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Best of Skip Hughes

Gaming Guru

 

Skip Hughes Reviews Video Poker Software

26 June 1999

PC software reviewed:

These four programs fall into a category I call video poker trainer. They all simulate a real video poker machine and they all help you learn the best cards to hold. Three of them will also analyze a new game, while the other has a great many "pre-analyzed" games built in. I had the opportunity to test the latest versions of these programs and the following report compares them on these features:

Game simulation
This is simply the video poker game itself, as you might play it for fun and recreation. The most important part of this feature is the quality of the graphics and the degree to which the casino game is simulated.
Training
This feature includes the warning that you misplayed a hand, the display of the correct play and the corresponding expected values, the ability to track your error rate, and other training-related features.
Analysis
This includes the ability to analyze a new game to ascertain the occurrence ratio and/or percentage of all of the final hands (garbage though royal flush) and their percentage contribution to the overall expected return. The Analysis feature also includes the tools for creating a playing strategy to get the maximum return from a machine.

Game Simulation

SAGE - The graphics for the playing cards are good and very much like a standard deck. Other than that, the game presentation is a fair attempt at simulating the appearance of a casino game, but with somewhat unappealing colors - a blue background and a black and white pay table with the column corresponding to the number of coins bet highlighted in red. There are red buttons corresponding to the casino game keys. Sage deals all five cards simultaneously. The dealt cards have to be held using the Hold/Cancel buttons rather than clicking on the cards. This more closely simulates the casino game, but it's not as convenient as clicking on the card itself. In the casino, of course, there's no mouse and even when I play those machines with touch screens, I have found I can play faster with the keys. On a PC, however, I prefer to be able to click the card if I choose. There is no alert when the deal gives you a made hand and when you have a winner; the sound effects are a series of beeps. Sage has 18 built-in games. Unfortunately, there are a great many Joker Poker and Deuces Wild games (6 each) that you probably won't run into (and you should run if you do.)

MASQUE - This program is on a whole different level than either Sage or VPTUTOR and is clearly more detailed and extensive than even BDPW. The graphics include an opening scene where the player is looking at a bank of machines. When the game is played, you see the entire machine in front of you and maybe even the sides of the machines on either side (it looked a little different on my two monitors.) You can select among a variety of music to be played during the action. You can adjust the speed of the game (but I found even the fastest speed to be a little slow for me). All in all, this game is well ahead of the others in giving you the "casino feel". There is a selection of 60 games to choose from. However, about half of these offer less than 99% return and there are only 10 with a 100% return. Still, that's a lot of games and anyone should be able to find some to play that they like.

VPTUTOR - The graphics in this program are pretty basic. The cards are not fancy. The sound effects are also pretty basic, but there is a beep when you are dealt a made hand and a clicking sound as the cards are dealt (one at a time). You hold cards by clicking on them or by pressing the 1-5 keys on the keyboard. There is no graphic representation of the real video poker machine's Hold/Cancel keys. There has not been a serious attempt to reproduce the look of a casino machine here. On the other hand, the graphics are not ugly and the program is very easy to use. There are 4 basic games built in, the full pay versions of Jacks or Better, Deuces Wild, Joker Poker (king or better) and Deuces and Joker Wild.

BDPW - If not for the inclusion of the Masque product here, this program would have no competition in this area. Even so, this program has features found in no other. The cards, which have very large stylized symbols, remind me of those used by one of the manufacturers. They're very nice and even have a little animation. The appearance of the game is an excellent representation of a real casino video poker machine complete with familiar colors and excellent sound effects. The cards are dealt one at a time and the speed can be adjusted. As a matter of fact, the speed can be adjusted for every part of the game. The cards can be held by clicking either the Hold button or the card itself or by using the 1-5 keys. There are 15 built-in games including the basics plus Double Bonus, Double Jackpot Bonus, Double Double Jackpot, All American, and the increasingly popular Double Joker Poker. You have the option of playing with the double-up feature and there is a "four play" version that is called "Four-Ple Play".

Training

SAGE - If you make a mistake with the training feature on, a window pops up with the correct play and its associated EV. You can click a button on the popup window to see the EV for your own (mis)play. You cannot go directly to the analyze hand feature from this window. After exiting this popup, you can select "analyze hands" from the menu bar. More about this under the Analysis section.

MASQUE - As with the other products, this game will catch your mistakes and warn you. However, it does not show the difference in expected values at that time, but you can view your mistake and all previous mistakes by selecting the "View Mistakes" option from the View Menu. This feature is really cool! I have always recommended keeping notes while training, but with this feature the info is saved for you.

