A HEART-STOPPING HAND
by Kenneth Smith
Tournament expert Ken Smith has appeared on all four seasons of GSN's World Series of Blackjack, and had several appearances on the Ultimate Blackjack Tour on CBS. He is the author of the e-book.How to Win More Blackjack Tournaments: Tips, Tricks, and Strategies to Supercharge Your Game. Ken hosts the popular website www.BlackjackInfo.com as well as the online tournament community at www.BlackjackTournaments.com. You can subscribe to his free email newsletter at http://www.blackjackinfo.com/news/. Ken also markets his new pocket blackjack strategy cards, which are available in our BJI store.
Over my career in tournament blackjack, I have had some pretty exciting moments. In particular, two experiences stand out. On the next to last hand of a semifinal round in one of the Las Vegas Hilton Million Dollar tournament events, I had a decent shot at making the final table if the hand went my way. With a first place prize of one million in cash at the final table, this was a very high stakes hand. Unfortunately, the hand didn't go my way, and that loss was the most brutal emotional experience I've ever had at a tournament table. The other experience had the same overwhelming adrenalin rush, but this time a better outcome. This was the final hand of the premiere show of the Ultimate Blackjack Tour on CBS, where I was battling Hollywood Dave Stann for the title. Again, the hand delivered incredible pressure, but this time, it ended with a euphoric victory for me.
With those high-pressure moments under my belt, I was very surprised last weekend when I had a few seconds of incredible tension that delivered an even more heart-stopping moment. This time the venue wasn't a tournament table at all. As unlikely as it sounds, the situation was just a single hand of video poker.
I'll need to fill in some background for this to make sense. I was attending a promotional drawing event at a casino, where they were giving away $125,000 in a drawing over a holiday weekend. With decent games to play, I figured I could pound away for a couple of days and have a good shot in the drawings.
The game I chose to play was the best game they offered, Super Times Pay Jacks or Better. With a "full-pay", pay table of 9 coins for a full-house and 6 coins for a flush, the basic Jacks or Better video poker game returns 99.54% with perfect play. Add in the Super Times Pay feature, which I will explain in a moment, and the return on the game jumps to 99.82%. Add in further a small amount of cashback, and this particular game tipped the scales at an overall return of 99.92% (meaning each $100,000 in coin-in would cost only $80 in expected loss). That means in theory I could earn drawing tickets very cheaply indeed, so I planned to play a ton over the two days.
What exactly is the Super Times Pay feature? It's an extra coin bet that you place on each hand that buys a special feature. By betting 6 coins per hand, you activate a random multiplier feature that multiplies any wins that you have. Sometimes while the hand is being dealt, one of the cards being dealt will appear as the random multiplier feature. The multiplier appears once every 15 hands on average, and the multiplier value can be either 2X, 3X, 4X, 5X, 8X, or 10X.The average multiplier is 4.05X.
Super Times Pay (STP) is only offered on multi-line video poker games. In this casino, I was playing a ten-line $1 denomination game. If I bet max bet on all 10 lines, the bet would be 10 X $6 = $60 per hand. However, I revised this slightly, and chose to bet only nine lines instead of 10. The reason is that if I played all 10 lines and was dealt a "pat" hand of four-of-a-kind, the payout would be $1250, a taxable hand. Having a payout of $1200 or more requires the casino staff to come over and pay you, and have you sign a W2-G form with taxes withheld. For me, the taxes aren't an issue since I'll report an accurate win or loss number to the IRS regardless of whether I have a W2-G form filed or not. However, dealing with tax forms takes time, and that slows down my play. In addition, it is customary to make a small tip to the staff who pay you a hand-pay as well, and that reduces your return. By playing nine hands instead, any time that I am dealt a pat four-of-a-kind, the payout will be $1125, which is under the hand-pay threshold. That will help cut down on tax form delays.
I'm planning to play this $54 per play game for two solid days. Early on in the session, I was ahead quite a bit. I had eight hand-pays on the first day, with the largest one being a $4000 royal flush. If I had ever gotten $10,000 ahead, I would have seriously considered quitting immediately. I came close but never quite reached that threshold. Indeed, my early lead had disappeared at the end of day one.
By late in the second day, I was close to calling it quits. Not because I was ahead, but because I had taken a pretty-good beating all day and was within a few hands of finishing for the day. I had put in quite a bit of play and I figured I had a good chance in the drawings. Then, surprisingly, I hit a small jackpot hand for $1300. Two hands later, I hit another hand-pay of $1800. Five minutes later, I had another $1800 win. Now, I've made a decent recovery, and I'm in striking distance of breakeven for the play.
STP is definitely a fun game to play. The occasional multipliers make the game exciting, especially when you're dealt some kind of paying hand before the draw. For example, if I'm dealt a pair of Kings and then the multiplier card appears in the third card position, I know I will have a good payout on the hand regardless, but there's a lot of excitement, as two things happen to complete the hand.
First, as you watch the screen the multiplier randomly cycles through the possible values from 2X to 10X. It gives you something to hope for, looking for a big multiplier. Then, after the multiplier is selected, the rest of your initial hand is dealt. If I already have a pair of Kings, I can hope for two more Kings for a dealt quad. For example, with an 8X multiplier, a dealt quad on 9 lines would pay 8 X 9 X $125 = $9000. The possibility of these big payouts make the game fun to play. They also make the game very volatile of course!
Now that I've explained the game, let me explain my own heart-stopping experience playing it...
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