Tuesday, June 28, 2011

As Plain as the Nose on my Face!

            I have frequently stated in my column that the biggest difference between slots and video poker is that in video poker ‘everything is known’.  What does this mean?  Well, it DOES NOT mean that anyone knows exactly which cards are about to be dealt or drawn.  What it DOES mean is that because the cards are random, we know what will happen over the long run and we know the probability of winning hands forming.  Thus, we are able to create a strategy that maximizes the amount of money we can win by using these probabilities and the payouts of these winning hands.

            When you walk up to a Roulette Wheel, everything is known also – and fairly simplistic.  If you bet a single number (and assuming a single zero wheel), you have a 1 in 37 chance of winning.  If you bet ‘Odd’ or ‘Black’, you have an 18 in 37 chance of winning.  If you sit down at a Blackjack table you know that the probability of you getting a blackjack is about 4.75%.  This information is all known because you’re dealing with real life objects that have a clear probability and are completely random.

            The same is true of video poker.  The fact that it is a digital deck does not change the randomness.  Everything about the game would be the same if you could somehow play it with a real deck of cards.  The overall math is a bit more complex than figuring out the probability of a single number in Roulette or of getting a blackjack, but the concepts are the same.  Let’s start with a simple example.  Let’s say you are dealt the following:

3♥        4♦        5♣       6♠        10♥

            The play is fairly obvious.  Discard the 10 and go for the Straight.  What is the probability of drawing the Straight?  There are 8 cards that will complete it, with 47 possible cards to be drawn.  Thus, the probability is 8/47 or about 0.17.  With a payout of 4, we multiply this by the probability to arrive at the Expected Value (EV) of this hand of 0.68.

            What if we make the hand a bit more complex?  What if the 10 was another 6?  Now there are two possible plays.  We can do as we did before and go for the Straight or we can discard the 3-4-5 and hold the Low Pair.  We don’t have to guess what the right play is.  While the specific result for a single hand will be determined by the Random Number Generator of the machine, we can look at every possible outcome of each situation and determine which results in the higher Expected Value.  When we look at all the possible draws or use some combinatorial math, we find that starting from a Low Pair and drawing 3 cards (16,215 possible outcomes) will result in 45 Quads, 165 Full Houses, 1854 Trips, 2592 Two Pairs and 11,559 losing hands.  When we multiply each of these by the payouts of each hand, and divide the total by the total possibilities, we come up with our EV of a Low Pair, which is 0.82.

            This is considerably higher than the EV of the 4-Card Straight (0.68).  Thus, the proper play is to hold the Low Pair.  By looking at every possible (2,598,960), every possible way of playing each one (32) and every possible draw for each of these ways (varying depending on how many cards are drawn), we can figure out the probability of absolutely everything that can happen in video poker.  In total, we have to look at more than 675 BILLION combinations of Deals/Draws.  Fortunately, with the help of today’s computers, this really isn’t all that daunting of a task (and there are some shortcuts to help!).

            The important thing to realize is that there is no guesswork here.  There is hard, cold and very precise math based on a 52-card deck and the idea that the probability of any card appearing is the same as every other card.  A long time ago, I saw someone suggest that the way to tell if a slot machine is a ‘good one’ is to play 20 times and count the number of winners.  A machine set to pay more will have a higher win frequency than one set lower (I can’t even verify this much!), so based on how many winning hands you have in the 20 times gives you an idea of if the machine is a good payer or not!  HUH??

            Show me a video poker machine’s paytable and I’ll tell you the win frequency and the payback in a matter of minutes (okay, if it’s something new, it might take a bit longer!)  This can be done because there is nothing hidden in video poker.  The payback is known.  The hit frequency is known.  The strategy is known.  Everything is known!

