Monday, January 31, 2011

Let it Ride on Speed - the scoop on Mississippi Stud

            When it comes to developing table games, there is no magic formula and there are no guarantees to success.  Three Card Poker is currently the pinnacle of proprietary table games and thus many inventors try very hard to copy some aspect of it.  Games like Three Card Poker have a “Je ne sais quoi” quality to them, which is French for something like “I haven’t a clue”.  You can’t just take the key components of a game like payback, hit frequency and fold rate, and mimic them to another game and assume you will succeed.

            A great example of this is the late blooming, Mississippi Stud.  This game was launched about 5 years ago.  It really didn’t have much success for 2 years.  It had a single table placement for much of this time, and yet this table was one of the hottest in the place.  But, despite this, many other casinos were not interested.  Then for reasons that no one can put a finger on, it slowly began to spread, and now has about 100 tables in the marketplace. 

            Mississippi Stud is owned by Shuffle Master and was the brain child of its former CEO, Mark Yoseloff.  When the game was given to me to analyze, I don’t think there was a lot of enthusiasm.  I think it was one of those cases where the guy at the top wanted it done, so it was going to get done.  Much of the other games we were working on were variations of Texas Hold’em or involved complicated wagering going head to head against the Dealer.  Mississippi Stud was a relatively simple game and a paytable game.  It is just you against the paytable, which always make analyzing the game rather simple.

            To start play, the Player makes a single wager and receives two (2) cards, while 3 additional community cards are dealt face down.  The Player now has the option to make another wager that is 1x or 3x his original wager.  If he declines to make this wager, he must Fold.  If the Player does not Fold, the first community card is turned over.  Again, the Player must Fold, bet 1x or 3x his original wager.  If he does not fold, the 2nd community card is turned over.  Yet again, the Player has the same options – Fold, bet 1x or bet 3x.  It is kind of Let It Ride on speed.

            So, just to stay in until the end, you have to be prepared to wager at least 4 units.  The good news it that the paytable begins at a Pair of 6’s and if you get dealt at least a Pair of 6’s on your first 2 cards you have the opportunity to wager 10x your initial wager.  The most common paytable in use is as follows:


Royal Flush

Straight Flush
Four of a Kind
Full House
Three of a Kind
Two Pair
Par of J’s or Better
Pair 6’s – 10’s
*This does NOT include the return of the original wagers which are returned as well – payouts are TO 1

            Analyzing Mississippi Stud was relatively easy given that there are just 5 cards dealt.  What should be fairly obvious about the strategy is that once you get a Pair of 6’s or better, you bet all you can because you can’t lose.  However, unlike Let It Ride, you can’t just sit back and wait until you have a winner or nearly a winner.   With the paytable above, the payback is 99.64%.  To achieve this, however, may take some nerves of steel and some patience.  Expert Strategy dictates a Fold Rate of over 50%!  You have to be prepared to dump your hand when the cards are not going you way.  Sometimes, you’ll even have to walk away from multiple units wagered.

            The strategy after the first 2 cards is relatively simple:
Bet 3x on Any Pair
Bet 1x if you have One High Card (Jack – Ace), two Mid Cards (6 – 10) or a suited 5-6
Fold all other hands.  (You will fold 31+% of your hands at this point) 

If you’re interested in the rest of the strategy and statistics of the game, my latest booklet “Expert Strategy for Mississippi Stud” (surprising name, huh?) will give you plenty of both.  You can order it now at a special Gambatria blog price of  $4.95 (reg, $5.95).  Send a check or money order to Compu-Flyers, P.O. Box 132, Bogota, NJ 07603. 

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Betting on Grades?

            A few months ago, With my eldest son heading off for college, my sister sent me an interesting article that she read in USA Today.  It was about a website that actually takes wagers on how a student will do in his college courses.  It started last year allowing students from only two universities to get in on the action.  This coming academic year it has expanded to 36 colleges.  Students can actually wager on whether they will get an ‘A’ or a ‘B’.  The website investigates the specific course at that college and requires that the student allows access to his records in order to determine the appropriate odds.

            Much of the article centered on the legality of this website.  Was it technically online ‘gambling’ and thus currently illegal in the United States?  The owner of the website argues that it is not gambling because the entire wager is based on the skill of the student.  Luck plays no part in it.  This argument reminded me of a story that my father told me some twenty years ago about a court case (I believe in Pennsylvania) as to whether or not video poker was a game of skill or a game of luck.

