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Ask the Slot Expert: Are slot tournaments and casino drawings worth it?

31 May 2017

Question: Is it worth it playing in VIP slot tournaments and entering casino drawings?

Answer: If you win, it's definitely worth it. But many, many more people walk away with nothing than something. Don't be like a friend of mine who invariably says while walking away empty-handed, "Well, that was an enormous waste of time."

Consider the alternative. She could have stayed home and had zero chance of winning. By wasting her time, she at least had a chance at winning something. In a tournament, your chances are the number of places with prizes out of the number of participants. The tournament rules sheet may give the number of participants. If not, you can estimate the number by multiplying the number of machines times the number of sessions.

Your chances in drawings are almost impossible to estimate because you have no way to estimate the number of participants. And if you earn drawing entries through play, you'd have to know the total number of entries to calculate your chances. Regardless of your chances, you gotta be in it to win it — as the old New York State lottery ad said.

I participated in a tournament and two cash-prize drawings this past Memorial Day weekend. The tournament was first on Saturday. Although advertised as a video poker tournament, I'd have to call it a slot-poker tournament. The machines used were 10-Play Ultimate X Double Double Bonus. The first time the casino ran a similar tournament, the machines were in regular video poker mode. Players had to choose which cards to hold from each dealt hand.

This time, the machines were set to auto-hold. The machines automatically held the cards that gave you the best chance to win, according to the emcee. All players had to do was hit the Deal button as quickly as they could — just like a slot tournament. You had the option of overriding the machine's decisions, but the emcee recommended against it because the button mashers would get in a few more hands while you were changing the auto-held cards.

Players sometimes ask me which option gives them the best chance to win. I always reply that they have to be more specific. Consider playing 9/6 Jacks and being dealt a four-card royal and a high pair, e.g., A-K-Q-J of hearts and a jack of spades. The choice that gives the best chance of winning is holding the pair of jacks. It's already a winning hand. But the choice that has the highest expected value is the four-card royal. I assume that the machine held the combination of cards with the highest expected value, but I didn't pause after the deal to see which cards were auto-held.

I prefer video poker tournaments over slot tournaments. Playing in a slot tournament is mindless. Just keep hitting the Spin button as fast you can. I frequently watch my score and timer and calculate what my score will be if the machine keeps paying off at the same rate.

I can't do that in video poker tournaments because I'm too busy making quick decisions about which cards to hold. I occasionally check the timer, but that's just to ensure that I'm playing quickly enough to play all of the allotted hands before I run out of time.

The minimum score needed to break into the top 10 and have your score recorded was about 40,000 in my session. My score was over 75,000. The person who recorded my score said that was the highest score she had recorded.

I played in the third session of the day and there were about 500 players still to play. I think this was the first time they had used auto-hold mode, so they didn't really know what the final distribution of scores would be. I was already spending the \$25,000 first place money, though I tried to temper my expectations by reminding myself that much can happen in the remaining sessions and a number of players hitting royals could knock me down a few places. Nevertheless I should probably hang around until they posted the final results because you never know. Something might happen that would prevent me from coming back on Sunday to claim my prize.

I went back to the tournament area for the extra session drawing that took place after the last regular play session. In the last session, the threshold to get into the top 10 was 85,000. That meant that not only did I not place first, I didn't even make it into the top 10.

I didn't get called in the extra session drawing. But I did get to the tournament area right after they replenished the sliders, so I was able to grab a few for dinner.

On Sunday morning, tournament participants had a chance to win one of five \$2,000 cash prizes. We earned entries from Thursday on. I had a multiple points offer on Thursday, so I played some Spin Poker in the High Limit room to rack up entries. Even though the best pay table on Spin Poker still had a negative expectation with the multiple points, I hoped that the extra drawing entries I earned might be the difference between having my name drawn and not.

I was red hot on the first Spin Poker machine I played. Two times I was down to my last bet and then kept hitting until I was back over \$1,000. The roller coaster ride eventually ended and I switched to a Spin Poker Deluxe machine. To paraphrase Ross Perot, that giant sucking sound you heard was that machine vacuuming up my bankroll. Back to Not So Ugly Ducks, which at least is about break even.

I figured I had about a 1 in 100 chance based on the number of participants. But the number of participants is irrelevant. What counts are the number of tickets. One thing to keep in mind with VIP drawings — or any drawing, for that matter — is that you may be competing with players who play lower-paying, higher-denomination machines and earn many more entries than you do. I didn't win anything in the drawing, so I walked away empty-handed from the tournament except for a few sliders and a couple of unpalatable mini-corn dogs.

My next drawing was Sunday evening. Winning players picked numbered placards from a field of 30 in the order in which their names were drawn. Prizes ranged from \$250 to \$5,000. Players earned tickets into this drawing all during the month of May. There was also a tie-in kiosk game. Two times I won 50x drawing entries in the kiosk game. I thought this prize was pretty good and I changed my plans for those days to stay and play as much as I could. In the end I racked up over 100,000 entries.

After a while I thought that winning 50x drawing entries might not be as rare as I had thought. The other prizes in the kiosk game were dining credits, free slot play, extra points and bonus point multipliers. The only prize that is guaranteed to not cost the casino a dime are extra drawing entries.

My name was drawn fifth or sixth. I already knew I would take number 13. Having been born on the thirteenth, it's not an unlucky number for me.

The lady drawn two spots before me went to the board and pointed to a placard in the middle of the second row. Damn, I thought, it looks like she's pointing to 13. She did pick 13, for no reason at all she told the emcee. Number 13 had the \$5,000 top prize. That would have been mine had I been drawn sooner or had she chosen another number. I won \$750, which would have really pleased me had I not seen the \$5000 top prize in my first choice go to someone else.

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