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CASINO ANSWER MAN

by John Grochowski

John Grochowski is a blackjack expert and a well-known and respected casino gambling columnist. His syndicated casino gambling column appears in the Denver Post, Casino City Times, and other newspapers and web sites. Grochowski has written six books on gambling including the "Answer Man" series of books (www.casinoanswerman.com). He offers one-minute gambling tips on radio station WLS-AM (890) and podcasts are available at http://www.wlsam.com/sectional.asp?id=38069. Send your question to Grochowski at casinoanswerman@casinoanswerman.com.

Q. This is kind of a multipart question. Do you evaluate a video blackjack game just like a table game? I've heard that under Nevada law, video games with cards have to offer fair odds, so if I plug video blackjack rules into a house edge calculator, will it give me an accurate result? What about slot machines that use 10-Jack-Queen-King-Ace symbols? Are they subject to the same rules? One last tangent for you. Blackjack was always more popular than poker as a casino game. So why did video poker win out over video blackjack?

A. Yes, you can evaluate a video blackjack game just like a table game. Nevada law does require games that use representations of playing cards and dice to offer fair odds, and almost all other gaming states have taken their cue from Nevada.

Thatís what enables analysts to calculate payback percentages and strategies in video poker. Those percentages have been verified by regulators and operators. In Indiana, a casino slot director who wanted to promote his full-pay video poker machines handed me a sheet listing test lab payback percentages on his games, and they were the same ones video poker players are used to seeing from analysts --- 99.5 percent on 9-6 Jacks or Better, 99.7 percent on NSU Deuces and 99.1 percent on 9-7-5 Double Bonus Poker.

In Illinois, the gaming board prohibits casinos from offering full-pay 10-7-5 Double Bonus Poker because it exceeds 100 percent payback with expert play. If video card games were not required to offer fair odds, manufacturers and operators could use 10-7-5 payoffs while keeping the overall return lower.

Those slot symbols are another matter. Theyíre just stylized A, K, Q, J and 10 with no suits, and not depicted on playing cards, and theyíre just five symbols on games that often have twice that or more. They are not subject to fair odds restrictions. On a video blackjack game, an Ace of spades will be dealt just as often as a 6 of hearts. On slot machines, video reels can be designed with fewer of the higher paying Aces than there are 10s.

As for why video poker won out over video blackjack, it came as a surprise to casino operators and game makers, too. The smart money was on blackjack being the breakthrough game on video, but when Si Reddís first Draw Poker games were introduced in 1979, they had people lining up waiting to play.

Both video poker and video blackjack are interactive games, with players making decisions that matter. Video poker has an edge in that you frequently win several times your bet on one hand, including the big jackpots on royal flushes. One hand can give you a big winning session.

In addition, early video poker games were higher payers than video blackjack. The first three popular video poker games were Jacks or Better (99.5 percent with expert play), full-pay Deuces Wild (100.8) and 8-5 Bonus Poker (99.2). Video blackjack games paid even money on two-card 21s, something you still see today on many single-player games. That left a game that paid in the vicinity of 97 percent to basic strategy players. If you knew basic strategy, you were playing at the tables instead.

Q. Could coin payoffs ever make a comeback? I was playing video poker at some of the old places on Fremont Street. I drew four deuces, and got paid with 1,000 quarters dropping into the tray, just like the old days. It was exciting, and everybody around me said how exciting it was, too. Do operators notice things like that?

A. I canít see coin pays ever making a comeback. For operators, ticket pays make sense --- and dollars --- in too many ways. Casinos no longer have to tie up resources by keeping stockpiles of coins or slot tokens. They donít have to pay employees to wheel change carts around to players, to staff change booths to count coins, to lug backs of change to fill the machinesí coin hoppers, or to clear the hopper when they jam up.

For players, there are no more waits on hopper fills or coin jams. If you played very much before ticket printers, you probably remember trying to cash out and waiting at a machine for five, 10, 15 minutes, waiting for a jam to be cleared.

Coin-dropping machines survive at older casinos that havenít yet spent the money to replace all their old equipment. Nevertheless, ticket printers are here to stay, at least until casinos and regulators take the next step to electronic fund transfers.

Operators and manufacturers are very aware of the excitement of coins clanking into the trays. They worry about the casinos becoming too quiet. Thatís why modern slots are designed with their array of sound effects and music, trying to build an exciting atmosphere in a different way.

Q. My wife showed me a slot machine where you have to choose your bonus, whether to use a joystick or just take free spins. An attendant assured her it involves real skill. Is that right? Wouldn't experts crowd normal players out of skill games?

A. There are slot machines with skill-based bonus events. Two that use joystick in their bonus events are Blood Life Legends and Tullyís Treasure Hunt from IGT. In both, you guide animated characters to collect bonuses, and the skill is real. Both offer free-spin bonuses for those who lack confidence in their joystick skills.

Nevada law limits the skill-based portion of slot games to 4 percent of overall payback. A game maker could program a game so the results of all other reel spins and bonus events added up to, say, an 88 percent payback, then layered on a skill bonus that would give back another 1 to 4 percent. The skill makes a difference, but doesnít take the game into the profitable territory that will attract experts.

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