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Ask the Slot Expert: In video poker, sometimes the first play you see isn't the best play

14 October 2020

Synergy Blue develops skill-based video machines. I spent a good deal of time playing its Mahjong game before COVID-19 shut down Red Rock.

The pod of four machines were there on a trial basis. They had stickers saying that you could not redeem free play on them -- a sure sign that there is something unusual about the financial arrangements with a machine. Plus, a Synergy Blue rep was frequently there to answer questions about the machines (Hi, Melana).

To be more correct, the game was Mahjong Solitaire. I haven't a clue how you play Mah Jongg. One of my cousins offered to run two Mah Jongg tables using her Mah Jongg sets at the family reunion we didn't have this past July. She warned that it wouldn't be much fun if you didn't already know how to play because it takes a long time to learn.

I got hooked on Mah Jong Solitaire about 15 years ago. A new cat was joining the household and she was in quarantine in the guest bedroom for a few days to give her a chance to adjust to her new home. I spent an hour or so with her each evening in her room, either playing video poker on Frugal Video Poker or Mah Jong Solitaire.

It was Christmastime, so I also had on the New York station that went commercial-free to play Christmas songs that year. Everyone was having a good time until I heard The Christmas Shoes song. What a downer! I learned to turn off the radio for a while when that song came on.

The Synergy Blue machines at Red Rock were right in front of the buffet. A good, high-traffic place to put them to ensure players see them, right?

Not so much. What do many people do near the buffet entrance? Wait for other people in their party to arrive. There was often one or two people sitting at one of the machines just waiting and not playing.

The machines had multiple games on them, but the Mah Jong Solitaire game was the one I kept coming back to play. The game is a bit like Concentration. The goal is to clear all of the tiles on the screen by selecting matching tiles. Select two matching tiles and they disappear.

You start with a number of tiles on the screen. The harder levels have more tiles. The tiles are arranged in a pattern on the screen, some tiles on top of others. You can select a tile only when it is exposed. A tile is exposed when either its left or right side is free and there is no tile covering it, even partially.

You can take as long as you want to select two tiles. After a few seconds, the machine will highlight two tiles that match, but its suggestion is not always the best play on the screen. If at any time there are no free matching tiles, the play on that pattern ends and you win a consolation prize based on the number of matches you made.

Each match is a bet that spins the three reels on the screen. If you land a winning combination on the reels, you win on that match. If you clear the board, you have the option to take a guarantee based on the number of matches or take your chances picking an urn. The number of urns increases with the difficulty of the level. The bonuses you could win are fixed for each level. The value of the guarantee is usually between the values of the two lowest-valued bonus amounts.

Like with the coin-picking bonus on 88 Fortunes and its ilk, you get the impression that your urn choice matters and you are equally likely to get each of the bonuses each time you get to the bonus round. But that is not the case. I cleared the screen many times on each level and I always won either the lowest or next-to-lowest bonus available.

I played the machines enough that the reps recognized me and welcomed me back. I was frequently the only one playing the machines, so they watched me play and discussed strategy with me.

Once when I was taking a particularly long time to make a match, Melana asked me why I didn't take the recommendation made by the machine. I said that I might use it eventually, but I wanted to see if I could find another match that would free more tiles. Sometimes the easy play, the play that you see right away, the play that is shouting out to you -- sometimes that play isn't the best play.

NSU has more instances in which the first play you see isn't the best play than other video poker paytables I've played.

Let's look at hands without deuces. If you have a 2-card royal with an ace, you don't hold the partial royal but draw five cards instead. Trying to decide between a 4-card inside straight and a 2-card royal king high? Hold the inside straight.

When you have one deuce, be careful when you have three of a kind. Even though it's a paying combination, you want to hold any 4-card straight flush over the three of a kind. When you have a straight and a 4-card straight flush, hold the partial straight flush when it is outside or inside, but hold the straight when the partial straight flush is double inside.

No real surprises in hands with two deuces, but pay attention when you have three. It is so tempting to hold a straight flush with three deuces, but the three deuces alone are worth more. It's frustrating to throw away your straight flush and get four of a kind in return, but the times that you get back a straight flush or improve to five of a kind, a wild royal, or four deuces more than makes up for it.

In video poker as in Mah Jong Solitaire, sometimes the first play you see isn't the best play.


Here are the latest figures from https://www.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases.

Totals Weekly Increases
US NV US NV
Date Cases  Deaths Cases Deaths Cases Deaths Cases Deaths
 10/13   7,787,548   214,446   86,439   1,711   351,270   4,886   3,910   48 
 10/06   7,436,278   209,560   82,529   1,663   306,965   4,962   3,232   36 
 09/29   7,129,313   204,598   79,297   1,627   303,616   5,136   3,058   54 
 09/22   6,825,697   199,462   76,239   1,573   288,070   5,370   2,196   82 
 09/15   6,537,627   194,092   72,043   1,491   250,265   5,404   1,825   65 
 09/08   6,287,362   188,688   72,218   1,426   282,919   5,638   2,734   92 
 09/01   6,004,443   183,050   69,484   1,334   251,790   5,291   3,237   104 
 08/25   5,752,653   177,759   66,247   1,230   330,411   7,889   4,076   125 
 08/18   5,422,242   169,870   62,171   1,105   358,071   7,463   4,973   114 
 08/11   5,064,171   162,407   57,198   991   365,353   7,203   5,776   117 
 08/04   4,698,818   155,204   51,422   874   418,683   7,532   7,367   109 
 07/28   4,280,135   147,672   44,055   764   460,996   7,042   7,130   91 
 07/21   3,819,139  140,630  36,195  674  463,682  5,395  8,181  57 
 07/14   3,355,457   135,235   28,744   617   422,861   5,102   5,607   57 
 07/07   2,932,596   130,133   23,137   560   351,367   3,394   5,006   24 
 06/30   2,581,229   126,739   18,131   536   278,941   6,406   4,367   26 
 06/23   2,302,288   120,333   13,764   510 

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