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Deal Me In: Should I go for the sure thing or go for the gusto?

19 September 2008

Dear Mark: Our local newspaper has been carrying your column for years and I must say, the education you dole out every week is a welcome relief to losing money every time I go in the casino. Count me in the "make only bets that have less than a 2% casino advantage" club that you always espouse. Anyway, my husband and I have argued this VP hand for years. I'm dealt a flush, but four of the cards could be used for a royal. For example, you are dealt a six of spades, along with a 10, J, Q and Ace also of spades. I believe you should discard the six and go for the royal. My husband believes you should keep a sure thing. We bet dishes for a week on your answer. Donna D.

Before hubby lays his eyes on this column, up the bet to both cook and clean, then slide this under a magnet on the refrigerator door.

With Jacks-or-better video poker, basic strategy dictates that you discard the six of spades from your dealt flush in order to hold a 4-card royal flush

Your husband may think the sure thing is the happier hope -- and it certainly seems that way, given that you have only a 1 in 47 chance for hitting the royal flush -- but mathematically you're better off taking a shot at the royal. Here's why.

Any time you play video poker, you must either hold or discard certain cards to optimize the "expected value" (win potential) of your hand.

And what is "expected value?" It is the average value of all the wins attainable (after the discards are replaced), assuming that the optimum cards are retained and each unique possible draw occurs. In your example, the expected Value of a four-card royal is 19 and of a naturally dealt flush is just a 5.

Any time, Donna, that the math says you're better off playing a certain hand a certain way, believe it. You'll win more money in the long run making that play.

Dear Mark: In slots, I was told that payback and hit frequency are one in the same. Is that true? Jack R.

Vastly different by definition, Jack. Payback is the amount of money the machine pays back to its players over the long haul. Hit frequency is the percentage of spins that return something to the player. It doesn't matter, Jack, whether the hit is 3 coins or 3,000, a hit is a hit.

Dear Mark: On a Jacks or Better video poker slot machine, is it better to hold, let's say, a pair of 8s and hope for a third eight, or hold a face card and hope for a pair? Kathy S.

Even though a lone face card has some value and the potential of winning money, basic strategy suggests that you hold the pair of 8s. The frequency of hitting two pair, three-of-a-kind, full houses or four-of-a-kind when you hold the low pair more than makes up for chasing that elusive royal, or even a high pair.

Dear Mark: Every time I double down with 11 against a face card it seems the dealer has a 20. I've been burned so many times that you are going to have to convince me why I should ever do it again. Steve P.

Hopefully, simple arithmetic will convince you, Steve. When you double with an 11 against a 10 you will win the hand six times for every five times you lose.

Gambling Wisdom of the week: "You can gamble for match sticks, you can gamble for gold. The stakes may be heavy or small, but if you haven't gambled for love and lost, you haven't gambled at all." --Frankie Laine, Moonlight Gambler (song)

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Mark Pilarski

As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.
Mark Pilarski
As a recognized authority on casino gambling, Mark Pilarski survived 18 years in the casino trenches, working for seven different casinos. Mark now writes a nationally syndicated gambling column, is a university lecturer, author, reviewer and contributing editor for numerous gaming periodicals, and is the creator of the best-selling, award-winning audiocassette series on casino gambling, Hooked on Winning.