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Deal Me In: Be one of the very few - use expert play

12 February 2010

By Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: I appreciate what you mean by distinguishing the good from the bad video poker pay tables, but you also say "expert play" to go along with those machines. Isn't picking the correct machine enough? Kenny F.

When writing about video poker pay tables or payback percentages, I always add the cautionary phrase "with expert play." So when you see a statement from me like, "A 9-6 Jacks or Better machine will return 99.5 percent over the long haul with expert play," note that "expert play" means, that on any given hand, you weigh every possible outcome based on what you were dealt and then choose to hold. By picking the correct hold cards you will get the highest average return.

With Jacks-or-better, only 21% of the hands dealt are winning hands and 79% are downright losers. Expert play is turning those losers—nearly four out of five -- into winning hands. Since fewer than one percent of players effectively employ expert play, the casino isn't overly concerned about those playing smart, because the vast majority of players don't play anywhere near the expert level required to win. The casino operators know their spoils come from the uneducated masses.

One more thing to consider, Kenny, is that there is no one particular "expert play" method that covers all the different video poker games. Expert play for Jacks-or-better is different from expert play for Deuces Wild, Joker Wild etc., and even within the same game, expert play changes with the various pay tables.

Dear Mark: I read your February write-up in Deal Me In titled 'Casinos win with low-paying games. Very insightful! I firmly believe in playing full pay machines and watch the payouts and corresponding game strategies very close. Do you have an opinion on how long one should stay at a machine? Bernie M.

The outcome of each hand is chosen completely at random without regard for what has happened in the past. The computer within does not adjust future hands if it has just paid a four-of-a-kind, or when you've been getting zilch for what seems like forever. The chances of hitting a winning hand are the same on every deal. So, Bernie, technically there is no mathematical reason to switch machines after any number of winning, or losing, hands.

Ah, but getting pulverized can get a bit disconcerting. Thus, if a video poker machine isn't paying after a distressing number of losing hands, resulting in you getting a bit agitated, yes, I can rationalize that as a good enough reason to switch machines. But that's an emotional reason, Bernie, not a mathematical justification for walking.

Where math does come into play in this situation, Bernie, is that when you do walk from any machine, you're seeing fewer hands per hour by physically just not playing, which means that during that quiet walk-away moment the built-in house edge on any machine, table game, wager, whatever, can't be working against you, grinding away at your bankroll.

Dear Mark: What are your thoughts on chip dumping? James G.

In poker, chip dumping is collaboration with a fellow player involving making foolishly large wagers with lousy hands, expecting to lose to the accomplice, which gives the co-conspirator more chips.

Another example of chip dumping is when a player makes large bets and raises, only to fold later to a much smaller bet, a wager that any legitimate player would call in a heartbeat.

Players who chip dump speciously believe it's ethical. Personally, I believe it's out-and-out cheating.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "There are no cut-dried strategic tips that will improve your odds as a sports better...outcomes in sporting events are not ruled by mathematical certainties." --Andrew Brisman, Mensa Guide to Casino Gambling

Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.