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1997 Expo's Latest Twists on Video Poker

16 November 1997

At the 1997 World Gaming Congress Expo in Las Vegas, more new slots and table games were presented than the average attendee could check out without attending all three days. It was a great show and promises to be the forerunner of even better Expos, judging by the record number of companies participating.

But in a way, the Expo reminded me of the Tale of Aladdin. In an attempt to get him to give up his magic lantern, he is offered a new lamp in exchange for an old, an offer one can hardly ever refuse. As a Video Poker devotee, I paid particular attention to the offering of what were touted as new machines. Almost without exception, these promoted what has been termed bonusing techniques, or alternatively, the game within a game. This trend was to be expected, in view of the success of the Wheel of Fortune and Wheel of Gold reel slots.

Of course, like most other new ideas, these are hardly new at all. The only thing new about them is the introduction of gimmicks which can reduce the games to absurdity.

The bonusing Video Pokers have their origin in the IGT game called Sneaky Queens which debuted at the Rio some 5 years ago and still are found there. Whenever a winning hand contained a Queen which winked at you, the payout on that hand was doubled. Since the basic game, an 8-5 Bonus, offered a 99.1% return, the winking Queen was truly a bonus, raising the payback to some unknown degree. Players never really knew how often the Queen showed up, but since it was just icing on the cake, they really were getting a good deal, no matter how rare her visits were.

The Rio went on later to introduce Double Play which gave a bonus as a result of a game within a game involving matching suits of two extra cards whenever a winning hand came up. This game offered a low VP payback table, but with some luck in the after-game, the overall return was predictably decent.

Flush Attack and the Bingo Card by Sigma Game were also early versions of predictable bonus games, which have remained popular. Flush Attack was originally in a shared link carousel version which played a conventional Double Double Bonus variant until a number of Flushes were hit, causing the payout on a Flush to jump to 25 for 1 for the next Flush. The Bingo Card rewarded players who completed a line on a bingo card where each box was a different type of winning hand.

Note that in each of these cases, the bonus was implemented with cards right on the video screen. Nevada gaming rules leave no room for deception in a card game because we all know what is in a deck of cards. Consequently, the overall payback was known since the frequency and statistical payouts of winning hands was predictable. Even more to the point, the strategy for the game was completely unaffected by the after-game. But changes were coming.

About a year ago, CDS produced the first of what has become their Reel Deal games. This was a variant of a Double Bonus Poker game. It did not assign specific payouts to 4 of a Kind winners, but caused a 3-reel video slot to decide what the payout would be, with the multiplier being based on the mix of red and blue 7's and wild cards. Three wild cards multiplied up to 800 (5-coins in) and lesser awards were made down to a minimum of 250. The player was even deluded into thinking that he could control the reels by pushing the STOP buttons. This was a radical departure from earlier bonus games. The payback on such a machine is not predictable unless one knows the distribution of winners on the slot multiplier. However, the expert strategy was predictable. Furthermore, based on my discussions with CDS and my own experience in playing, I believe the reel slot game distributed the payouts such that they conformed to the actual distribution of Aces, 2-3-4, and 5-Kings in Double Double Bonus. If so, the player was simply being offered more amusement for his money.

The Reel Deal series has been increased to include the reel slot bonus for all winners of 3 of a Kind or better. Of course, the pay table is slashed, with trips paying only 2. Not only is the overall payback unknown, but even the strategy for optimum play becomes obscure without some knowledge of the slot game stats.

So, the only thing new about the Expo 97 crop is the introduction of some gimmicks for bonusing which threaten to reduce Video Poker to absurdity. A spinning wheel of light or a set of flashing numbers or a number tunnel is not predictable since it can be controlled by a microprocessor which causes the outcome to depart from what players might expect.

Unlike the Video Poker game itself, such a bonus will not necessarily give you a game wherein what you see is what you get. You might see numbers from 1 to 5 and assume the average award multiplier is 2.5, but the true average could be far less. It might not even be selected at random, the way the cards in the Video Poker have to be. The bonus multiplier could easily be preprogrammed to rarely give big payouts for big winners.

Thus, the new gimmicks for bonusing can easily reduce the payback both directly and indirectly, by making the strategy obscure. In Video Poker, such decisions as whether to hold one pair or two, or when to hold a pair or flush depend on the Expected Value of a hand played one way or the other. When the Expected Value is controlled by an unknown equation in an unknown microprocessor, we are as vulnerable as the reel-slot players who know nothing.

Today, video poker players possess a magic lantern, namely high payback machines for which the strategy and the payback is totally predictable. They owe this treasure, in part, to the reel-slot players and also to those who diddle frivolously with Video Poker. Both provide the casinos with enough of a return so that they can offer these great machines to Video Poker fanatics.

Conventional wisdom should tell Video poker aficionados to stay with their current treasure, conventional Video Pokers, and avoid the gimmicks, at least until the picture is clearer about how these new games are regulated to perform. If these games hit the casinos in their present format, there will be a period of careful observation by the industry to determine whether they beguile enough VP players away from their old lamps. If so, the old games will soon disappear and VP as we know it today will become a museum item.

The future of Video Poker is again in the hands of the players.

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