Friday, Sept. 30, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Tips on gaining an advantage
Anthony Curtis offers the following advice for gamblers seeking that hard-to-define quality of casino floor value:
• Play video poker rather than multireel slot machines or video keno. The payouts are much better as you master the strategy. Then again, he says, “even a chimp” can win on a video poker machine that has a payout table approaching 100 percent.
• Learn optimal strategy and know how to properly play the game. Unlike slot machines, there’s a right and wrong way to play video poker.
• Play a game that’s more boring than exciting. Everyone is drawn to the most volatile games — Double Double Bonus Poker and Double Double Bonus Poker Plus, and while the better paybacks are there at the high ends — for a full house — they are relatively smaller at the lower end of the table — for three of a kind, two pair and high pair.
• Dial down your speed. Video poker machines offer slow, medium and fast speeds. Curtis hits the slow button when he sits down for a session to keep himself in check. He estimates that the slowest button finds you playing 50 percent fewer hands over a given amount of time.
The house may have the edge — always. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t bargains to be found amid the forests of video poker machines across the Las Vegas Valley.
Anthony Curtis, one of the best-known chroniclers of the workings of the city’s casino floors, and other slot-floor pros say video poker has the potential to provide knowledgeable players with real and perceived value, a hard-to-define measure of slot play that varies from bettor to bettor.
For some, they are content to lose cash but want a long ride on the machine. For others, the perks casinos provide — free drinks or T-shirts — figure into the equation.
For value-seekers, here’s what Curtis has observed of late:
Station Casinos has loosened its video poker payout tables with its exit from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The financially challenged Palms, which recently required a cash infusion from private investment firms, has reduced the number of machines with the most attractive payouts. And the South Point is the quintessential video-poker parlor, appealing to savvy gamblers.
“Michael Gaughan ... knows how to treat his local customer base,” Curtis said of the South Point developer and operator. George Maloof, who now owns a small share of the Palms, “does too, but Maloof doesn’t have as much clout over there. The video poker tables at the Palms have been unequivocally devalued, but they’re still one of the best in Las Vegas.”
And Station Casinos? “Everything they’re doing is giving back more — paying back close to double on their players club on slot machines and video poker, putting in higher-paying video poker machines everywhere,” said Curtis, who regularly writes about video poker in his Las Vegas Advisor newsletter and book-publishing business, Huntington Press. “While they were still in bankruptcy they began with this trend.”
Unlike the luck-driven world of multireel slot machines, video poker requires a basic knowledge of the game.
“Video poker players tend to be more brainy. They want to study, affect the result, make decisions,” Curtis said. “Slot players don’t care. ... They just want to have fun. They might be a banker, a guy that’s really well known for something, but he doesn’t care about that when he’s playing slots. He just wants to have a little fun pulling handles, and that’s his escape. Generally, a person who plays video poker wants to control the game a little more.”
Like their slot-playing counterparts, video poker players get the free drinks and casino swag that comes with spending hours tapping away at a play button. That adds to the value equation, but video poker is ultimately about the pay tables displayed on the game’s table tops.
On a 10/7 or 9/6 video poker pay table — the first number equates to the payout for each coin bet when a full-house hits; the second equates to the payout when a flush hits. Of course, payouts increase with higher wagers. With these pay tables, two coins equate to a 20/14 or 18/12 payment. Three coins equal a 30/21 or 27/18 win.
The higher payouts for a full-house or flush mask lesser payouts for straights, three-of-a-kind, two-pair and other less-visible winnings, generating more revenue for the house while steadily grinding away at a gambler’s money.
“You’ve just diminished your chances ... for a lot of time on the game,” Curtis said. “You risk getting knocked off too fast with a highly volatile game.”
He prefers a 9/6 Jacks or Better pay table, with its 99.54 percent return, noting there’s an optimal way to play each hand. Its smartest practitioners know which cards to keep or discard in pursuit of a royal- or straight-flush, four-of-a-kind, full-house, flush, straight, three-of-a-kind, two-pair and high-pair, leading to a steady return and lengthier play.
“Skill comes in by knowing exactly how to play every hand you get,” said Curtis, a one-time Duke University math major.
Video poker bars, where the payouts are typically much tighter, are known for their 7/5 Triple Double Bonus Poker, with a payback of 94.92 percent, or a 6/5 Triple Bonus Poker Plus, with a payback of 96.62 percent, placing them in slot-machine territory. Curtis plays the tighter games knowing that a $100 investment over an hour might yield some winnings but is more likely to get him some comped beers.
It can be challenging to find the best payout tables on a casino floor. Savvy operators sprinkle them among lower payback machines. The Palms is known for placing the best machines among the last seats at bars. Curtis gleaned that intelligence from an online message board.
While it requires skill unlike some games, video poker is also notorious among gambling devices from a clinical standpoint.
In the late 1990s, the National Gambling Impact Study Commission’s final report noted that researchers have labeled video poker “the crack-cocaine of gambling because of its highly addictive nature.” A 2009 Las Vegas Sun series reported that the most afflicted gamblers have the kinds of biological brain disorders that are found among drug and alcohol abusers.
Curtis is philosophical about that aspect of the game.
“I get a rush from winning. I don’t get a rush from playing,” he said. “But (the game) does take away the tedium of being somewhere. I’d often rather be playing so I’m occupied. I don’t want to simply go to a bar to drink a beer. I feel silly, like why am I here?”