Thursday, March 28, 2013

VP Machines Playing Themselves

            This past week, I received an e-mail from a reader who told me about some video poker machines at the Soboba Indian Casino in Banning, California that sort of played themselves.  After being dealt the initial five cards, the machine would mark the cards that should be held (presumably according to some form of 'perfect' strategy).   If you wanted to hold a different set of cards, you had to 'uncheck' the hold buttons on those cards and hold the ones you wanted.  My reader wanted to know if this is the direction that video poker is heading.

            A little over a year ago, I received an e-mail from a company called Incredible Technologies that asked my opinion on a video poker game that they were offering at Red Rock Station.  It allowed the player to 'earn' strategy tips through winning hands.  This is not quite the same as the first situation as this only provides the Player with tips that he still has to listen to as opposed to going out of his way to ignore the strategy.   Is this the direction that video poker is heading?

            I tend to doubt it, and quite frankly a significant part of me certainly hopes not.   Just to be clear, my reasons for hoping this is not the new wave of video poker machines is NOT any fear of being made less relevant to video poker strategy or fear of losing some revenue.   While most of my columns for Gaming Today deal with video poker, most of my income is derived from table games.  In the 10+ years that I've been analyzing games, I think I've left my mark in that arena and don't have to worry about being the video poker guru that my father was.

            No, my reasons for hoping that this is not a new trend is that I think it is bad for Players.  Well, bad for good Players.  I supposed it might be good for bad Players.  The problem with this is that it tends to move video poker machines a few steps closer to slot machines.  There will still be significant differences.  The biggest being that we will still be able to know the payback of a video poker machine by looking at the paytable.  However, if all Players begin to play very close to the theoretical payback because the casinos hand the Player the strategy, then there will be NO way that they will be able to continue to offer 99%+ paybacks.  Casinos can offer games with high paybacks because they know that such a small number of Players utilize these strategies.  They can rely on human error to drive profits while still (truthfully) claiming paybacks near 100%.  It is the best of both worlds for them. 

            That brings me to the reasons why I doubt this is going to be a new hot trend that will overwhelm the video poker market.  Why would the casinos want to mess with what already is such a great situation.  They get to advertise machines with paybacks at near or over 100%.  Yet, they know that the games are almost never played anywhere near this amount.  Just like blackjack with a 99.5% payback but holds 9-15%, video poker machines do about the same.   Given the speed that video poker can be played, the profits that can be gotten from even quarter machines can easily outpace blackjack. 

            Most casinos are well aware that people such as me exist.  We write articles trying to get people to play the proper strategy.  We sell books and software to make Players, well, better Players.  At the same time, casinos know that despite this wealth of knowledge that is out there, most Players either don't bother with it at all or make some half-hearted attempt to use it or use it and then abandon it when they don't break the bank.  I've often surmised that I could hand out free copies of Expert Strategy for Three Card Poker at the entrance of a casino and STILL 75% of the Players who would sit down at a Three Card Poker table would not bother to follow the strategy in the least.   So, on the whole, casinos are not very afraid of Players bearing strategy because they are such a minority.

            However, handing the Player the strategy and then daring them to pick a different one may be far more than casinos are willing to do where strategy is concerned.  It is one thing to question when a Player wants to stand on a soft 16 in blackjack.  It is something all together different when a big flashing light comes on to say STICK when a Player has a 16 vs. a Dealer 2, and then only way the Dealer can hit is if he is willing to turn off the stick sign and go out of his way to hit.  In the case of video poker, if a Player really wants to not use the house strategy, then he is likely to find a different machine altogether.  After all, who wants to have to turn off the machine's decisions before entering his own on every hand?  So, there is a good chance that the actual payback of the video poker machine is going to quickly approach whatever the theoretical payback is.  Since the casinos will never allow games to be offered at 99% in this case, there only choice would be to greatly reduce the payback of video poker, which in turn will scare off all the good Players while at the same time, probably increasing the payback of many of the bad Players, as their errors will no longer be a factor.

            So, the only way I can see casinos adopting this concept is if they have some crazy reason to scare off some of their most loyal Players and want to reduce profits.  Nope, I don't see this as a big trend.  At best, perhaps some casinos will use them as a great marketing ploy, but that is it.