            If you’d like to know more, one of the best ways to learn more about video poker is from my father’s book Video Poker: America’s National Game of Chance.  It is 200 pages of dozens of some of my father’s best articles about video poker, all geared to teaching you how to play in a more laid back way.  It retails for $19.95, but for a limited time, I’m making it available for ONLY $6 each or 2 for $10, which includes 1st class shipping and handling.  Send a check or money order to Compu-Flyers, P.O. Box 132, Bogota, NJ 07603.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Near Miss Adrenaline Rush

            The misconception about how slot machines work is truly staggering.  Recently I had a conversation about the current generation of video slots with some friends.  As I’ve stated many times before in my column, there seems to be near unanimous consensus that many of these video slots are so confusing that even knowledgeable people can’t figure out when they won and when they lost.  This, in my opinion, takes away from whatever ‘fun’ slots can be.  It does not change their very nature.

            One of my friends in this conversation remarked how with the older mechanical slots, at least you know what your chance were of getting a particular symbol!  I had to explain to this person that this was not the case at all!  While the new video slots may have 30 or 40 different symbols on a ‘reel’, and the older mechanical ones may have only 10 or 15, this doesn’t really change a thing about how they operate.  It only gives them less combinations to show the Player, but it has absolutely NOTHING to do with the odds of any particular set of symbols from being the final ‘hand’.

            Let me make sure everyone understands this completely.  Let’s take an older mechanical slot that has 12 different symbols on it.  For argument’s sake, let’s say they are Red 7, White 7, Blue 7, Triple Bar, Double Bar, Single Bar, Cherry, Plum, Orange, Lemon, Bell and space/nothing.  If each of these symbols appears on each reel exactly once, there would be 12 times 12 times 12 possible combinations of symbols, or 1728 combinations.  Assuming each symbol appears with the same probability, you’d get 3 Red 7s on average 1 in 1728 spins.  Of course, you’d also get 3 oranges just as often, which makes it difficult to pay 5 for one and 1000 for the other!

            So, very quickly we learn that the odds of each symbol appearing are not the same.  Perhaps the Cherry is programmed (YES, even on mechanical slots) to appear 20 times more often than a Red 7.  Well, this by itself is not very surprising.  Of course, since no one but the casino and/or the manufacturer know the specific programming, the Player has no way of knowing what the odds of anything are.  But, it doesn’t stop there.  The symbols on the reels are not programmed independently.  Rather, each of the 1728 possible combinations is assigned a probability of occurring (many of the combinations may have ZERO chance of occurring).  In this manner, the casino can control the result completely!  It is much more compelling for the Player to get Bar, Bar, Plum instead of Plum, Bar, Bar.  Once the Player sees Plum, Bar he knows he has lost.  But, with Bar, Bar his adrenaline starts pumping.  When that Plum shows up, the sense of just barely missing is in full force and the Player is compelled to try again because he ‘just barely missed!’

            Yes, I’m saying what you think I’m saying.  Near misses are programmed into slot machines.  I read an article a couple of years ago in The Economist that discussed how scientific testing shows that near misses can trigger a similar neurological response to actually winning.  So, by feeding you all those near misses, the casino is almost tricking you into feeling like you won.  Let me also be clear about another point.  This is absolutely and completely legal.  In reality, playing a slot machine is no different than buying a lottery scratch off ticket.  Whether you’ve won or lost is determined the moment you say ‘spin’.  You’ll get a few wins.  You’ll get some ugly losses.  Mostly, you’ll get a lot of just barely missed. 

            When we compare this to video poker, we find out that there is very little similarity.  Yes, the 5-card deal is determined the moment you say ‘Deal’, but the probability of each card being dealt is the same as every other card.  From there, you have 32 different ways you can play the hand, and the resulting draw will be based on randomness.  Each of the remaining 47 cards has the same probability as the others of showing up in the Draw.  Because of this, the ‘near misses’ you get in video poker are not pre-determined, but rather part of the excitement of a 5-card draw poker game.

