SKILL & CHANCE
Strategy and knowledge matter at video poker – but it’s still gambling
By John Grochowski
My old friends Ken and Rich are guys I’ve known all my adult life. We met in college, did a fair amount of partying together, and indulged in the odd poker game, ending each session with the ridiculous super-wild card game, “Aces, Jacks and the man with axe wild, pair of natural 7s takes all.” Both have been successful, Ken in business and Rich as an attorney. And both have gravitated toward video poker in the couple of decades since casinos came to the Midwest.
Ken is firm on his opinion of the cards on the screen.
“Video poker is a game of skill,” he’s said. “If I play enough, and play well enough, the percentages are going to hold up, and I’m going to make money at the game.”
Not so fast, Rich has told him.
“This is still gambling, and at gambling there are no guarantees. A bad streak of luck, and there goes your profit.”
Ken has always come back with, “There will be bad streaks. But there also will be hot streaks when I win more than expected. In the long run, that will balance out and the percentages will hold up.”
And so on, back to square one, with neither budging. I’ve seen it up close and personal. The skill vs. chance debate turned into a long lunchtime discussion at a Chicago-area casino buffet one day. They dragged me into it, though to tell the truth, they didn’t have to tug very hard.
Video poker aficionados know that there are certain games in which a skilled player can gain a mathematical edge over the casino.
Making money at video poker requires knowledge, skill and bankroll. Knowledge starts with recognizing a game with profit potential. If Double Bonus Poker with its full 10-7-5 pay table, meaning full houses pay 10-for-1, flushes 7-for-1 and straights 5-for-1, you know you have a game that returns 100.17 percent with expert play. But if any of those payoffs is reduced, the game drops below 100 percent.
You also have to have the skill to make the best mathematical plays on every hand. That’s harder than it sounds. Dealt Jack of hearts, 3 of spades, 7 of hearts, Queen of clubs, 9 of hearts in 10-7-5 Double Bonus Poker, what would you do? If you didn’t answer “Hold the Jack, 9 and 7,” you’re not ready to play at expert level. And there are dozens of such plays in any video poker game. And if you’re short on strategic know-how, you’re going to spot the casino an extra edge.
Bankroll? Well, you’d better have enough to withstand the in- evitable losing streaks. To have a 95 percent chance of staying in action after 10 hours at 10-7-5 Double Bonus Poker, a quarter player needs $675. A tamer game, 9-6 Jacks or Better, requires only $450, but the wild ride that is 9-6 Double Double Bonus Poker, with more of its return concentrated in the rarer high-paying hands, requires $825.
But let’s say we have a player who has it all together – knowledge, skill and bankroll. Is that player guaranteed to make money?
No, there are no guarantees. Chance does still play a big role. Let’s take full-pay Double Bonus Poker as an example. With expert play in that game, royal flushes occur an average of once per 48,084 hands, and account for 1.67 percent of our overall re- turn. In a session in which you don’t get a royal, you’re not playing a 100.17 percent game; you’re playing a 98.5 percent game. Even at expert level, you’re a contributor to the casino cause in that session.
Does that mean that once you’ve played 48,084 hands, you’re certain to have a royal flush? No, of course not. Sometimes you’ll have two royals, or three in that time. Sometimes you’ll have none. If it’s none, your bankroll will take a hit.
What if you double the total, to 96,168 hands. Then are you guaranteed to have a royal? The answer is still “No.” The most likely result is that you’ll have two royals in that time. But fairly often you’ll have one, or three, and a little less often, zero, or four.
If you’ve gone 96,168 hands without a royal, does the video poker machine then go into make-up mode, so that it catches up to the expected long-term probabilities? The answer is still “no.” There is no make-up mode. The machine’s random number generator just keeps on generating hands with the same force of probability that has been in effect all along.
In the super long run, the long royal-less stretch fades away into statistical insignificance. There are likely to be runs with multiple royals to go with the droughts, and the overall results will hover somewhere close to the expected percentage.
Does that guarantee profits for an expert? Not quite. In any realistic number of hands for one player at Double Bonus Poker, those playing at expert level will hover around 100.17 percent, but some will win a bit more, some will win a bit less, and a some will drop below the 100-percent level and lose money.
Skill matters, and the skilled player sticking to the best games is likely to make money, given enough play. But guaranteed? No way. This is still gambling.
I laid that out to Ken and Rich, complete with some quick arithmetic on a napkin. Naturally enough, each found validation.
Ken: “See? Making the right plays makes a difference. It’s a game of skill.”
Rich: “But no matter how well you play, you can come up a loser over a large number of hands. Sounds like luck.”
I’ll take the middle ground: Video poker is a game where skill matters, but which has a strong element of chance.