Thursday, March 21, 2013

Beware the Ides of March

            I have to be honest, I had to look up the historical significance and meaning of the "Ides of March."  I knew it occurred on March 15th, but I had no idea what it meant.  It turns out that Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15th, more than 2000 years ago.  Not a good day for Rome.  2000 years later, it would be not a good day for Frome either.  It was 15 years ago, on March 15, 1998 that my father, Lenny Frome, passed away.  I say this somewhat tongue in cheek, but it is poosible that Las Vegas has changed more since my parents moved here in 1985 than Rome changed since Julius Caesar began his rule.

            In 1985, there was no Bellagio, no Treasure Island, no Excalibur, no New York New York, no Luxor, no Stratosphere and no Venetian.  The hotels that still stand looked quite different than they do today.  Today they reach right out to the Strip. Then, many were set back hundreds of feet.  I believe Caesars was the first to attempt to build a 'people mover' (a moving walkway) to bring people from the street 'all the way' to their front door.  It didn't take long to realize that the walkway only worked in one direction.  There was no assistance in leaving the building.  The overhead walkways that now exist at Flamingo and Tropicana didn't exist either.  Of course, those streets weren't quite as wide as they are now.  If I recall correctly, there were about 500,000 people living in Las Vegas back then as compared to over 2 MILLION today.

            When I tell my friends who live in Vegas that my parents lived on the East side, they want to know why not the 'newer' West side.  Well, the west side was mostly desert when they moved to Las Vegas.  Where I now live was only built in the early 1990's, several years after they moved here.  Some things have stayed the same.  There's still Harrie's Bagelmania (albeit without Harrie, who passed away a few years ago).  Ethel M is still here, although, I think their building got a bit larger in all these years.  The chocolate is still just as good!  Of course, the Hoover Dam is still here, but now it has an incredible concrete suspension bridge which overshadows it a bit.

            Truth be told, my father had little to do with these changes.  But that doesn't mean he didn't leave an incredible impact on Las Vegas.  What he changed was the INSIDE of the casino.  In 1985, if you walked through a Strip casino, you'd hear the clinking of coins from slot machines.  As you meandered through, you'd see almost exclusively Craps, Blackjack and Roulette tables, with an occasional Big Wheel or maybe Pai Gow Tiles game.  Somedays I wonder how the casinos thrived on such meager offerings. 

            Today, you don't hear the clink of any coins because the slots take in cash and give back paper tickets.  If you pay attention, you'll note that many of those 'slots' aren't even slots, they are video poker machines.  Slots got an upgrade and the Player got a fighting chance.  Instead of 92-93% slot machines that require no thinking or skill, a significant amount of the casino floor has become video poker machines, where strategy rules and paybacks can go up over 100%.  Nothing is hidden from the Player and Player's can make informed choices.

            On the table game side of things, the casinos went from effectively 3 choices to literally dozens.  It is a potpourri of games - Three Card Poker, Four Card Poker, Spanish 21, Blackjack Switch, Caribbean Stud Poker, Let It Ride, Crazy 4 Poker, Ultimate Texas Hold'em, Mississippi Stud Poker, etc....  If you are reading Gaming Today right now while still in a casino, please go down to the casino floor and take not of how many of the table games are NOT blackjack, roulette and craps.  Then think about how much more fun the casino is with all of these new games.   Back in the 90's, my father helped to develop Three Card Poker, Let It Ride, Caribbean Stud and Spanish 21.  These games opened the floodgates for all those that followed.

            His impact to the casino was absolutely immeasurable.  About 15 months ago, I nominated my father to the American Gaming Association's Hall of Fame.  Much to my disappointment, they did not pick him.  Two years ago, they elected Blue Man Group to the Hall of Fame.   I recently saw their show at the Monte Carlo.  It was quite entertaining.  But, has Blue Man Group really changed the make up of Las Vegas or casinos in general the way Lenny Frome has?  If not for my father, it is highly likely that Video Poker would never have become nearly as popular as it is today.  Games like Three Card Poker and Let It Ride might not have succeeded, and all the games that followed may never have been given an opportunity to succeed if not for the impact one 'retired' electrical engineer had on the industry.

