Bob Dancer on Progressives

I generally enjoy listening to opinions from “Bob Dancer”. He is one of the most knowledgeable video poker players and also the most outspoken. He is also pretty “full of himself”.

Bob Dancer publishes a regular blog at the LVA.  This post is in response to his recent post on video poker progressives.

There are many ways to play video poker. When deciding how I will play, I first consider my individual circumstances. I believe each player should identify their own goals, risk tolerance, ability, and time constraints, and then use these factors to arrive at a strategy that meets their individual needs.

Bob Dancer seems overly concerned about playing the “correct” strategy for each game. I think its part of his personality to be very exact and particular. He says he doesn’t play progressives because he is unwilling to master the different strategies required for the various meter levels. I think he overestimates the need to change strategies based on the royal level. Yes, the mathematically optimal strategy changes dynamically with each increment rise in the meter; but not enough to warrant much investment of time to learn when to make adjustments. There are more practical ways to get around this problem, such as charting cut-off points and estimating an error rate with a degree of certainty in the same manner as a bankroll requirement is calculated.

Its also practical to play progressives with a static strategy. Playing progressives with a static strategy involves sacrificing some of the mathematical advantage in exchange for saving time and reducing complexity. Players can calculate this “leak”using excel. I even take it a step further with my own progressive play by applying a static Jacks of Better strategy to other games such as Bonus Poker and Double Bonus. If the progressive is high enough, the advantage gained from the high progressive will compensate for mathematical leak due to a static strategy. This type of leak can also be calculated using excel. I’m often surprised at how small the static strategy leak is. Also, by applying a static strategy to progressives with a variety of base games, I am able to add more games to my universe of playable games. Its important to run the numbers before making any assumptions because applying a Jacks or Better base game strategy to Bonus Poker and Double Bonus is possible, but not to different game variant such as Deuces Wild.

Bob Dancer also says he doesn’t play progressives because he doesn’t want to spend time scouting or be a part of a team that scouts. I have found that a profitable progressive strategy does not depend on scouting ALL the possible games. It makes more practical sense to scout specific games more frequently. The scouting routes that I use for my own play can be completed in a few hours, and I always have a profitable game to play.

Bob Dancer says that he doesn’t play progressives because it would require him to play until the royal is hit. He says he can’t make these time commitments. I think this is a common misconception of playing video poker progressives. Sometimes when I’m scouting, I’ll find a meter that is exceptionally high. I consider myself lucky to have found the progressive at this stage, since all the previous players have fed the meter for me. I calculate my advantage at the moment I make each bet. So whether I hit a specific royal flush or not, is not my concern. I only care about the odds I receive for each bet I make. Whether I play a progressive video poker game or spend any other amount of my resources will depend on my individual objectives.

Major Video Poker Error

Tonight, I made a major error while practising video poker.  In 9/6 Jacks or Better, I held a low pair instead of four cards to a flush.  this error would have cost me $46 per hour in expected value. It was a silly error, maybe because I was playing too fast.  One way I can reduce the chances of this error happening is before drawing to a held low pair, take one last glance for flushes since the only starting hands in 9/6 Jacks or Better that are higher than a low pair are straights with four high cards, flushes, and three cards to a royal flush.

Video Poker Strategy and Penalty Cards

Trying to master a video poker game when your goal is to play with 100% accuracy becomes very difficult.  Even for the simplest video poker game, Jacks or Better, players should to build a strategy card and practice many hours to work out kinks in their game before attempting to beat the casino for real money.  One area that I’ve overlooked for a long time is penalty cards.  These are cards that if thrown away will impact the likelihood of other paying hands on the draw. The difference is small, most of the time it turns out to be about a nickel per hand for dollar players. But if you’re trying to play with 100% accuracy, penalty cards matter.

An example of a penalty card situation would be if you are dealt: Ac Qd Td 3s 5d.  My strategy card says the higher value hold is Qd Td, and most of the time it is. But because holding these two cards would result in throwing away the 5d, it would reduce my chances of making a flush, and it makes the 5d a penalty card.  The correct play in this case is to hold the Ac Qd. Even though they are off-suited high cards, some of the value of Qd Td comes from the chance to make a flush. In this case, holding the two high cards, has an expected value of 0.474314 according to the Wizard of Odds video poker hand analyzer.   Holding the Qd Td has an expected value of 0.469812.  For a dollar player, this translates into the correct play having an expected value of $2.3715 (0.474314 * $5) and the incorrect play having an expected value of $2.3491 (0.469812 * $5) for a difference of 2.24 cents. Without the diamond, the better play is to dump the Ac and hold Qd Td.


Video Poker Strategy Cards

Gaining an edge at video poker is more difficult than most players first suspect.  Players can gain an edge at video poker by practising and by using a strategy card to reduce errors. Its safe to assume that most gamblers don’t realize how video poker is beatable. Most gamblers lump video poker in with other slot machines, and I bet most video poker players themselves don’t realize how to beat video poker either.