            In that particular guess, two scenarios were developed.  The first where the Player played perfect strategy as we all know it.  In the other, a simple strategy was used whereby the Player played as one might expect him to play if he just attempted to use some common sense.  Keep in mind, that this was a lot of years ago before there were dozens of books and countless software programs readily available for the average Player.  Video poker was in its infancy.  The simple strategy was probably not far from the strategy most Players were using.

            The computer simulations for our two scenarios showed about a 7-10% difference in the paybacks.  Certainly my father felt that showed a considerable amount of success or failure at video poker was skill.  Knowing which cards to hold significantly reduces the loss rate.  The courts at the time, however, saw it differently.  Despite the significant difference in paybacks, they saw that a significant portion of the return comes from which cards you are dealt or draw and not those that you choose to hold.  No matter how much you might try to sabotage your hand, the ‘luck of the draw’ is still going to allow for a return of a significant portion of your wager .

            In the end, it really comes down to the definition of how much of anything in life is ‘luck’.  Does one baseball team beat another because of luck or skill?  Undoubtedly there are elements of both in the outcome.  How much luck is really involved can be rather subjective and then deciding how much is allowed before the outcome is based more on luck than on skill is also subjective.  Playing roulette requires no skill.  You make a wager, a random number is essentially chosen and you win or lose based on this.  Yes, some wagers have a lower house edge and you can save your bankroll a bit by choosing these options, but the overall outcome is based on how lucky you are at picking where the little ball chooses to stop.

            Video Poker undoubtedly relies on a greater degree of skill than roulette.  As was shown in the court case, a Player can absolutely increase his payback by playing correctly relative to someone who doesn’t know what they are doing.  But, is it enough to say it is more a game of skill than a game of luck.  On a relative scale for casino games, I think absolutely.  When we compare it to the notion of betting on one’s college grades, I have to admit that video poker has a higher degree of luck than college GPAs.  However, even with grades, there can be an element of luck.  So, does this make it gambling?  I don’t know.  I guess I’ll just have to see how it plays out.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Video Poker and Random Number Generators (RNG)

A reader sent me a question this week:

If video poker machines have a RNG in them, how does knowing how to play the game come into play since the results are already determined because of the RNG?

Here was my reply:

In the case of video poker (in most jurisdictions), the RNG serves to merely emulate a live deck, not to pre-determine the outcome.  Many years ago, video poker machines supposedly dealt 10 cards upon hitting the "Deal" button.  5 were face up (that the Player could see) and 5 more face down underneath each of the up cards.  When the Player decided which cards to hold and hit Draw, the cards he discarded would be replaced with the ones that were 'underneath' these discarded ones.

For some reason, this did not sit well with some people (and there was some concern that if someone had the RNG code, he could figure out what the 5 hidden cards were).  Over the years, from what I understand, the code for video poker has changed so that the machine deals 5 cards when the Deal button is hit and then when the Draw button is hit, it will deal the appropriate number of cards from the deck, replacing the discarded ones.

In the end, the exact method of replacement doesn't really matter.  The fact that the machine knows what cards were dealt face down or if it knows what the next 5 cards will be does not change anything for the Player.  You don't know what the hidden cards are, so you have to use the probability of each possible outcome combined with the payout of that outcome to figure out what is the best play.

Imagine if you were sitting at your dining room table and you deal 5 cards face up and then 5 cards face down as the 'replacements'.  AS you deal them face down, you show them to a friend (but not to yourself).  The fact that your friend knows these values does NOT change how you should play your hand.  The fact that your friend can know every possible outcome does not change what you should do.  Obviously for the ONE SINGLE hand, this knowledge might cause HIM to play the hand differently, but as the Player you have to assume that those 5 down cards are random - equally likely to be any of the remaining 47 cards.

This is the only purpose a RNG serves in video poker.  It does NOT determine what the final hand will be or what the 5 dealt cards will be in totality.  It only decides which of the 52 cards will be the next one dealt - just as if you were holding a real deck.  If a casino wanted to, they could turn video poker into a table game (not sure how they would handle multiple players, but imagine a live deck and a single player).

By contrast, slot machines do NOT work this same way.  The machine does NOT determine what symbol will show up on each real independently.  Rather, the RNG determines which of the specific final outcomes will be shown to the Player.  This would be like the RNG determining that the Player will be dealt a Pair of 10's and assuming you discard the other 3 cards that NOTHING will improve your hand.

In video poker only the cards are dealt randomly using the RNG.  In slots, the outcome is determined by the RNG.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Gambatria Launched!