            This is just one of the many reasons my father, Lenny Frome, felt that video poker should officially be declared America’s National Game of Chance.  There’s nothing rigged about it.  There are no purposeful near misses.  Everything about the game is known and it offers high paybacks for those who learn the strategy required to play it.  One of the best ways to learn more about video poker is from my father’s book Video Poker: America’s National Game of Chance.  It is 200 pages of dozens of some of my father’s best articles about video poker, all geared to teaching you how to play in a more laid back way.  It retails for $19.95, but for a limited time, I’m making it available for ONLY $6 each or 2 for $10, which includes 1st class shipping and handling.  Send a check or money order to Compu-Flyers, P.O. Box 132, Bogota, NJ 07603.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Blurry Lines

            Recently, one of my ‘friends’ on my Gambatria Facebook page posted up a poll.  They asked people what they play when they go into the casino – table games, slots or other.  I wasn’t sure what to answer.  I tend to split most of my time between blackjack and video poker.  In the end, I decided that video poker was probably the most appropriate answer for me, though.  So, my first reaction was to check the ‘other’ box, but then I began to wonder if maybe the creator of the poll may have included video poker in the choice for ‘slots’.

            If you’ve read my column over the years, you know how much I hate it when people consider video poker to be slots.  They’ve been frequently categorized as such because of the physical similarity of the machines.  Once upon a time, slot machines meant mechanical reels in a wooden box, while video poker was a computer monitor in an identical wooden box.  Then slot machines went digital too and now both are essentially computers in a box.

            But, is this REALLY how we categorize casino games?  By physical characteristics?  It is ironic that originally video poker machines were put into slot-machine boxes and then over time, slot machines were put onto video poker computers in those same boxes.  While they are not so easy to find anymore, if a Player plays a stand-alone video blackjack machine are they playing slots because of the hardware?  Not in my book!

            As the technology of the casino has evolved, the lines have become even more blurred if we look only at the technology and/or hardware that the game is being played on.  Some jurisdictions don’t allow live dealers and/or actual cards, so they only allow some of the newer hardware in – fully electronic tables, where chips and cards are digital and there is either no dealer to speak of or perhaps just a moving image of one.  If you play blackjack on one of these machines are you still playing slots?  Or, are you only playing slots if the machine looks like a slot machine and you’re playing in a non-social environment?  On the other hand, if you’re sitting at something that looks like a blackjack table (or does it look like a set of new fangled slots all hooked together?) then you’re deemed to be playing a table game?

            These new electronic tables have proven the folly of considering a video poker machine to be a slot machine.  We can’t categorize games by the technology that they are played on.  A mistake was made a long time ago to not consider video poker machines as their very own category.   In most ways, they are actually far more like table games than they are slot machines. 
So, perhaps the real mistake was not considering video poker machines to be slots, but to not recognize that slot machines are like nothing else in the casino industry.  They are truly what their long nickname implies – one-armed bandits (only they no longer even have the one-arm!)

            When you sit down at a table game or a video poker machine, I can tell you the exact payback of every wager on the table.  Some of the wagers require learning a complex strategy, others are simple and yet others require no strategy at all.  But, even this last category has known probabilities for each of the paying hands.  When you play Pair Plus (of Three Card Poker) you have nothing to do, but you know exactly what the odds of getting a Three of a Kind is.
            Video poker fits this mold perfectly.  In fact, the strategy required to play video poker is on the complex end of the scale.  It could be argued that this is the exact reason why it was created for a digital platform.  In theory, a casino could put out a blackjack table and deal a paytable version of draw poker.  Each Player could get five cards face down and discard as few or as many as they want.  The payback of this game would be identical to that of a video poker game with the same paytable.  Voila!  ‘Video poker’ is now a table game!

            None of this is true for slots.  Not only is there no strategy whatsoever, you also have absolutely no way of knowing what the payback of a machine.  Two machines sitting side by side appearing to be identical could be set to pay either identical paybacks or paybacks differing by 10% or more!  A machine could be changed overnight to pay 10% less than it was set to the day before and there’s no way of you knowing this.  Absolutely NOTHING is know about the probabilities of a slot machine by the Player and there is no way to get this information. 

            Saying that video poker is slots would be like saying the Space Shuttle and a coffee maker are the same thing because they are both machines.  It just doesn’t add up.  To help you better understand video poker machines and to break the slot habit, our special for June continues.  You can get Expert Video Poker for Las Vegas for just $7.95 (reg $9.95) by sending a check or money order to Compu-Flyers, P.O. Box 132, Bogota, NJ 07603.