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Deal Me In: Maybe once in 800 hours of swift play, maybe not

19 February 2010

By Mark Pilarski

Dear Mark: If these two games were to be played correctly, which is better to play, blackjack or video poker? I would argue that it is video poker, simply because it offers a large jackpot if you hit a royal, whereas blackjack doesn't. Donald B.

If you were to utilize expert play on both video poker and perfect basic strategy on blackjack (a 9/6 jacks-or-better video poker machine or multiple-deck blackjack), both will have approximately the same house edge of 0.5%. But even with a royal flush jackpot lying in wait, would video poker still be the better play?

Well, Donald, it really is about personal preference, but for me, it's blackjack, because even with equality between games, you will still end up losing more money per hour at video poker. Here's the math. At 50 hands per hour, a $5 blackjack player risks only $250, and with basic strategy narrowing the house edge to 0.5%, the basic strategy player will lose only $1.25. Contrariwise, a video poker player risking the maximum coin amount on a dollar machine, $5, at a steady pace of 500 hands per hour, will put in play $2,500 during the hour, creating an hourly loss of $12.50. That's 10 times the risk, and with it 10 times the loss.

Moreover, Donald, the minuscule 0.5% house edge figures in your hitting a royal flush. If not, the casino advantage would be considerably higher. As a matter of fact, Donald, the royal flush is so dominant in the casino's payout calculations for video poker machines, that until you hit that royal flush, you'll be losing some serious coinage, especially on a $1 machine.

Even with your keen eye identifying machines with a decent payback, and employing perfect play, those elusive royal flushes appear, on average, once in every 40,000 hands. The house edge without hitting a royal flush on a $1 Jacks-or-better 9/6 machine is 2.5%, all the while you're yearning for that royal.

Dear Mark: When I asked a slot attendant what percentage quarter machines were returning, she stated they keep no records on paybacks for any of their machines. Can this be true? Charlie O.

You may have gotten a Sorry Charlie response from the slot attendant, who by the way, may have had less than six months employment in gaming, but the answer was pure poppycock.

Undeniably, some casinos are not required by their state to release information on slot machine percentage paybacks; other states break down casino returns by geographic area, and in some states, it's easy to find out the average slot payback percentage on all slot machines for an individual casino. But to say the casino keeps no records of paybacks for various categories of machines is simply bunk. Reason being, Charlie, is that every slot machine and accounting system used by the casino contains the data needed to make that calculation. Whether they release that information to the general public is one thing, but to say it doesn't exist is false.

Gambling Wisdom of the Week: "What is a random shuffle? One mathematician has defined the random shuffle as equivalent to scattering the cards in a windstorm and having them retrieved by a blindfolded inebriate." --Jerry L. Patterson & Eddie Olsen, Break the Dealer

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.