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26 March 1999

Dear Mark,
Why is it that every time I'm dealt one card short of the royal flush, when I draw I never get the card I need? Just yesterday I was dealt all but the queen of spades, and sure enough, I got the lousy three of hearts. It makes me believe the casino controls who and when someone hits a jackpot. Why can't that queen of spades show up just once? Katherine R.

What do you expect, Katherine? The queen of spades represents Athena, the Greek goddess of war. Pull out a deck of cards and look at her closely. She's the only armed queen in the deck. Even Homer in the Illiad, described her as a fierce battle goddess who continually intervened on the side of the Greeks in the Trojan War. Expect her to arbitrate on behalf of the casino every time.

Seriously, Katherine, I could bore you to tears by trying to explain how the pseudo-random number generator determines the cards you will get, but instead, I'll simply describe the difficulties you're up against when fate blesses you with four of the five cards needed for a royal flush.

Because there are 2,598,960 possible poker hands using a 52-card deck, you're going to feel pretty good when your hand is one card shy of gaming ecstasy. But although the big jackpot appears to be only one card away, your chances are really only one in 47 or just over two percent. Another way to visualize its difficulty is taking a thousand video poker players lucky enough to start with your proposed hand. A ten of spades, jack of spades, king of spades, ace of spades and a three of hearts. Naturally, all in my controlled group will discard the three of hearts, leaving only 21 mathematically hitting the royal flush, then 150 flushes, 128 straights, 191 high pair hands and 510 who think, like you, the big fix is on.

Sorry, Katherine, it's just not as easy as it seems, but keep trying. Someday Athena may look favorably on you.

Oh, yes, a final thought. In case you want to know what the remaining better halves of the kings represent? The queen of diamonds is Rachel, wife of Jacob and mother of the twelve sons who founded the twelve tribes of Israel. The queen of clubs is an anagram of Regina, signifying queen. The queen of hearts is Judith of Bavaria, daughter-in-law of Charlemagne. And of course, we've already met Athena.

Dear Mark,
I would like to know a little about the four suits and their rank from highest to lowest. Does one suit on a video poker machine rank higher than another? Joe C.

Generally no, but occasionally a casino will have a promotion with designated video poker machines paying higher jackpots if certain straights, flushes or royals are in a particular suit. There are also a few video poker machines that pay a mega-jackpot if you hit a royal flush in a predetermined suit with cards in sequential order. (Example: 10 of Hearts, JH, QH, KH and Ace of Hearts.) And what are the possibilities of hitting a consecutive card royal in a prearranged suit? Let's just say, Joe, it's easier to hit your New York state lottery.

Now for some bar stool trivia. Though cards have existed since the earliest Asian civilizations, France had the greatest influence on the creation of the modern deck. They eliminated the major arcana and combined the knight and page, reduced the size of the deck to 52 cards and simplified the suit symbols to red diamonds and hearts, black spades and trefoils (clover leaves). They were produced in mass quantity after Johann Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1455, and the four suits reflect the structure of the medieval society. Hearts-priesthood; spades-nobility; clubs-peasantry; diamonds-the wealthy merchant class.

By the way, after Gutenberg printed the 1,284-page Gutenberg Bible on the printing press, the second impressions made were of playing cards.

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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.