The Days Of The Advantage Video Poker Player Are Going, Going…

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There was a time not too long ago when video poker was the Golden Goose for advantage gamblers. Games that could theoretically return over 100% at significant stakes were relatively commonplace, and paired with the right cashback opportunities, could see those willing to grind it out extract a notable edge over the house.

How notable? Beginning in the 1990s, computer systems enabled the savviest players to learn the right play in every situation, allowing them to max out their advantage, with possible edges exceeding 2% on select days. At 600 hands per hour and at just the $5 denomination, that would equate to a positive expectation of $300 per hour.

And compared to blackjack card counters, it was less common (although not impossible) for a video poker pro to be 86’d from the casino.

But unfortunately, the rise of sophisticated computer programs also allowed casinos to quickly figure out who was beating them and how. Since, the climate for advantage video poker players in gambling meccas such as Las Vegas and Atlantic City has become more and more inhospitable.

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At present, it is still possible to squeak out an advantage playing video poker, and to do so consistently at the lowest of stakes. But earning what most would consider to be a lucrative, or even decent, living may soon become an effort in futility.

At the hobbyist level, advantages still exist

For APs situated in Las Vegas, there is no shortage of advantage video poker plays. Games such as Full Pay Deuces Wild, that return 100.76% with optimal play, are commonplace at off strip casinos.

According to video poker tracking site vpfree2, there are two dozen Vegas casinos (and a few more in Reno) that offer games with theoretical returns of over 100%.

But, and this is a big but, nearly all of those games can only be played at the $0.25 denomination or lower. Of the ones that can be played for a $1, they offer razor thin edges of less than 0.2%

Furthermore:

  • Games that return over 100%+ are usually ineligible for promotions.
  • The cashback returns from slot clubs are either lower than they are for other games, or nonexistent.
  • The game speed is often fixed somewhere between normal and unbearably slow.
  • Many of the games are old upright machines, with buttons that stick.

An example of what a 100%+ machine might look like:

Again, these games that return over 100%+ can only be found in Nevada. Players outside the Silver State have to find their advantage via other means, most notably cashback, promotions, or progressives.

As for the expectation on these machines, a Full Pay Deuces Wild player grinding out the 10-coin $0.25 machine at Skyline Casino in Henderson can expect to make somewhere between $11 – $15 an hour.

Short-term advantages for the $1 denom player

At the $1 denomination ($5 per game) finding an advantage becomes significantly harder. Yes, there are games like 10/7/5 Double Bonus that are offered at $1 and return just over 100.17% — but at that slim of an edge and with no other incentives, players are better off playing FPDW for quarters.

So generally speaking, the $1 player must turn to games that return less than 100% and find an edge via other means.

There’s a few ways to achieve this:

  • Play enough to receive mailers that offer significant free play.
  • Play progressive machines only when the jackpot rises high enough to turn the game positive.
  • Find casinos that offer bounceback cash, which is money casinos will grant players on their next visit to the casino.
  • Only play when slot club multipliers are running. Typically multipliers alone won’t turn a game positive, but it can happen.
  • Clear bonuses found at NJ online casinos.
  • Negotiate with the casino, and expect them not to be overly amenable to the $1 player.

It’s hard work, and will require a lot of trial and error, but the combination of some or all of these factors can temporarily turn good games that return less than 100%, such as 9/6 Jacks or Better (99.54%) and Not-So-Ugly-Deuces (99.73%), into positive expectation plays.

Temporarily is the key word here, as players who receive X amount of free play will only be playing with an edge for so long. And these days, good promotions and positive expectation progressives are fewer and further between, and only last for either the duration of the promo or until the progressive hits.

At this level there is hardly such thing as a long-term +EV play, necessitating advantage players to pick their spots selectively, and to always be on the lookout.

During my time as an AP — something I still do as a hobby — I found numerous good (and short lived) plays. Normally, APs don’t fancy sharing their secrets, but for the sake of this article, I’ll reveal two ways that I’ve won at the $1 denom.

Bonus whoring at NJ online casinos

This one is really no big secret. Nearly all NJ online casinos offer first-deposit bonuses where the casino matches player deposits dollar-for-dollar. Some also give out match bonuses for their one-off or recurring promotions.

Sniffing out match bonuses that temporarily turn 99%+ return video poker games into positive expectation plays is as simple as reading and understanding the fine print — particularly the wagering, or playthrough, requirement.

Depending on the online casino, the video poker playthrough requirement on a match bonus might be anywhere from 1x (Play SugarHouse) to 100x (Resorts Casino). Obviously, lower numbers are better, but even a 100x requirement is theoretically low enough for 9/6 JoB players and 8/5 Bonus Poker players (99.17% RTP) to gain an edge.

However, I generally stick to bonuses where the playthrough is 20x the bonus amount or less, for a couple of reasons. One, it’s often not worth the hourly rate to run through a bonus with a  50x or 100x requirement. More importantly, I want my expectation to be positive even if I don’t hit a Royal Flush.

The elusive Royal Flush (1 in ~40,000 hands for most non-wild games) accounts for nearly 2% of the return for both JoB and Bonus Poker. Without it, players can expect to see a ~97.5% return for Jacks or Better and just a ~97.2% return for Bonus Poker. If the playthrough requirement is 50x, that works out to a 2% cashback rate, which isn’t enough to offset the non-Royal house edge.

At 20x, the cashback rate jumps to 5%. Now, playing at the $1, I will generally come out positive more than negative, with an average profit of 40 – 50% of the bonus amount. When I do hit the royal, the sky’s the limit.

