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Best of John Robison

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Ask the Slot Expert: When to play video poker aggressively

29 March 2017

Question: I read with great interest your article about those who succumb to "Royal Flush Fever" and toss away a high pair, or other a winning hand, to go after the rare royal flush hit.

May I suggest that once you have hit one of these long shots, you are "infected" for life and it is hard to play sensibly from then on?

My infection happened in 2008. My hand as dealt was a high pair, two kings. If the three cards to the royal flush had been broken, I would have held the kings, but as the cards were in order, I rationalized, I had a better chance and went for it, totally ignoring the fact the royal run was closed on the ace end.

So, the royal hit and I never gave the fact I held the wrong cards a second thought, as you can imagine!

[A picture of a royal flush in clubs with the king, ace and queen held was attached. BTW, this hand occurred on a $10 machine, so this royal paid $40,000!]

And, I will admit I am infected. When I get three to the royal that are in order, (or, I admit, sometimes not!), I turn my strategy card to the wall and go for it.

I attached a second pic for your amusement. I had three to the royal on the hand before this one in clubs. I caught one more of the royal flush, a jack I think, and the remaining card as a ten of spades to complete my straight. Naturally, the black ten made me think for a split second that I had hit the royal. You know what I am talking about, I am sure.

So when this ace of hearts came up, I held the 10 for some strange reason. And the royal came in. Who knew?

[The second picture was a royal in hearts with the ace and ten held. This hand occurred on a $2 machine for an $8,000 jackpot.]

Whoever invented this game knew what they were doing!

Answer: Your letter gave me the perfect starting point for this week's topic. Last week I wrote about players who played too aggressively. This week I wanted to write about the times I see players not playing aggressively enough.

One disclaimer, first. Pay tables affect strategy. Your pictures didn't include the entire pay table, so I couldn't tell which pay tables you were playing. My analyses are correct for the pay tables I specify. Use a video poker hand analyzer to ensure that the recommendations hold for your pay table too.

You're correct that a three-card royal with a gap is worth less than a three-card royal without because it's more difficult to complete a consolation straight. But is a high pair still worth more?

The name of your first picture is Caesars LV July 2008. I used to go to Caesars quite often in the late 1990s. Back then high-paying video poker was plentiful on the strip. Caesars used to have quite a few 9/6 Jacks machines, many times right next to 8/5 Jacks machines. I was always amazed to see people playing an 8/5 machine when the machine next to it — literally — was 9/6.

From what I can see in the picture, it looks like you were playing a Bonus Poker pay table. I'll assume it was 8/5 and evaluate your options using that pay table.

I set up a test hand with the king, ace and queen of clubs (the cards you held), the king of diamonds (you said you were dealt a pair of kings), and the five of hearts to fill out the hand.

The expected return of the kings is 1.526. How about the three-card royal? Only 1.352. It's tempting to hold the partial royal, but the better play in the long run is too hold the kings.

What happens if we change the ace to a 10? That will open up more straight possibilities and make the three-card royal worth more. The three-card royal is now worth only 1.346. Oops. You know what happened? We picked up more straights but lost some high pairs because the partial royal now has only two high cards.

Let me try again by changing the royal to ace, king, and jack. The three-card royal is back to 1.352. As you pointed out, the ace is the problem. It's a straight inhibitor; it forces the straight to be 10 through ace.

Holding the kings is the better play in all these scenarios.

In your second picture, you held a two-card ace-10 royal. I've never played a pay table in which I would have held suited ace-10. In the pay tables without wild cards, I would always have held just the ace. I then have both ace-high and ace-low straight possibilities, plus there's an extra card to try to get other consolation hands.

You at least know that you're playing contrary to the mathematically correct strategy. We'll never know whether you would have won more with the high pairs, threes-of-a-kind, fours-of-a-kind and full houses you would have won had you held the high pair.

Consider people playing on hunches having the same results. There's no way I could convince them that they were making the wrong plays.

Many, many years ago, Bob Dancer wrote an article that said that experience is a very poor teacher in video poker. Hitting the royals reinforces the idea that those were the correct plays. It's impossible to look hundreds of thousands of hands in the future and see that you would have won more money in the long run by making the mathematically correct play.

Now, a few examples of when players should be more aggressive and give up a sure thing for the chance at a better hand. There aren't many such occasions in games without wild cards. In 9/6 Jacks, for example, you'd give up a high pair to hold four cards to a straight or royal flush, and you'd give up a straight or a flush in favor of a four-card royal. These situations don't happen frequently.

Make deuces wild and then we have to give up pat hands more frequently. Let's look at Not So Ugly Ducks (NSUD). Dealt a hand that includes a deuce with a pair and a three-card straight flush (outside, inside or double inside) in the other four cards, you forgo the three-of-a-kind (deuce and pair) and hold partial straight flush instead. Most of the time you end up with nothing, but you connect with the straight flush frequently enough to make going for it worthwhile.

That reminds me of something we learned in Decision Theory class. Sometimes good decisions lead to bad outcomes.

When you're dealt two deuces in NSUD, you always give up a straight or a flush and hold just the two deuces. At least with two deuces, you're always guaranteed of getting paid for a three-of-a-kind, at a minimum.

With three dealt deuces, you give up a straight flush in order to hold just the three deuces. You're guaranteed at least four-of-a-kind if you don't draw to something higher.

NSUD is a bit more volatile than other pay tables. It's not unusual to have long stretches when you don't hit many, if any, high-paying hands -- and even low-paying hands. I'm always amazed at how NSUD can take back the thousand credits you win for four deuces after a couple of hours. It's tempting to chicken out and hold pat hands when your credit meter is in free fall, but you'll be shortchanging yourself in the long run.

The only way to get the maximum long-term payback possible from a pay table is to hold the combination of cards with the highest expected value all of the time.


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