getting the best deal? Those who are getting the least free play, especially if they take time to learn the correct strategy for the games they play.
We can do a little simple arithmetic. Let’s say you make $1,000 worth of bets on a penny slot machine paying 90 percent—probably a couple of percentage points less in most jurisdictions, but we’ll make it 90 for easy calculations. On average, the machine pays you $900. You get 200 slot points, worth $2 in cash back. You have a total of $902 of your original grand.
On a $1 slot paying about 95 percent, your $1,000 brings you back $950 from the machine, and your $2 worth of slot points brings that up to $952.
Switch to video poker and play 8-5 Jacks or Better, paying 97.3 percent with expert play, and your average return per $1,000 is $973. You only get 100 player rewards points, worth $1, but your total of $974 is still higher than the slot players are getting.
Move on up to 9-6 Jacks or Better, and if you play at expert level your average return is 99.5 percent, or $995 per $1,000 wagered. In this system, you’ll earn a mere 10 slot points, worth just a dime. The casino won’t let you redeem such a low amount, but your $995 return still is miles ahead of anything slot players or customers on lower-paying video poker games are getting.
Your video poker skill level makes a difference. If you don’t play at expert level and are getting only 95 percent or so out of 8-5 Jacks or Better, then you’re getting about the same payback percentage as a dollar slot player, but getting half the rewards.
And details vary in different rewards programs. Some give much more in free play, some give less, and a few casinos have tried giving no points at all on the highest-paying video poker games. Bounce-back vouchers for extra rewards figure into any final calculations, too. But when all bets and rewards have been tallied, the biggest returns still go to the video poker players who play the best games well.