            For years, I’ve been asked how my company got the name Compu-Flyers.  As many of you know, the company was started by my father, Lenny Frome.  My dad spent decades as an aerospace engineer before retiring with my mom to Las Vegas.  It didn’t take long for my dad to get completely bored with retirement.  So, he was one of the first people to buy one of the ‘new’ full-color computers/monitors and an expensive color printer.  He thought that he would open up a kiosk at the local mall and print out color t-shirts and calendars and thus, he registered a company called Compu-Flyers.
My father always found the math behind casino games to be quite intriguing and this probably explains why I was programming Blackjack on my high school computer when I was about 15.  Before he got a chance to rent a kiosk, my dad was walking through a casino when he came across a video poker machine, which at the time was relatively new to the casino.  A short time later he was in another casino, saw a video poker machine with the same paytables but they were advertising different paybacks.  “Impossible!”, my father thought. 
He decided to put his ‘color’ computer to different use.  He created the first analysis of video poker.  While there were probably a couple of bugs in it, it was based on the same concepts that every gambling analyst has used since.  Look at every possible outcome and assign an expected value to each possible play.  Whichever play resulted in the highest expected value is the proper way to play the hand.  My father soon discovered that there was not much written about video poker, so he began going to some of the gambling magazines and offering to write about the topic.  Little by little it caught on.
It was suggested that he write a little tipsheet on video poker.  Rather than create another new business, he simply used the name of the one he had already created for any potential buyers.  When the checks started to come in for his ‘50+ tips on Video Poker’, and later on for Expert Video Poker for Las Vegas – the name was a permanent fixture.  It had absolutely nothing to do with gambling, but Compu-Flyers was here to stay.
It’s been more than 20 years since then, and my dad passed away nearly 13 years ago.   When he died, my family decided to keep the company going.  In reality, this meant that I would keep sending out orders, maintaining his website and try to keep his articles in circulation.  In 2003, I decided to opt for a career change.  I left my job as a Senior Director of Information Technology and decided to follow in my dad’s footsteps.  I’ve been privileged to write for Gaming Today, Midwest Gaming and Travel, Midwest Players, Gaming South and others.  I’ve helped launch numerous successful games including Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Mississippi Stud, Rabbit Hunter, Imperial Pai Gow, Mini Pai Gow and several sidebets for these and others.
It is 2011 and the world has changed a bit.  The internet and Social Media (facebook, twitter, et al) have changed the game a good deal.  The notion of “what’s in a name?” may be more important than ever.  After searching for a new name for Compu-Flyers for a while,  I finally came up with Gambatria.  Why and what is Gambatria?  It is a combination of Gambling and Gematria, which is a system whereby numerical values are assigned to letters and/or words. 
According to Wikipedia, Gematria usually provides two meanings – the ‘revealed’ form which is the straight numerical equivalent of the word and the ‘mystical’ form generally associated with Kaballah (the mystical branch of Judaism that so engrossed Madonna!)  This seemed to apply to gambling too.  Parts of the math are quickly and easily revealed like the payback.  Then there are the parts like the strategy and what to expect that take on a more ‘mystical’ flavor.  So, I guess the mission of Gambatria is to de-mystify gaming math. 
It may seem ironic that I turned to a word that is at least several hundred years old in order to bring my company into the new decade.   The mission is still the same – to do the best I can to educate Players about the right way to play all the games in the casino.  The medium is just changing a bit.  Besides writing my weekly column here at Gaming Today, I’m happy to launch this blog  (the one you're on) "Gambatria" and I hope you’ll all follow me on Twitter (also “Gambatria”).  Probably no surprise, but you can now find my website at (, although works as well.
I hope you will all bear with me as these sites probably experience some growing pains, and I get accustomed to using these new 21st century social media concepts to keep in contact with all of you and vice versa.  As a Gambatria Launch Special, you can order Expert Video Poker for Las Vegas for just $7.95 (reg. $9.95).  This includes 1st class postage and handling.  Send a check to:  Compu-Flyers (sorry, haven’t gotten account cut over yet!), P.O. Box 132, Bogota, NJ 07603.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Empire Strikes Back

            No game played in the U.S. is shrouded in more mystery than Pai Gow Tiles.  I remember seeing this game more than 20 years ago in Las Vegas and wondering why they were playing dominoes!  My father simply told me that it was a complex game that was played almost exclusively by people from Asia.  There, it was immensely popular.  So, it is no wonder that somewhere along the line, someone decided to ‘Americanize’ it creating Pai Gow Poker.  To be clear, the tiles were not simply converted to cards for this transformation.  Instead, the rules of play for Pai Gow (tiles) were meshed with a poker-based game. 

