Monday, October 28, 2013

What's with royals? Readers want to know

Video poker players love to talk about royal flushes --- the ones they hit, the ones they didn't, the ones that are still to come.

I had a couple of e-mails from players who were downright philosophical about their royals. One asked what the lack of royals did to the payback percentage, while the other wanted to know if expert strategy --- a term I use often in this column --- gives you a better chance at royals.

First things first. On most video poker games, royal flushes account for about 2 percent of your long-term return. When you read that 9-6 Jacks or Better returns 99.5 percent with expert play, royals account for about 2 percent of that. Between royal flushes, you're playing about a 97.5 percent game.

Within that 97.5 percent, of course, there's room for a whole lot of volatility. Sometimes you're going to hit a cluster of four of a kinds, and win big even without a royal. Sometimes you'll struggle to find anything better than two pair, and you'll have a session that doesn't begin to approach 97 percent. It happens.

I remember volatility taking a big swing in my favor in the early days of riverboat casinos in Illinois, back when the boats were required to leave the dock for two-hour sessions. I was playing 8-5 Jacks or Better --- as good as it got in the Chicago area at the time --- and hit a four of a kind, and then another.

Cruise time was almost over, so I pushed the button to cash out. The tokens started to pour into the tray … and then the hopper jammed. I waited, and waited, and waited some more. By the time an attendant came over to check, there were only about 10 minutes left until the doors would close and I'd be stuck for another cruise. He cleared the jam … and the hopper stopped again. This time it needed a fill.

There was no question of getting off the boat now. I was stuck. So while waiting for the hopper fill, I started playing the next machine. Within five hands, I had another four of a kind. A few minutes later, quads again.

Then again, and again. Within half an hour, I had six sets of quads to go with the two four of a kinds on the other machine.

If we'd had ticket in, ticket out payoffs in those days, I'd have been happily off the boat with profits from two quick four of a kinds. Instead, my bankroll was even happier with six more quads, although my wife was a little miffed that I was a couple of hours late.

That's a long tangent just to say big wins are possible without a royal. And, of course, large, fast losses are part of the game, too. But overall, your payback percentage is about 2 percent lower whenever your session doesn't include a royal flush.
On to the second reader. "I read about expert strategy," she started, "and I was wondering. Does expert strategy help me hit more royals? I practice on the computer, and I try to play the right way, but it's been about a year and a half since I hit a royal. What's happening?"

Royal-less streaks happen, and they can get awfully lengthy --- "awful" being a key part of that phrase.

Given expert strategy, we'll hit a royal about once per 40,000 hands, a little more or less often depending on the game and its strategy adaptations. For someone who plays at a steady, but not really speedy, 500 hands an hour, that'll give us a royal about once per 80 hours of play.

But we can't count on that royal being there within 80 hours. With such a rare event, sometimes we'll go two or three times that long without seeing a royal flush. My reader seems to be in one of those streaks now.

Frustrating, but normal.

As for the question of whether expert strategy helps you hit more royals, the answer is not necessarily. Expert strategy is designed to maximize the average return on each decision you face, and sometimes that means we'll pass up the chance at a royal.

For example, playing 9-6 Jacks or Better and dealt Queens of clubs, diamonds and spades, along with a King and a 10 of diamonds, do you hold the three of a kind, or do you hold King-Queen-10 of diamonds?
If you hold the three Queens, you have no chance at a royal flush. If you hold the three diamonds, you'll draw a royal once per 1,081 hands. Still, holding the three Queens is a much, much better play. You're assured of three of a kind, and have a chance at a full house or four of a kind. Your average return is 21.5 coins per five wagered, compared with 6.7 coins if you hold the three diamonds.

You could hit more royals by using a "go for it" strategy in which you always discard cards that get in the way of royal possibilities. You'd also lose a lot of money using it.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

WSOP Circuit stops at Horseshoe Hammond

The World Series of Poker has been a classic event --- perhaps THE classic event --- ever since its founding in 1970. At the first event, Benny Binion invited seven top players to his Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas. After competing not only in Hold’em, but in seven-card stud, razz, five-card stud and lowball, Johnny Moss was elected World Champion by his competitors.

The next year, the Texas Hold’em, winner-take-all tournament format that players know and love was adopted.

 Nowadays, the World Series of Poker goes on tour, with the big tournament still in Las Vegas every year, but WSOP Circuit events around the country throughout the year. The Chicago area stop is going on now at Horseshoe Casino in Hammond.

The Horseshoe Hammond event got under way on Thursday, Oct. 17, and runs through Monday, Oct. 28. It’s the fifth stop on a 22-city tour this season. It’s also the largest WSOP Circuit event.

According to a news release, more than 12,000 players are expected to compete at Horseshoe for more than $2.5 million in guaranteed total prize money. The festival will feature 12 tournaments across a wide range of buy-ins, formats and variants. Event highlights include Event No. 1 with a $500,000 guarantee and event No. 10 with a $2 million guarantee.

Horseshoe Hammond also hosted the fourth annual Chicago Poker Classic earlier this year, a 13-day festival that attracted some of the Chicago area’s best players. With a $1 million guaranteed opening event and more than $600,000 added to prize pools, satellites, cash game promotions and daily tournaments, the Chicago Poker Classic was the richest Chicago poker festival outside of the WSOP Circuit.

When the WSOP event is over, I’ll relay some of the highlights in this blog. Meanwhile,  you can check out Horseshoe’s site at

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steppenwolf wrap up Grand Victoria concert series

I don't get around to the Chicago area casinos as much as I did when I was writing a regular casinos column for the Chicago Sun-Times, so I appreciate it when the casinos pass along information on what's going on.

Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin, in partnership with Onesti Entertainment, hosted a Summer Jackpot Series of concerts outdoors at Festival Park, adjacent to the casino Marilou Pilman of Grand Vic passed along information on the final show of the season. The Oct. 13 finale featured Southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd, along with John Kay and Steppenwolf.

“You have all the makings of another Woodstock,” John Kay of Steppenwolf told the crowd.  “But a lot more fun.”

I don't know about Woodstock, but I'm sure anyone who every fancied themselves as "Born to Be Wild" or yelled "Freebird" to any band playing anywhere had a great time.

In a press release,. Grand Victoria general manager Jim Thomason  said, “Our goal was to draw thousands of people to downtown Elgin.  This year was a test and due to the huge success of these shows, we are already working on next year’s lineup. ‘The City of Elgin was very instrumental in orchestrating all the moving pieces it takes to put on shows of this magnitude.”

This year's series opened Aug. 24 with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts along with Eric Burdon and the Animals. The second show, on Sept. 24, featured Grand Funk Railroad and Night Ranger.

For more information on the casino and its special events, visit