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Deal Me In: Hone strategy to a razor's edge

3 February 2010

By Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: The casino where I play once had a dozen 9/6 Jacks-or-better machines. Now they have just two. My first question is why do they take out the good paying machines? Is it because skilled players take advantage of them. As for these reduced value machines, how much am I now giving up from a 9/6 Jack-or-better to let's say an 8/5 machine? Eric H.

Good machines, Eric, always come and go, yet of late, far too many casinos have been slashing their high-paying machine inventory. It's simply a decision on their parts to lower the paybacks on their slot floors.

As to your question, yes, knowledgeable players can and do monopolize the better paying machines. But even your Average Joe will win more on high-paying pay tables, so what a casino will do is trade some of decent high-paying pay tables for substandard ones. I think the reason that even two remain where you play is so that the casino can say it still offers them. Good luck on the egg hunt finding more.

Now assuming, Eric, you find an open seat on the two remaining full-pay 9/6 (9/6 meaning nine for a full house, six for a flush with one coin inserted) jacks-or-better machines and you play perfect basic strategy, your expected payback is more than 99 percent, actually 99.544 percent. You must take into account that those high returns are based on your hitting the royal flush. And why a royal flush? Because a royal on a full pay (9/6) jacks-or-better machine accounts for 1.981 percent of your total return. Add a straight flush and a four-of-a-kind and there's another five percent of a player's return. What this all means to the video poker player, Eric, is that the casino has a sizeable edge against you while you're waiting for the big payoff.

So how much are you giving up with these reduced pay tables? With mathematically perfect play, a 9/6 Jacks-or-better machine pays back 99.54%, the 9/5 game 98.45%, the 8/6 game 98.39%, and the 8/5 game 97.30%.

Yet, Eric, an 8/5 machine doesn't necessarily mean that they are all dogs compared to all 9/6 machines. For example, look to see if they make available an 8/5 (eight for the full house, five for a flush) progressive machine with a progressive meter attached that reads at least $440 on a nickel, $2,200 on a quarter and $8,800 on a dollar video poker machine. If they offer it, you cross the threshold to a positive expectation game.

The bottom line, Eric, is staying flexible. Continue to seek out only positive-expectation machines and utilize proficient play, and you'll be hitting the casino up for all the comps and cash backs you can get.

Dear Mark: In Texas Hold'em, can you ever win a hand outright by playing the board? Jason F.

Not if you're called, Jason. Any time your best five-card hand uses the five community cards, and that's what playing the board is, the best you can do is split the pot.

Although not outright winnable, playing the board can be worth the risk/reward, providing no one else can improve their hand. For example, if the board is a straight consisting of a five, six and seven of clubs, and an eight and nine of spades, someone could be sitting on two additional clubs, and not be playing just the board, and their flush, or other, would beat you outright.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "Poker players do not betray any feelings, so what you have, visually, is a bunch of grim-faced guys looking like a hemorrhoid support group."--Dave Barry, the Lakeland Ledger

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.