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Ask the Slot Expert: The video poker payback inversion

31 August 2016

By John Robison, Slot Expert™

In 1789 in a letter to French scientist Jean-Baptiste Le Roy, Benjamin Franklin wrote, "...in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes."

Had he lived in the 20th century, Franklin could have added a third certainty: long-term payback rises with denomination.

Actually, Franklin didn't coin the phrase and long-term payback doesn't always rise with denomination. I once saw the PAR sheet for a Double Diamonds percentaging model (paytable and virtual reel layout) that was offered only at $25 and paid back a paltry 92%.

Still it's generally true that long-term payback rises with denomination. When I first started going to casinos 20 years ago (Ooh, 20 years ago!), I could find 8/5 Jacks or similar at the quarter level. I had to play dollars or higher to get 9/6 Jacks.

That's the way it was, and that's the way it sill is on the Las Vegas Strip. Most Strip casinos have bad paytables at all denominations, but if you want a game that pays back 99% or more, you're looking at $5 and up in denomination.

The situation is inverted at the locals casinos. The best-paying video poker paytables max out at quarters, dollars or two dollars. If you want to play a higher denomination, you'll have to settle for a lower-paying paytable.

The two major players in the Las Vegas locals scene are Station Casinos and Boyd Gaming. Let's look at the four Boyd casinos that I visit frequently: Sam's Town, Gold Coast, Orleans and Suncoast.

Sam's Town is the only one of these four that has positive expectation paytables like Full-Pay Deuces Wild and 10/7 Double Bonus. The highest denominatiion for those paytables is quarters. The machines with the positive paytables are set to deal very slowly. There are signs on the machines that say that the speed cannot be increased, that it takes $4 to earn one point, and that the machines do not participate in any multiple-point promotions.

The game I play at Sam's Town is 9/6 Jacks. It's the best-paying paytable offered at dollars. There are a couple of higher-paying Deuces Wild variants, but I don't have strategy cards for them and they only go up to quarters. It takes forever to earn a significant number of points playing quarters.

It takes me about four hours to earn 10,000 points (the maximum number of video poker points that Sam's Town will multiply) playing dollars. A few weeks ago, I switched to playing one of the two $2 9/6 Jacks bartop machines that Sam's Town had to cut the time in half. Those two machines also had 9/6 Jacks at $5.

It was a bit nerve-wracking having so much at stake on one hand, but I fortunately never had a run of bad luck the two times I played at that level. And it sure was fun to see the credit meter climb twice as high on paying hands.

When I went back for my third try at that level, I discovered that the $2 and $5 denominations were no longer on those two machines. I wondered why neither machine was in use in the afternoon of a multiple-points day. I used to have to get there in the morning to get a seat at one of them.

Gold Coast used to have -- well, still does -- the best video poker of the four. I ran into Jean Scott and her husband, Brad, for the first time since moving to Las Vegas at Gold Coast on this past St. Patrick's Day. They were playing $2 NSUD. I wasn't ready to play NSUD at that level yet, so I went to play one of the dollar machines in the non-smoking section. When I was ready to move up, Gold Coast had downgraded the paytable at the $2 level.

Gold Coast still has NSUD at dollars and below, plus it has 9/6 Jacks from quarters to $5. If I don't want to spend four hours maxing out on points (10,000 also) there, I'll sometimes play a little $2 9/6 Jacks. It may not pay as much as NSUD, but it's still positive overall with 6x or 7x points.

Orleans has never been a good place for video poker if you're trying to accumulate points. Its best paytables are at quarters. Okay if you just need to earn some points for a free gift or tournament entry, but pretty much useless for accumulating a large number of points. If you want to play dollars or better, you'll have to settle for a paytable paying back a little over 99%.

The best video poker at Suncoast, the Boyd casino closest to me, is Triple Double Bonus at quarters to dollars. It pays back about the same as 9/6 Jacks (99.58%), but has a horrendous strategy and is incredibly volatile. I only play a few dollars through it once in a while to see if I can catch a good hand -- as I did at the end of last year. I was down to my last $1.25 of $10 in free play when I got four aces. The machine kept awarding credits after I thought it should have stopped. I better take a closer look at this hand, I thought. It wasn't just four aces, it was four aces with a deuce kicker. A nice $1000 Christmas present.

The next best video poker at Suncoast is Bonus Poker, which is available at any denomination you can think of. At 99.17% long-term payback, it's rare that you get a multiplier high enough to turn these machines positive.

Station Casinos has 19 casinos according to its app. I don't have to look at each casino individually because they all offer the same games.

Station Casinos was never known for having good video poker. I was quite surprised when I checked the games available on vpfree2.com that all of the Station casinos had not only a good selection of paytables at 99.5% and higher, but also a good selection of positive paytables. I googled the company to find out what happened.

Station Casinos was a publicly traded company until 2007, when it was taken private. It filed for bankruptcy in 2009. When it came out of bankruptct in 2011, it had a new philosophy to have the best video poker in town.

The best games max out at $1. The positive expectation games earn points at one-quarter the rate of the non-positive games and do not participate in multiple-point promotions. The best play above dollars is Bonus Poker.

Why does positive correlation between denomination and payback apply at Strip casinos but not at locals casinos?

Strip casinos used to run great promotions. In the late 1990s, I read articles about promotions that gave the player a positive expectation with a high-paying video poker paytable. Those days are long gone and I doubt any Strip casino runs a promotion today that gives the player a positive expectation. The Strip casinos can afford to give high-denomination players paytables with high long-term paybacks because even with a promotion, the players don't have an edge over the casino.

The situation is complete different at the locals casinos. Boyd and Station routinely have multiple-points days that give a slight positive expectation (a few tenths of a percentage point) to the player on the high-paying video poker paytables. (Both slot clubs return 0.1% before points are multiplied.) If we could play some serious action, we could earn some serious money.

The casinos use two techniques to keep video poker from being a good earning opportunity. First, they cap the denomination at which the games are offered. That limits the hourly rate that one can earn playing the machines. And second, they cap the number of points that they'll multiply. That limits the total amount of money one can earn.

Now, Station doesn't limit the number of points it will multiply, so I can see why it doesn't have the high-paying video poker above dollars. Station also gives all players 3x points, so NSUD is always a breakeven game.

But Boyd does limit the points -- usually 10,000 at Sam's Town, Gold Coast and Orleans; 25,000 at Suncoast. I don't see why it had to downgrade the paytables at $2 and up at Sam's Town and Gold Coast.

Well, let me take that back in regards to Gold Coast. If you're an Emerald-level player, you automatically get 3x points. NSUD is breakeven, but if you use your points for food comps, which get a 40% discount on the price, you have a positive game.

I played the bartop machine at Sam's Town for dollars after $2 and $5 were removed. When the bartender asked me how I was, I said that I was disappointed that the $2 choice was gone. She said that she didn't know why it and the $5 choice were removed. &Quot;The machines used to be in constant use on multiple-points days. Now nobody plays them."


Send your slot and video poker questions to John Robison, Slot Expert™, at slotexpert@slotexpert.com. Because of the volume of mail I receive, I regret that I can't reply to every question.

Copyright © John Robison. Slot Expert and Ask the Slot Expert are trademarks of John Robison.

 

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John Robison
John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots
John Robison
John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots