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Deal me in: Casinos try to keep it cloak-and-dagger

13 March 2009

By Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: For years I have been a heavy gambler on video poker here in Reno. I used to break close to even on specific machines at a certain casino. I became suspicious when I started losing real bad over several months. I asked a Slot manager if they reset the machines and he said yes. He stated all they did was lower the paytable from 97.9 % to 95%. I have not been back since. IS THESE LEGAL? I can't believe they did that much less admit it? Les L.

Given the competitive nature of the gambling business, casinos usually don't divulge much to patrons about their casino hold. Macy's never told Gimbel what they were up to; only in the 1947 movie, Miracle on 34th Street, did they swap a trade secret.

What's happening is that the casino where you play made a seasonal wholesale change to their video poker machines, hoping to improve their theoretical hold. They changed out the paytables and a chip telling the machine when Les hits specific hands, like a full house and a flush, to pay him significantly less.

What baffles me a bit is, why now ???, especially when casinos need to keep gamblers playing during these tough times. Good paying machines should keep Les coming back for more; hard to see Les scooting right back for less, as he's writing me, and leaving him wondering, what the hell is going on.

It appears that your casino's recessionary cost-cutting plan was to tauten the video poker machines. Since casino revenues are generally down across the country, they are looking at any way they can cut costs. And ah!... yes, Les, it's LEGAL.

Cash-short casinos may think this makes common sense in the short term, but long-term, uh-uh. This recession won't last forever, and they could lose the loyalty of plenty of players, like you, Les.

Odd thing, Les. When I made mention a few weeks back that finding 9/6 video poker machines was a tiger hunt forever on you, Mike Dini, the public relations manager at the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort in Mt. Pleasant, MI, reached out and told me that their casino offers 360 9/6 Jacks or Better video poker games. AND, get this: Soaring Eagle is a stand-alone property with zero competition, whereas Reno, where you play, is far more dog-eat-dog.

The games that give you the best chance of winning are the ones that carry the smallest house edge, like video poker, with the best paytables, assuming you use the proper strategy on said machines.

The best thing about video poker machines is that you don't need to be an insider to know which are the best machines to play, because video poker paytables tell you exactly what your theoretical return is on any machine. It's not like a slots where you see a pretty machine and put in a quarter.

For example, for Jacks or Better, if the game is a 9-6 Jacks or Better (meaning full houses pay 9-for-1 and flushes pay 6-for-1), the machines will return 99.5% over the long run with optimal play. If the machine pays 8-for-1 on full houses and 5-for-1 on flushes, it returns 97.3 %, a 7-5 machine, returns only 96.2 percent.

Knowing how to identify the best paytables offers you the opportunity to compare and shop around for the best value. Now it's up to the casino where you used to play to somehow/someway try to bring you back in.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "The boring thing about video poker is that once you learn the correct strategy, unlike real poker, there's nothing left to learn." --VP Pappy

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.