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Best of John Robison

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Ask the Slot Expert: Video poker volatility

23 March 2016

Question: You recently mentioned high versus low volatility in video poker. I wasn't familiar with that term related to video poker.

How do you determine which games are more or less volatile? And does the volatility vary depending on the odds?

Answer: Volatility measures how wide the swings in your bankroll tend to be while playing video poker or slots. A high volatility machine may require you to keep feeding the machine to keep you in the game between its fairly rare, large hits.

Playing video poker or slots is like riding a reverse roller coaster. On an amusement park roller coaster, you climb very slowly and then plunge down quickly. On a machine, however, you go down very slowly — the most you can lose at any one time is the amount of your bet — but you can climb up very quickly when you hit a winning combination. The values and likelihoods of the winning combinations determine the volatility of the game. Frequent, low-value hits give low volatility while rare, high-value hits give high volatility.

There's an easy way to tell the relative volatility of a video poker pay table: The more adjectives in the name, the more volatile the pay table.

Unlike a slot machine, on which the programmer can affect volatility by how the symbols are laid out on the reels, video poker pay tables can change volatility only by changing winning hands (e.g., minimum paying hand of jacks or better versus three-of-a-kind or better, adding kickers to quads) and altering how much is paid for certain hands (e.g., a push for two pair instead of 2). The higher volatility pay tables shortchange you on two pair — and maybe three-of-a-kind -- in order to pay more for quads and quads with kickers.

Jean Scott and Viktor Nacht provide volatility rankings of various video poker pay tables in The Frugal Video Poker Scouting Guide. My favorite pay table, 9/6 Jacks or Better, has the lowest volatility ranking. Playing dollars, I can usually play for a while on a $100 buy-in, but I had a real problem connecting with winning hands a few days ago. There were three machines in a row in the first area in which I played, so when my buy-in was gone on one, I moved to the next machine. I got so few hits on the middle machine, I wasn't even sitting in the chair long enough to warm it up before I had to move to the next machine. I finally started hitting some quads and full houses after my sixth time waving goodbye to Ben Franklin's portrait and finished with a small loss.

The best-paying game at my closest casino is Triple Double Bonus. Jean and Viktor give it the highest volatility ranking. You get only two coins for each trip you hit, but there are two ways to get the pay table's maximum payout — a royal flush and four aces with a 2, 3 or 4. I actually hit the alternate royal on my last buck and a quarter of $10 in free play last year. I held two aces, saw I got the other two and then was puzzled why the machine kept awarding credits. I finally realized I had a deuce along with the four aces and had won a grand.

There are two other reasons besides the high volatility of Triple Double Bonus why I play the next best pay table available, Bonus Poker. First, there are relatively few machines with the high-paying Triple Double Bonus pay table and, second, they're all upright machines. The ergonomics of the machines with the high-paying Bonus Poker pay tables is much better.

The casino also offers Double Double Bonus. The reasons I don't play Triple Double Bonus apply to Double Double Bonus too, with one additional reason. Bonus Poker has a higher long-term payback than the best Double Double Bonus pay table offered.

Moving on to multi-hand machines, if by posted odds you mean long-term payback, playing multiple hands has no effect on long-term payback. And, best of all, you don't have to make any strategy changes.

Playing multiple hands does affect volatility. If you compare betting the same amount on a multi-hand machine versus on a single-hand machine, the volatility would be lower on the multi-hand machine because you're spreading the risk over multiple hands. So, quad-play quarters would be less volatile than single-play dollars.

Now is a good time to expand on an answer I gave about whether the frequency of hands (e.g., one quad per 425 hands, on the average) applies when you play multi-hand video poker. Of course, the frequencies still apply. I just think it will tend to take longer to zero in on those averages. Playing 100 10-play hands is not the same as playing 1,000 single hands because the 1000 hands you 10-played are not independent.


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