Whenever I play video poker, I make sure to bring my laminated strategy card with me.  I place my laminated strategy card right in front of me on the machine’s lap the whole time I’m playing; just in case there is a hand that I’m unsure of how to play.  There is no prohibition against bringing a non-mechanical aide to a casino game in Nevada (or most other North American jurisdictions). And I’ve never had a problem from any casino regarding my laminated strategy card.  Sometimes, when I’m at a bar-top game, the bartender will ask me about my laminated card.  I usually smile and explain that its a strategy card that helps me play each hand correctly.  I tell the bartender that when I don’t know how to play a hand, I look it up the correct play on the strategy card.  I usually show the bartender the strategy card with the hand codes listed (I made my strategy card using excel and I use colour codes for different types of hands).  After this explanation, the bartender inevitably rolls his/her eyes and smiles back at me; they assume I’m a crackpot similar to someone who claims to have a roulette system. Great!  The casino does not care or understand my video poker advantage play.

The vast majority of casino staff is clueless when it comes to video poker advantage play; and its not against any casino rules to use a strategy card while you play, so I suggest every video poker player should have a strategy card with them each time they play.  You’re only putting yourself at a disadvantage by not having a strategy card with you at all times.  Some players that claim to know the strategies cold, but I don’t believe them.  I suspect a very small fraction of video poker players can play perfectly.  Even Bob Dancer practices regularly, because he knows how easy it is to make errors, and how costly those errors are.  If you’re not practising your video poker skills using training software, you don’t know how bad you really are.

Sometimes, other players ask me about my laminated strategy card.  Each time I’ve been asked about my laminated strategy card by another player, its from someone who doesn’t know what a video poker strategy card is.  There are a lot of seniors in a typical Nevada casino, and most of those players don’t use information technology the way younger players do. Frequently, after I explain to the inquiring player what a strategy card is and how to use it, they ask me where they can purchase one.  I explain that I made my strategy card on excel, but I let them know there are websites where strategy cards are sold.  I also let inquiring players know about websites where they can get video poker information.  More often then not, other players seem dumbfounded.  I think to myself, “well at least this person is building the meter”. Without foolish gamblers, most advantage plays would not exist.

Video poker is a game of luck AND skill. You can test your own skills to see how good or bad you really are.  There are lots of websites that offer video poker trainers.  There are also a few apps.  The apps have been very helpful to me since I can practice while on the subway or in transit.  A good video poker trainer will not only tell you when you make a error, it will tell you how much that error costs.


Video Poker Luck and Skill?

In December I attended a few video poker “classes” hosted by Bob Dancer at the South Point Hotel & Casino.  Although I focus on a couple video poker games in particular, I was interested in what Dancer might say about video poker in general, or other tips that he might have for serious video poker players.  Bob Dancer asked the class how much they thought video poker outcomes were based on luck and how much were based on skill?  Dancer hypothesized that in the short run, 80% of results were based on luck and 20% were based on skill, and the opposite is true in the long run.

I can understand why Bob Dancer would portray video poker results in this way.  As an author and video poker enthusiast, he has an interest in the overall growth and development of video poker.  Bob Dancer likes to present video poker in a relatively positive way.

But the question of whether video poker is based on skill or luck is an empirical one.  We could find data on the actual hold values of various video poker machines, and then compare these actual hold numbers to the theoretical returns and the difference can be attributed to skill. The luck part of the equation could also be found from casino results or could be assumed based on theoretical volatility.  My guess is casinos hold much more than the theoretical video poker game return would suggest.  Part of this can be attributed to player “error”, but also to bankroll management in the same way that Baccarat has a theoretical house edge of just over 1%, yet the casino’s average hold is well over 10%.

My Month on the Boulder Strip

The Boulder Strip gaming market is a division used by the Nevada Gaming Commission for a segment of the casino industry in Las Vegas Nevada. The region is named for the Boulder Highway which is the dominant highway in the region. It’s also a crazy place.

Boulder Strip “proper” is the area between Eastside Cannary and Boulder Station. Sam’s Town is in the middle of the Boulder Strip and is the area’s largest casino. There are a large number of extended stay motels scattered along the Boulder Strip.  The “Strip” area is represented by a large transient population. Its also a typically suburban neighbourhood which includes a Wal-Mart, McDonalds & Yum Brands (KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut).  There’s a Starbucks in Boulder Station and another one at the corner of Tropicana & Boulder just south of the Strip.

I stayed for a month at Arizona Charlie’s and my daily average room rate was $26.87 from I carried just over $9,000 in my backpack as I went about my day.  Each day I would encounter many beggars who were asking for change. The weekends are especially boisterous on the Boulder Strip as revealers fill the motel rooms. My plan was to complete training for the Las Vegas marathon by mid-month and then play promotions at Sam’s Town.