            As a result of its Asian roots, I think that many still avoid the game as being too complex or intimidating.  In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.   Pai Gow Poker is a very simple game to understand.  The strategy is a bit complex, but unlike most other casino games, in Pai Gow Poker you can ask the Dealer for help and he’s allowed to help and will almost certainly give you the correct information. 

            The rules of play are rather simple for Pai Gow Poker.  The game is played with a 53-card deck (standard 52 plus a Joker).  The Joker is ‘semi-wild’.  It can complete a Straight OR a Flush (or a Straight Flush) or count as an Ace.  So, if you have 2-2-7-7-10-JKR, you have Two Pair with an Ace Kicker.  If you have 2-4-5-6-10-JKR, you have a Straight (or a Straight Flush if the cards are suited).  The Player makes a single wager to begin play.  Each Player and the Dealer is dealt 7 cards.  The Player must split the cards to create a 5-card hand and a 2-card hand (only Pairs and Ranks matter, no Straights or Flushes).  The only rule is that the 5-card hand MUST outrank the 2-card hand.

            The Dealer will also set his cards in this manner using the “House Way”, which is a set of rules which tell the Dealer how to play his hand.  As the House Way is considered the optimal way to set cards, the Player may ask the Dealer to set his cards using the House Way, essentially removing the need to know any strategy at all.

            Once all the cards are set, the Dealer reveals his cards and then begins to compare them to each of the Player’s hands.  For the Player to win, BOTH of his hands must beat the Dealer’s respective hands.  If each Player and Dealer win one of the hands, it is a push.  If the Dealer wins both, the Player loses his wager.  The house advantage comes from two sources.  The first is that the Dealer wins all TIES.  In this case, a Tie DOES NOT mean each wins one hand, but if the Player and Dealer’s two-card or five-card hands are ‘ties’, then it is considered as if the Dealer won that hand.  So, if the Player wins the 5-card hand and ties on the 2-card hand, each Player and Dealer has won one hand and it is a Push.  The second source of house advantage is that the Player pays a 5% commission on all wins (i.e. he is paid 19 to 20 for all wins).

            In the end, the payback winds up at just over 97.25%.  The Player can shave this down considerably by acting as the ‘Banker’, but I’ll save that for another column.  As a result of the two-hand single wager betting, a very large amount of hands end up as a Push (more than 40%), which can be both good and bad.  On the positive side, a small bankroll can last a long time.  On the bad side, the Pai Gow Poker by itself can be considered to be rather slow. 

            As a result, numerous sidebets have been created to spice up the game.  One of the more creative ones is ‘Imperial Pai Gow Poker’ developed by John Feola, President of  New Vision Gaming.  With Imperial Pai Gow, a single sidebet wager gives the Player two opportunities to win a bonus.  He can win if he can form at least a Straight/Three of a Kind or better using any 5 of his 7 cards OR if the Dealer’s 7-card hand is a Jack High or less.  If BOTH occurs, the Player will be paid for BOTH wins!  It really doesn’t get much easier than this.  The paytable in use is as follows:

Player's Hand

Five Aces - 1000
Royal Flush - 200
Straight Flush - 50
Four of a Kind - 25
Full House - 5
Flush - 4
Straight - 2
Trips - 2

Dealer's Hand

9 High - 100
10 High - 20
Jack High - 5

* Pays are TO 1

            This paytable affords the Player a 97.19% payback, which is quite respectable for a sidebet.  Remember that you’re not playing one or the either, you get them both.  So, if you’re dealt a Full House and the Dealer has a 10 High hand, you’ll win 25 to 1.  With Imperial Pai Gow Poker, you get to root for your hand AND against the Dealer’s hand.

            Imperial Pai Gow Poker is already live in several casinos and jurisdictions with more coming on-line in the next few weeks.  It started at the Hopland Sho Ka Wah Casino (Hopland, CA).  John Feola asked that I give a shout out to Mike Gutierrez, the Table Games Manager there, as a thank you for being the first casino to place the game.  It can also be found at The Eldorado Casino in Reno, John Ascuga’s Nugget in Sparks, NV and the Wild Rose Casino in Emmetsburg, IA.   This coming week it should be going live at Terrible’s Lakeside Casino in Osceola, IA and at the Harrington Raceway in Delaware.  Later this month it should make its debut in Gulfport, MS at the Island View Casino.