            Many of you have written to me over the past decade telling me how much you enjoyed reading my father's column in Gaming Today way back when.  If you're one of those people who recognize the impact Lenny Frome had on the casino, then I'm asking you to send an e-mail to Brian Lehman at the American Gaming Association ( and let him know that you think it's time to induct my father into the Gaming Hall of Fame!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Make the Switch to Blackjack Switch

            Over the years, numerous inventors have attempted to tinker with the game of Blackjack.  I warn them to tread very carefully when doing this.  Of all the games in the casino, blackjack strategy has probably become the best learnt strategy.  With the proliferation of computer generated strategies, you see far less splitting of 10's/faces and far less awful choices by the average Player.  You'll still occasionally find the novice who isn't happy until their own hand is 17 or better, even if that means busting it, but you'll now get a collective groan out of the remaining Players instead of several following suit.

            This is where the trouble started for creating a blackjack variant.  Players knew that original Blackjack had a payback of 99.5% (give or take) and they had learned the strategy fairly well.  When someone created some form of blackjack with a twist, they guessed it meant a lower payback (otherwise, why would the casinos offer it?) and it meant a new strategy.  Just like in video poker, if you don't adapt your strategy for the rules of the game, you can't earn the top payback. 

            So, once in a while a new game would hit the floor, Players would give it a try, but, without the right strategy, the theory on payback turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy - and the Player invariably lost more playing the new version than the original.  The new game might have been a bit more exciting than Blackjack, but not enough to overcome the extra losses the Player had to endure.

            As well all know, over the years a few blackjack variants have stuck.  Spanish 21 is likely the most successful of these variants.  It removes the 10's (not the face cards) from the deck.  As this hurts the Players, it returns this missing payback to the Player by offering more liberal rules and some bonus payouts for some novel hands.  This added more excitement to the game and offered the Player some opportunities for something other than mostly even money payouts.   While Spanish 21 is past its prime, it continues to boast a significant presence in the casinos.   It's payback is actually quite comparable to blackjack, but the need to learn a new strategy has kept the casinos happy by having Player error contribute to the hold of the game.

            More recently, Blackjack Switch has also entered the market.  It has roughly 100 tables in the marketplace.  Blackjack Switch uses a unique method to alter the game.  If the Dealer busts with a 22, all Player non-busted hands (except a natural Blackjack) are a push.  This costs the Player several percentage points.  But, to make up for this, Blackjack Switch allows the Player to 'switch' the 2nd card dealt in each of his two hands.  So, if dealt a 5-10 and a 10-6, the 10 and 6 can be swapped to turn the hands into an 11 and a 20.  From two stiffs to two strong hands.  The payback again is comparable to regular blackjack, albeit you must play two hands at a time.

            Blackjack Switch requires not only learning the strategy for the 'Push 22' rule, but you must also learn when to switch cards.  Much of the time it will be fairly obvious as in my earlier example.  In others, less so.  Imagine being dealt a 10-7 and an 8-10 vs a Dealer face card.  What is the right play?  You have two pat hands or you can 'switch' and have a total bust (15) and one strong hand (20).  When we look at the expected values of each of these hands, there is not much of a choice.  17's and 18's against a Dealer 10 are sitting ducks in any blackjack game.  We do the swap and the combined expected value of our hands goes from 1.3 to 1.97.  If you never switched cards, you'd take a 7-8% hit in payback.  No one would ever (hopefully) play this bad, but if you go by the seat of your pants, you're likely to take a 2-3% hit.  Throw in not knowing how to alter your strategy for the Push 22 rule and you could easily take Switch down to a 97% payback from its 99.5+% payback.
            Just like in video poker, there is a simple solution for this.  LEARN THE STRATEGY.  To help you with this, my booklet Expert Strategy for Blackjack Switch comes with a full-color pocket-sized strategy card that you can bring with you into the casino.  One side has the expected values for every hand to help you decide when to switch.  The other contains the hit/stick strategy for Push 22.  The retail price is $6.95 for the booklet and the card, but for a limited time, I'll offer them to GT readers for only $5.95.  You can also order ADDITIONAL strategy cards for $1.00 each.  If you would like to order, please send a check or money order to Gambatria, P.O. Box 36474, Las Vegas, NV 89133.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

It's YOUR Money

            Over the years, I have frequently written about the value of comps.  Comps generally come in two different versions.  One is cash back.  The casino returns a percent of the total amount wagered in the form of additional play.  They do this because the odds are that any Player who plays that much is likely to play the additional money more than a minimal amount and will in the long run lose that money back to the casino, along with more of his own money.

