Silencing the Loose Cannons: The Integrity of Video Poker Machines

For more than 10 years, we have been urging the slot-playing devotees to focus solely on video poker. Because the game requires skill to attain the maximum payback, not everyone can take advantage of this recommendation, but the growing popularity of video poker is evident in casinos in all locales. Some years ago, we recommended that video poker be designated our “National Game of Chance”, primarily because if its integrity. That recommendation is even more valid today as more players enjoy this form of casino gambling.

The main theme of our campaign has been that unlike reel slots (in either their electromechanical or video formats), in video poker, “What you see is what you get.” A reel slot machine can show you what appears to be reels with about 24 stops (symbols or blanks) on each, but it, in fact, can operate with up to 256 stops, so players never see what they are up against in terms of odds, frequency of winners, or payback percentages. The term applied to this technique is “virtual reels”, and it is perfectly legal everywhere reels slots are found.

On the other hand, video pokers observe prescribed rules of operation that lead to the same results that you would obtain if you played the game with real cards on your kitchen table. This critical fact makes it possible to accurately determine the statistics of the game – statistics that will govern the long-term results. This includes identifying the most liberal video poker machines, the payback attainable with expert play, the frequency of all winning hands, and the strategy that is best for any machine. Video poker is an open book.

This difference between “not seeing what you get” and “seeing what you get” has caused problems for video poker players. Although the cards are selected by very sophisticated methods of applying nearly perfect random number generators, players often will see the inconsistencies that can be found in such generators. When they see such anomalies, they can easily be misled by their own lack of knowledge or can be misled by those who would capitalize on their fears of being cheated on video poker machines. The real slot player is spared this concern and plays blissfully along, simply because nobody ever tells him what to expect when he pulls the handle.

These are the facts, but we have researched the topic of video poker integrity and want to pass along additional information to provide aid and comfort to those who may have heard otherwise. The results show that video poker, as we knot it in our legal jurisdictions, is an honest game.

Some of the most frequent questions and answers are:

Q: What is a random number generator?

A: As a preface, we can state that nothing in a computer is truly random. What good would it be if any number coming out of a computer simply was anything unpredictable? For example, 5 + 5 = 111 one time and 1674 another time would be useless! Everything that happens in a computer is happening by design, or the computer belongs in a repair shop. Even a so-called “random” number generator must be designed by a human being, and the best he can do is create (with a computer program) a fantastically long sequence of numbers (between 1 and 52 for a no-joker machine), and then pick a short sequence of 10 numbers from the stack to set up a hand. These numbers must have no connection between them, and there are very potent ways to test for this lack of correlation, which we call “randomness”. There also are tests to ensure that the numbers that immediately follow each other or are separated from each other have no correlation to each other. How long is this sequence of numbers? Well, it is so long that it would take 5.8 million years to run through it all at typical machine speeds. There are about 10 to the 18th power in a modern random number cycle. Still in deference to the mathematicians of the world, machine designers accept their limitations and designate their programs as pseudo random number generators (RNG).

Q: How do we apply an RNG in a video poker machine?

A: The numbers generated dictate what cards are chosen for the hand. Before the coin is inserted, the RNG is constantly cycling, with a single point in the stack that is selected as the “seed” or starting point of the hand being changed every .01 seconds. When the coin is detected, there is a “freeze”, and the program creates the 10 numbers that we want, with proper revision to prevent a duplication.

The RNG is completely divorced from other functions of the machine. There are no ties between the RNG and the coin hoppers, and the win-loss stats are unknown to the RNG. The old wives tales about “ready to pay” and “paid too much” are pure poppycock.

The same technique is applied in reel slots, and in keno and blackjack machines. What the reel slots do is select a number for each reel and cause a stopper motor to run the reel to that point. The motor may have 24 stops, but the machine will stop on nonwinners just as if there were many more than 24 stops. In keno machines, 20 numbers are chosen, and cards are stacked for the player and dealer in a blackjack machine.

Q: Who makes sure of the design integrity of video poker?

A: Historically, Nevada had all of the legalized gaming, and virtually all of the machines were made in Nevada. Even today this is true, but even more important is the fact that Nevada wrote specific laws for video poker, and the Nevada Gaming Control Board and Gaming Control Commission led the way in regulating video poker. The laws are clear that the game must be “honest”, that is, it plays just the way that the players expect. The gaming machine manufacturers take pride in complying with the laws, and go far beyond what the authorities demand to ensure integrity.

Furthermore, every machine made in Nevada that is exported to another jurisdiction, must meet all of the requirements of that jurisdiction, or the Nevada regulations if those are more stringent. Most legal jurisdictions have created laws and regulations for video poker that are patterned after Nevada. For some unknown reason, New Jersey has not done so, but this does not alter the fact that all of the Nevada-origin machines in New Jersey are regulated exactly as if they were playing on the Strip instead of the Boardwalk or Marina.

Q: But I’m sure I see anomalies in video poker; Can they be explained?

A: Statistical laws often are difficult to believe when you deal with a small sample; in fact, the statistics of small samples are usually quite different from those of large samples. As the sample gets larger, the averages tend to prove out, but not always the way that we think they will. Furthermore, most people do not know how to interpret samples of data. For example, most people believe that if you toss a fair coin continually, you eventually will achieve an equality of the number of heads and tails; it’s not true. Nor do they comprehend the true probabilities (and variances) associated with seeing the things that we hate most in video poker – like repeaters and maskers. Finally, we must accept the characteristics inherent in making a pseudo random number generator. One must expect “hot cycles” and “cold cycles” in games derived from excellent RNGs, just as one must expect more losers than winners on a video poker machine that pays back 100 percent. None of us will live long enough to see everything average out to the point where everyone breaks even, but it certainly would happen.

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