During the month of November, “B Connected” members, which is Boyd Gaming’s main players club, received $5 of freeplay for every 50 points earned on Thursday to Sunday at Sam’s Town.  This amounts to an extra 1% for video poker players.  This promotion alone put many video poker games at Sam’s Town over 100% including some higher denominations. On Friday and Sunday, video poker players also received 7X points.  This adds another 0.70% for video poker players.  The best game for me becomes “Progressive 9/6 Jacks or Better”.  This game at Sam’s Town is one of the best video poker games in the world. It has a the lowest variance and a high base game return. Due to the high volume of play, the progressive level almost always makes the base game return over 100%. I play with a $5,000 bankroll for quarters and a $20,000 bankroll for dollars. On quarters, this game yields 2.5 cents per hand. I play 400 hands per hour which pays $10 per hour which brings the overall bankroll yield to $160 per week at 16 hours per week or 160% annualized. Its a great rate of return, but its boring…

I encountered many prostitutes & pimps during my month on the Boulder Strip. Walking home one afternoon following dinner, I was asked if I would sell my leftover chicken. I saw a tattooed motor biker chase a guy on a pedal bike into a parking lot and disappear.  I watched a gun fight from 7-11 on the “corner” where a new batch of maniacs fight with each other every night.  I didn’t hit any royal flushes, but I did make friends with Kevin, who asks for change on the street, and who also receives $700 per month from the state of Nevada and is enrolled in Medicaid. It isn’t a lack of financial resources that keeps Kevin sleeping in shelters, his problem is he has no friends, poor relationships with his family, and a weak tolerance for temptation. Kevin relies on Jesus to help guide him and he hopes that one day he will be an entrepreneur.

Vegas Update Oct 31

Today, I played video poker at the Gold Coast. It was a bonus point day for B Connected members, which is Boyd Gaming’s main slot club. On this bonus point day, players receive 7x points on video poker. Since the slot club normally returns 0.10%, today, players receive 0.70%. Points can be used for cashback or freeplay.  But players can also use their points to purchase food at the casino/hotel.  Using points for food yields the player 0.167% on a normal day and 1.169% on this bonus point day. But if you’re spending your points on food, you have to consider the price of the food.  If you convert your points into food, you must get good value or else you would be better off taking cash and using the cash to purchase food somewhere else. The breakfast buffet at Gold Coast is $5.99, which is one of the best food choices available at Gold Coast as you can basically make it your meal for the day if you also take some fruit in your backpack.  But food is still cheaper at a grocery store.

So if the players club is yielding 0.70%, players must find a game that has a base rate of at least 99.30%.  They must also consider their ability to play the game accurately.  I think too many video poker players underestimate their error rate.  Players must practice regularly on a program to track their accuracy, if they don’t, they are very likely making errors they don’t even realize. I can only play Jacks or Better (9/6) and FPDW accurately.  I can play 400 hands on average in a row without making an error, but I still make errors sometimes.  Half of my errors come from a fat finger, and half my errors come from misreading a hand (usually a missed straight flush opportunity).  I factor in 0.10% error rate for my play just to be safe.

The Gold Coast offers some decent video poker, but they have downgraded a few of their multi-play games. I used to play their multi-play 9/6 Jacks or Better, they offered these on the Super Times Pay machines.  You could either use the multiplier function or just play the multi-hands. But Gold Coast still offers single line NSU Deuces Wild returning 99.73% played perfectly, and 9/6 Jacks returning 99.54% played perfectly.  I rate my 9/6 Jacks or Better play at 99.40%, so with the slot club, the return on this game today would be 100.10% with cashback and 100.569% for comped food. Players should also consider the bankroll required to play at a particular level.

I just play for fun, so I play at the single line quarter level, and I can play about 400 hands per hour, so my return per hour is about $2.85 in the long run. This will not make me rich, but it does give me a cheap shot at making a royal flush.  For the Video Poker nerds out there, I saw Jean Scott (The Queen of Comps) and her husband playing $2 NSU Deuces. At perfect play they are making 0.40% without factoring in mailers and drawings. At 500 hands per hour, they are making $20 per hour in the long run.  If they exchange their points for food, they are making $43 per hour.  They probably also get good mailers and win some drawings every once and a while.

Gold Coast also offers Multi-Strike 9/6 Jacks or better.  I had never played this game before, and I felt like playing a multi-line game, so I sat down a played a few hands. I quickly realized that the strategy for Multi-Strike is different because of the different multipliers for each level. Each level in fact has its own strategy.  This game returns 99.80% played perfectly, but a quick glance at the Wizard of Odds site, shows that perfect play requires some significant adjustments. It was a mistake to sit down at this game without much more preparation.  Because of the multiplier levels, Multi-Strike is also more volatile and it quickly ate up my budget for the day.  The lessons I learned today are: 1) stick to your core games and don’t venture out to any other game on the fly, 2) practice on the computer and learn to play accurately, 3) calculator your bankroll requirement and stick to your denomination.