This technique works, and it works well, but it’s imperative to note that once the bonus is cleared, the games can no longer be played profitably.

Freerolling royals at land-based casinos

This technique is slightly more complex, requiring some careful calculations and considerations, although certainly not outside the grasp of intermediate APs. I’ve utilized this method to great effect at several land-based casinos, but there was one venue (which shall remain unnamed) where it really shined.

At this particular venue, $1 and up VP players were treated to generous mailers, with the amount dependent upon their coin-in, denomination, and time locked in. Top-tier rewards card members also received monthly bounceback.

The slot club was worth 0.05% and the bounceback approximately 0.15%, which combined effectively increased the base return of the casino’s best game — 9/6 Jacks or Better — to 99.74%. Knowing about the lucrative mailers, I put in $400,000 coin-in during a calendar month — just enough to achieve top-tier status. My expected loss on this was $400k * 0.026 = $1,040.

That was enough coin-in to win $4k in free play for the following month via mailers. What I did from that point forward can be likened to a sort of low volatility maintenance mode:

  • First I subtracted the hardest to hit hands, namely the Royal and straight flushes, from the return. This brought the return down to 97.02%, or 97.17% with slot club plus bounceback.
  • Next, I calculated the break even point for this return based on the cash value of the free play I received. The free play was subject to a 1x turnover requirement, and the best eligible game was 8/6 JoB, so $4k in free play was worth roughly $3,936 ($4k * .9839%) in cash.
  • With that amount of free play, I determined that I could wager ~$139,100 per month ($3,936/(1 – 0.9717)), not hit a royal or straight flush, and still break even, on balance.

Because I was still putting in significant coin-in each month and playing at a slower pace than usual, the free play from mailers remained approximately the same, meaning the process could be repeated month after month. And at 27,820 hands per month ($139,100/$5), my volume was high enough that I ran close to my 97.17% expectation during the months I didn’t hit a royal or straight flush — meaning that when I did hit one of those two elusive hands, it was pure and beautiful profit.

At 333,840 hands per year (27,820 * 12), I was expected to hit roughly 8.26 royals and 36.5 straight flushes. At the $1 denom that works out to $42,165. Subtract the initial loss of $1,040 and my expected profit for the year was $41,025.

This is not accounting for when the casino ran 10x, 15x, or 25x multipliers for its top-tier members, elevating the expected profit even higher.

Of course I wasn’t able to take advantage of every free play opportunity, as the money could only be redeemed in weekly chunks and not all at once. Still, I was generating profits in excess of $20k for two years running, before the casino slashed the value of the mailers by roughly 75%.

Shortly thereafter, the $1 JoB games were downgraded to 8/6 and 8/5 paytables. Game over.

Can high-stakes players still play with an edge?

Recently, I sparked a Twitter debate when I made a bold assertion about professional video poker players. The tweet was prompted in response to what I believe was a faulty representation of Stephen Paddock‘s gambling success by the mainstream media:

It was supported by some in the industry, and refuted by others:

High denomination players are afforded several benefits that $1 players are often not, including:

  • Full (or better) RFB (room/food/beverage), including hotel suites, expensive dinners and alcohol, and premier seating at entertainment events.
  • More free play.
  • High denom players gain the ability to negotiate with casino management for additional bounceback, and possibly a return on net losses. Example: During his run in 2010, notorious gambler Don Johnson took advantage of all the favors Atlantic City casinos were willing to gift him to turn a titanic profit.

Now, it’s certainly logical to assume that if a $1 denom player can profit without all these added perks, then a $5+ denomination player that receives all these additional benefits certainly can.  However, there are a few additional facets to consider.

  • While some APs factor in luxuries into their return, most players trying to scratch out a living do not. Whether APs stay in a regular room and eat at the buffet, versus a suite and dinner at Nobu, doesn’t really impact their bottom line.
  • In my experience the amount of free play does not scale linearly with the denomination played or coin-in. For instance, a player that receives $5k in free play with $500,000 monthly coin-in will likely receive less than $20k free play at $2 million coin-in. This is only an informed opinion, however.
  • Often, negotiations will only work for as long as casino management sees the player as an overall loser. This isn’t the Great Recession anymore, and casino software is sophisticated enough these days where a winning player will be quickly cut off from promotional events and other perks if the casino deems it is being hoodwinked.

Now, all of this is not to say the $5+ denomination player cannot utilize the same techniques that I outlined for the $1 player, and more. But by playing at that level, they’re inviting more volatility, something most APs try to avoid like the plague.

I will concede there are probably short periods where a professional gambler can play $25 denomination video poker profitably, most notably:

  • When special VIP promos are offered, such as big slot club multipliers, or sweepstakes where entries are based on coin-in.
  • Initially, big players can negotiate favorable terms with the casino. Eventually the jig will be up, but this can work for a little while.
  • Occassionally, casinos make mistakes in calculating the expected value of a slot club, game, or promo. This is becoming increasingly rare.
  • When the progressive payout for a Royal Flush or other big hand goes through the stratosphere.

However, there is no way (to my knowledge) for a high stakes player to simply grind it out for months on end at one or two favored casinos and remain profitable.

Robert is a veteran writer and analyst for the gambling industry, with a particular focus on the emergent US online gambling market. An avid poker and gambling enthusiast, Robert offers unique perspectives from both the vantage point of the player and industry professional, and is fit to cover a broad spectrum of topics.

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