You can analyze hands from the hand analyze feature (similar to VPTUTOR's in that it shows a deck laid out to pick your cards from but better, because like Sage, it allows you to keep the previous hand analyzed and change just one card). The really interesting thing is that after you've selected the hand and pressed the analyze button, it shows you a strategy table with the potential holds highlighted. This is also kind of cool. That brings me to another feature of the Masque software. It includes strategy tables for all 60 games! This is quite a feature. Unfortunately, the strategy and the expected return shown for the games does not seem to be based on "perfect" strategy but upon some other method. That is, the numbers shown here are often at variance with the numbers generated by the other software reviewed. I believe this is because the strategy (and the resulting game expected return?) is based on a simplified approach that does not take into account the effect of certain discards (penalty cards). However, for those who do not aspire to perfection or to professional level play, I think these tables are probably fairly close for an "intermediate strategy". Certainly for the games that yield a high expectation, you will still be at or above 100%.

Masque, like VPTUTOR, has a practice mode that just deals you the first five cards (no draw). This is a great way to practice. This software has both audio and video built in (it comes only on CD-ROM.) The audio is a little introduction to each game that can be played. The video is actually video poker "lessons" which I have to admit I did not have the time to sit through.

VPTUTOR - With the tutor on, play stops when you try to draw incorrectly. The EV for your draw is shown as well as the EV for the best play (the holds for the best play are shown beneath the cards). Having both your play and the best play on screen at the same time makes it easy to see your mistake. If the "analyze hand" feature is selected from the menu at this point, a table is displayed based on the current hand. The table shows each possible combination of hold cards in decreasing EV order. The columns show the number of possible outcomes (for instance, with a 2 card draw there are 1081 possible outcomes) and the total number of each kind of hand that will occur (from garbage to royal flush). VPTUTOR has a laudable training feature that others would do well to emulate (it should be a very simple feature to implement). You can set the program to only deal the five cards and analyze your draw, without ever drawing the cards (since, if you're training, the outcome of the draw is irrelevant). This allow you to practice many more hands per hour than with the draw included.

BDPW - You can select several training modes with BDPW. One of them actually holds the correct cards for you. Another two warn you if you make a mistake and show the difference in EVs. One of them allows you to change the play, but the other does not. Still another mode shows you the EV for every play whether you make a mistake or not (and doesn't warn you if you do). In each of these, if you select "details", you will be shown a table of all possible draws with the associated EV for each, similar to the table used in VPTUTOR. There is a 'no draw mode' similar to that discussed under VPTUTOR. Finally, there is a mode with no warnings or messages at all, but the accuracy statistics are kept and you can review them whenever you wish by analyzing 'current session' or 'overall play'.

Analysis

SAGE
Game Analysis: Sage will analyze any game that you can set up by changing the payoffs. This does not include the ability to consider kickers or bonuses for special kinds of hands other than quads. This is also true of VPTUTOR and BDPW (although with an exception). Since many of the games appearing currently have payoffs for special types of trips, flushes and full houses, this would be a useful addition to all three programs. Sage took 75 minutes to analyze 10/7/5 Double Bonus on a Pentium 166 with 96 Mb Ram.

Strategy building: Sage was once the only commercial software available that I knew of that would generate a written strategy*. At this point, it will not generate a strategy for wild card games, but the authors plan to include that in the future. What really surprised me was that they have attempted to present a rule-based strategy in English, rather than a table of card holdings with EVs. It would certainly seem like the latter would be easier to do, since determining an EV for the best possible way to play any hand would seem to be part of the logic required to analyze a game in the first place. I'm not sure how they did this rule-based strategy, but it seems to be fairly accurate (although not very easy to read). Regardless, this seems to be a real breakthrough for a program at this price level.

Aside from the automatic strategy generation, Sage is pretty handy for building a strategy the hard way, that is, using the hand analysis feature to compare the values of various holdings. Sage presents a hand (always starting with a spade royal flush) that can be manipulated one card at a time without resetting the rest of the cards. The EV for the best way to play the hand is constantly shown and changes as you change the individual cards. This feature makes it a simple task to compare EVs of various holdings, especially when dealing with the intricacies of, for instance, 3-card straight flushes of various types and with various penalty cards.

MASQUE
Game Analysis: There are 60 games that are "pre-analyzed". You cannot create a new game and analyze it with this software.

Strategy building: With Masque this is a moot point since the strategies are already built and are the basis for the hand analysis feature. When a hand analysis is requested, you are shown the strategy table with the possible draws highlighted.