            A second type of comp is that the Player can earn free items, meals or entertainment.  Sometimes, these may be earned on top of cash back and sometimes they are instead of cash back, meaning that a Player can essentially use his cash back to 'buy' something else. 

            Since both of the aforementioned comps are based on the amount a Player plays, you can really look at this as a form of rebate and that in many ways the Player has actually paid for these items.  There is another form of 'comp' which is an entirely different category.  This would be 'free play' that the casinos send out.  While there may be some correlation between how much they give each Player and his actual play, this is not a direct mathematical computation.  Casinos may throw a Player $5 or $10 or $20 just to entice you to come into the casino. 

            The question now is what you choose to do with these 'free plays'.  Unlike 'match plays', they do not require that you put up ANY of you own money.  A 'match play' coupon will pay you an extra $5 when you wager at least $5 on an even money wager (i.e. a hand of blackjack).  This still requires you to wager your own $5.  It is a great play if you are a good (or at least decent) Blackjack Player.  You'll win $10 if you win and lose $5 if you lose.  Again, the hope is that the Player will play the match play coupon and then stay and play for a while.  If you're planning on playing anyhow, that is fine.  If, however, you are not a knowledgeable Player and wind up sitting for an hour at a game that you don't know, the casino will more than get its $5 back.  Also, a match play coupon is generally only worth about half of its face value.  The coupon is surrendered whether the Player wins or loses.  Since most even money wagers are approximately a 50-50 shot, the Player will win about half of the time and lose half the time.  So, a $5 coupon will only be paid out half the time, making its value $2.50.

            That brings us back to the free play coupons.  While the mechanics of a free play coupon work differently in different casinos, the basics are the same.  You get a certain amount of money to play on a slot machine or video poker machine.  This money must be played at least once through the machine.  So, if given $5, the casino doesn't care if you play $1, quarters or nickels.   You can Play 100 nickels or 20 quarters.  You can play one at a time or max-coin.  Now, if you choose to play one round of video poker at max-coin $1, you'll play one hand.  For most games of video poker, the Player will 'win' about 45% of the time.  This means that 55% of the time, your $5 will result in absolutely nothing.   Another significant portion of the time, you'll wind up with a High Pair and you'll get to keep exactly $5.  The remaining times you'll win anywhere from 2 to 800 per unit and have a rather nice win.  If you had an unlimited number of these free plays, it wouldn't matter much how you choose to play.  But since you get only one of these every so often, it is my opinion that your goal should be to turn the free play into cash which then puts all the choices in your hand.   Unlike the match play, proper use of free play can result in the return of 95-100%+ of the face value most of the time.  Assuming identical paytables, I try to play the lowest denomination available, which allows for the most hands.  The more hands, the more likely you will approach the theoretical payback.  Thus, playing $10 on a 98.6% machine will on average result in a return of $9.86.

            If you are disciplined, at no time are you putting your own money at risk.  Thus, even if you are a bad video poker Player and play the same game at 94%, you should still expect to come out with $9.40 of the $10.00.  Not a bad deal.  I know some of you won't believe to hear me say this, but you'd be better of playing the money through Slots than not using it at all - again, assuming you are disciplined and don't keep playing the money until you lose it and then put more of your own money in.

            A friend of mine recently told me that every time he goes to Reno on a business trip, he stays in a casino that gives him some amount of money in 'free play'.  It doesn't expire for a year and in the past 12 months, he has amassed $400-$500 in 'free play'.  I asked him how come he doesn't play and his response was that he doesn't know how to play video poker and he knows that Slots are not a good play.  I did give him a copy of both "Winning Strategies for Video Poker" and "Video Poker: America's National Game of Chance" to help him along.  But, I also told him that it didn't matter how bad he played.  Even a basic understanding of Poker could probably earn him a 90-95% payback on a jacks or better video poker machine which means he should win back at least a few hundred dollars.  Better in his pocket than the casinos!