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Ask the Slot Expert: Are video poker machines programmed to deal partial royals instead of some other losing hand?

11 March 2020

Question: How do you explain drawing three or four cards to a Royal Flush seven to ten times in a few hour visit, sometimes three times on one machine, and not hit that Royal? Is the machine programmed to show you those cards instead of some other losing hand just to entice the player to continue the game? I understand this is an RNG, but this situation seems to be more prevalent than I have ever seen before.

Answer: I can explain it, but I'm pretty sure you're not going to like the explanation.

Let me start with my own experiences. For the past two or so months, I've been getting many natural four-of-a-kinds playing NSU Deuces Wild. I find that very frustrating because a natural four-of-a-kind pays the same as a wild four-of-a-kind and it seemed like I rarely got that many four-of-a-kinds playing the same number of hands on 9/6 Jacks or Bonus Poker.

One of my nearby casinos recently installed a bank of video poker machines called Power Quads. If you get a quad in each of the 13 ranks, you win a bonus of 1000 credits. You have to create an account and log in to it each time you play to have your quads tracked. The paytables are not so great (7/5 Bonus Poker, for example), but the bonus helps the payback a bit and you could play the same paytables without the bonus at other machines in the casino. Of course, you could also play these machines without logging in to an account and enjoy the same lousy payback -- and I've seen a few people do exactly that.

I've been playing these machines a bit on multiple points days to see how long it takes to complete my collection of quads.

The same casino ran a promotion in which you received a scratch card for each four-of-a-kind. It's not multiple points, but it is a promotion to get a little extra from playing the machines. Quads would do double duty -- new quads add to my collection and each quad gets me two scratchers because I was playing dollars. You had to turn on your service light to get the cards from the slot floorpeople.

The promotion ran on two consecutive nights. The first night was a disaster for me. I started with the Deuces Wild paytable on the machine to see if my natural quad streak would continue. It didn't, so I switched to the Bonus Poker paytable to get a higher hit frequency and try to stem my losses.

The evening ended with a $900 loss ($1300 if you include the $400 in points I redeemed), 2084 hands played and ZERO quads. According to the probabilities on the Wizard of Odds' page on Bonus Poker, you should get quads about once every 400 hands. Using the Poisson Distribution, the probability of going five cycles without an event happening is 0.003 (three times out of 1000).

The second night started poorly with all four cards of one rank refusing to appear in a hand. A little while after I started playing, a man sat down to play a machine at the other end of the bank. No more than two or three minutes later I heard the machine counting out a large number of credits. He turned on his service light. I've been playing for hours over two nights and he gets a quad right away. Ugh.

Well, I finally got a quad. And then he got another one. And then I got another one. And then he got another one and while he was getting his card from the floorperson, I hit another quad. And then I got another one and still another one. I hit a total of five quads. I played only 1880 hands that evening, so five quads is just a little higher than the expected number of quads. In any case, I was really happy.

I won a total of $27 on the scratchers. Not so great, but wait. There's more.

After you redeemed the scratch cards at the cage, they were put into a drawing drum. Five lucky cards would be drawn from the drum to win cash prizes and you could win more than once.

When I turned in my stack of cards at the cage, the cashier said she had never seen someone with so many cards before. It took her a few minutes to write my players card number and whatever else she had to write on the back of each card. Then she had to go to the back of the cage to make copies of the cards. She said that she would be gone for a while because I had so many cards. When she came back, she gave me my $27 and put my cards in the drawing drum.

There were no names on the cards, so they announced the card numbers of the winners. The announcer read the card number of the first winner and I felt like the participant in an act in which a mentalist knows the serial number of bill you're holding in your hand. The first number matched mine, and the second and the third.... Yep, that sounds like my number. I got out my drivers license and started working my way through the people waiting in the area. I didn't pay much attention to the rest of the announcement, but I thought that it seemed like he called only four numbers.

I handed my card and license to one of the suits who was helping out with the promotion and he said, "I think you won twice."

Sure enough, I was drawn in the first position ($500) and the penultimate position ($200). That plus what I won from all those quads that evening more than wiped out the loss from the night before.

Because I won more than $600, I had to sign a tax form. I also signed a release so they could take my picture with one of the execs. After the picture was taken, he congratulated me again and started to move his hand to shake mine and then quickly put it back down again. I nodded to him and thanked him, understanding completely what was going on.

Two days later, a multiple points day, I was back at the Power Quads to try to add to my collection. On one hand I was dealt an inside straight flush needing just the 3 of clubs to complete it. I thought, Wouldn't it be nice to get that 3? I hit Deal and up popped the 3 of clubs.

A while later I held two cards to royal, didn't expect anything to come of the hand, hit Deal and -- Tada! Jackpot music.

While I was waiting for my handpay, one of the waitresses came by and asked my why I was playing at this machine. We had never spoken before, but she must have recognized me from the many hours I've spent playing NSU at the bank in front of the bar where she gets her drinks.

I told her about the bonus for completing a set of quads and said I had only four more ranks to go. She gave me a high five and wished me luck. Great. Now I needed another hit of hand sanitizer. (By the way, the only extra precautions I'm taking now are using an alcohol wipe to clean the buttons on the machines I play, washing my hands more frequently, and using a clean tissue to touch my face because the more I think about not touching my face, the more I have to touch it.

The next day was another multiple points day so I was back at the Power Quads. I was dealt another inside straight flush. I thought, Hey, it worked before. Let me try again. I said to myself, Wouldn't it be nice to get the -- whatever card I needed. I hit Deal and got nothing. Not even a straight.

A while later, I was dealt four cards to a royal. So many times a 4-card royal has turned into nothing. I didn't expect anything this time. I decided to close my eyes when I hit the deal button and let the sound of the machine tell me what I had won. I expected to hear silence, or maybe the sound of five credits ringing up.

I held the four cards, made sure my finger was on the Deal button, closed my eyes, opened them again to double-check I had held the right cards and I was over the right button, closed them again and hit Deal.

Jackpot music! I opened my eyes to see another royal flush on the screen.

Let's get back to your questions. A 4-card royal will end in a royal only 1 in 47 times, on the average. It's just as likely to get no royals in that cycle as it is to get one.

The 3-card royal, although exciting, isn't really worth that much. On the paytables I play that don't have wild cards, I hold a high pair over a 3-card royal. A 3-card royal results in a royal only once every 1081 times.

As you can see from the numbers, it's not unusual at all to not get a royal in the few times you were close to one. You could have gotten one, but it's not surprising that you didn't.

It was a bit surprising that I didn't get a single quad in over 2000 hands, but unlikely is not the same as impossible. It was more than a bit surprising to hit royals on back-to-back days, but I know people who have had multiple royals on one day playing single-hand machines. A multiple royal day or royals on consecutive days is unlikely, but not impossible.

In the early days of computer-controlled slot machines, Universal made machines that were programmed to sometimes show an exciting losing combination (like jackpot-jackpot-blank) instead of a humdrum loser when the result of the spin was a losing combination. This technique came to be known as a secondary decision. The secondary decision made it seem like the high-paying symbols were more likely to land on the payline than they actually were. Nevada's regulators outlawed the secondary decision. The regulations state that the result determined by the RNG must be displayed without any alteration.

If you're playing at an Indian casino that has Class II machines, which are really bingo drawings, or a casino with Video Lottery Terminals that are really like scratch-off tickets, then this doesn't apply.

But if you're playing on RNG-based machines, then the reason you are seeing 3- and 4-card royals and the reason you are not getting the royal is -- and here's the part you may not like -- randomness.

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