VPTUTOR
Game Analysis: VPTUTOR has been the leader in this area for as long as it has been around. A great many video poker analysts and writers have used VPTUTOR because it was the fastest program available to analyze a game for its overall ER. VPTUTOR analyzed the 10/7 Double Bonus game in just under 11 minutes. The end product of the analysis is a table showing the percentage and odds of each final hand and the total ER for the game. There is a separate table for bonus quads.

Strategy Building: VPTUTOR, like BDPW, presents a full deck of cards laid out in suits when doing hand analysis. You click on the cards you wish to select. You change your mind by clicking the card again to deselect it, but once you have selected 5 cards, the analysis is done and a table, as described in the trainer section, appears. This table is handy and is very useful in helping to understand how penalty cards affect a hand. The chief drawback is that, unlike the Sage methodology, you have to rebuild the hand from scratch every time.

BDPW
Game Analysis: BDPW analyzed the 10/7 Double Bonus in 2 minutes, easily beating the others by a wide margin. The output from the analysis is similar to that of VPTUTOR. BDPW is the only one of these that has the ability to analyze games that use a kicker for the bonus quads (Double Jackpot Bonus, Double Double Bonus, etc). The analysis for some of these games is built in, but you can now analyze many more variations of games than with any of the other programs available.

Strategy Building: The hand analysis feature is very similar to that of VPTUTOR, with both its strength (the table - though I prefer VPTUTOR's layout a little better) and its weakness (the inability to create new hands by modifying the last one analyzed).

Comments and recommendations

Each of these four programs have their strengths and weaknesses. Some of those strengths and weaknesses may be important to you, some may not. Those of you who are primarily concerned with building strategies will probably find that SAGE Video Poker is the best tool for that job. I plan to use it for that purpose in the future because the easy manipulation of hands shortens this tedious job. If, on the other hand, you plan to bring your laptop to Las Vegas so you can run up to your room (or out to your car) to analyze a new game, then Video Poker Tutor is no doubt the best choice for you.

If you want to use the program as a trainer, VPTUTOR is probably the best choice here also, but all three are outstanding in this regard. If you want to have fun playing the game and have it simulate the casino game you're used to, BDPW will have you looking around for a cocktail waitress and a change person.

However, none of these (not even BDPW) can compete with Masque for the things that will please the casual or recreational player, but it's not a program that is designed with the professional (or the aspiring professional) in mind. Its most obvious weaknesses are the inability to analyze new games, the less than perfect numbers generated for the expected return of the games included, and the less than perfect strategies generated. For everybody other than the current or aspiring pro, I think this game should be given serious consideration, if for no other reason than because it's just so much fun. Also, where else are you going to get strategy tables (even if slightly flawed) for 60 games for $39.95? The most frustrating thing about Masque is that it has so many great training features, yet it's handicapped by its failure to use a computer perfect strategy.

For the serious player who aspires to play the best possible strategy and reap the highest possible return, VPTUTOR is still number one, although Sage may be even more valuable for designing your own strategies. After all, you can start an analysis of a game and go off and do something else, so the extra time to analyze is not a big problem. Once the game is analyzed, Sage will save you time analyzing hands. For the more casual player, I recommend Masque highly. BDPW performs all of the functions reviewed here pretty well, and it is the only program that has a multiple-hand mode.

Frankly, I'm glad to have all of them and I will use them all. Which one you should buy, should be easier for you to answer now.

SOFTWARE
GAME PLAYING
TRAINING
GAME ANALYSIS
STRATEGY BUILDING
OVERALL RATING
SAGE VIDEO POKER
***
****
**
*****
***
VIDEO POKER TUTOR
**
*****
****
***
****
BDPW
*****
*****
*****
***
*****
V. P. STRATEGY PRO (MASQUE)
*****
****1/2
**
**
****

* When I first wrote this review, there was no software available that would create a thorough strategy for any game, although Masque had strategies built in and Sage would generate a rule-based strategy for some games. Now, the new program Video Poker Strategy Master by TomSki has broken new ground and will generate a strategy for almost any game you can think of. This is truly a breakthrough program. Find out more about it here.

Skip Hughes Reviews Video Poker Software is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
Skip Hughes
Skip Hughes is the pen name of a professional computer consultant, writer and expert video poker player. Skip's writings are oriented toward the recreational rather than professional, player.

Skip Hughes Websites:

vid-poker.com
Skip Hughes
Skip Hughes is the pen name of a professional computer consultant, writer and expert video poker player. Skip's writings are oriented toward the recreational rather than professional, player.

Skip Hughes Websites:

vid-poker.com