STICKMAN’S STANCE: THE HISTORY OF VIDEO POKER
by Jerry "Stickman"
Jerry "Stickman" is an expert in craps, blackjack, video poker and advantage slot machine play. Frank Scoblete’s and Jerry "Stickman’s" book "Everything Casino Poker: Get the Edge at Video Poker, Texas Hold’em, Omaha Hi-Lo and Pai Gow Poker" presents dozens of video poker games and strategies for maximum returns. He is a regular contributor to top gaming magazines. You can contact Jerry "Stickman" email@example.com.
Casinos today have a plethora of video poker machines. They come in denominations ranging from a penny to – and beyond – $100. There are scores of game classes ranging from the basic Jacks or Better through bonus games through wild card games such as deuces wild and joker’s wild. There are multiple play games where the initially dealt and saved cards of a hand are played three, five, 10, 50 and even 100 times. There are video poker ‘action’ games such as spin poker (a combination of video poker and slot machine) and multi-strike poker where a winning hand leads to up to three additional hands that each double the payback of a winning hand from the previous winning hand. If that isn’t enough variety to set your head spinning, there is even a multi-play version of multi-strike poker.
How did things get to this stage? How and when did video poker first appear on the scene?
The history of video poker and slot machines is closely related. To properly understand the development of video poker we must start with some of the forerunners of the game.
In 1891, the Sittman and Pitt Company of Brooklyn, New York, invented an early poker machine. This machine contained five drums, each having ten different playing cards. Once a coin was inserted and the handle pulled, the drums would spin. Each drum would eventually stop on a card making up the final poker hand.
In 1898, Charles Fey, commonly known as the father of the slot machine, created the Card Bell. This poker machine could automatically pay cash prizes to a winner of up to 20 coins for a royal flush.
In 1901, Fey created a new poker machine called the Skill Draw that had a "Hold" feature. After the initial spin created a poker hand, the player could hold some of the cards and re-spin the un-held cards in an effort to improve the hand. This was the first 5-Card Draw Poker machine.
During the early 1900’s, Sittman and Pitt also began manufacturing machines with the draw feature. They became so popular that they could not be manufactured fast enough. These machines were available in almost every liquor store and smoke shop throughout the United States.
Poker was already the card game of the people. The introduction of the draw feature provided another way for the eager poker player to play his game. The addition of the draw feature made the player feel like he was taking part in the gambling side of things. It was no longer simply blind luck contributing to gambling fortunes but a certain amount of skill also played a role. However, since gambling was not legal in most of the country at that time, winning hands were usually paid off in prizes such as drinks, cigars, or cigarettes.
The player was under the impression that the machine used a full deck of 52 cards. However, these machines held only 50 cards. This was because there were only 10 cards on each of the five drums. In most cases the ten of spades and jack of hearts were eliminated. Although the players did not realize it, this cut the possibility of a royal flush in half since a royal was not possible in spades or hearts. Regardless, these machines were very popular and it was these early machines that led to current video poker as we know it.
Some of these original machines are still on display at the Liberty Belle Saloon and Restaurant in Reno, Nevada.
It wasn’t until 1970 that Dale Electronics introduced the first video poker machine. It was dubbed Poker-Matic and was installed in virtually every casino in Las Vegas at the time. It did not, however, become a big hit. Even so, the Poker-Matic became the prototype for the games that would ultimately capture the attention and dollars of the gambling public.
In the mid 70’s, a distributor for Bally’s Gaming, named Si Redd, pitched a new invention to the company’s executives in Chicago – a game called Video Poker. The executives rejected the idea since they didn’t want to branch out from slot machines to a whole new untested game. In what is probably one of the biggest mistakes made by Bally’s, they agreed to let Si take the patent. Within months, Si made a deal with Fortune Coin Company in Reno to form Si Redd’s Coin Machines (or SIRCOMA for short) to mass produce his patented video poker machines. While interest in the games grew slowly, by 1981, this new game was the most popular addition to casinos.
The earliest version of Draw Poker required at least two pairs for a winning hand. While these games did attract some players, it was by changing the lowest winning hand to a pair of jacks or better that the game’s popularity dramatically increased. These original machines were quite primitive by today’s standards with screens very similar to televisions at the time.
Soon after, Si took the company public and changed the name to International Gaming Technology (IGT) which is still a huge player in the gaming industry today.
While casinos were interested in the new video poker games, before they would commit any floor space to them, they wanted to know "what was in it for them." In other words, they wanted to know how much money they would make off these new games. They wanted to know the house edge.
Certainly the house edge could have been determined by persons who understood math of the game, but apparently the management and brains of the newly formed video poker company did not know how to do it. The proof of this is the method chosen to determine the casino’s share of the video poker pie. Here is what they did in order to come up with the house edge. They put several newly manufactured video poker machines in a large room. They then hired dozens of people to act perform data acquisition. They positioned one of these employees on each of the video poker machines in the room and had them play the game and record their results. This process continued for weeks. Once this data acquisition phase was complete, they compiled and summarized the results. From this they arrived at what they thought was the house edge. Believe it or not, this is how the casino’s edge was originally calculated. How close was it to the actual edge? No one today really knows, but it was obviously enough to entice casino owners into putting the machines onto their casino floors. Of course, the casino’s edge on today’s video poker games is mathematically determined based on the odds of a particular hand occurring and its comparison to the amount paid for the hand.
Throughout the 1980’s the popularity of video poker grew. People who felt intimidated by casino table games were not intimidated by these games. The invention of video poker actually improved the popularity of video slot machines. The early video slot machines were avoided because players were used to seeing the reels spin, but with the acceptance of video poker, having spinning reels was no longer the issue it once was.
Today, there are hundreds of different video poker variations and thousands of different pay tables. New and exciting versions continue to be released. All of this stemming from an 1891 mechanical poker machine and nurtured by improvements in technology. The biggest factor in video poker’s success, however, is the ingenuity of humans making it all possible.
All the best in your casino and life endeavors.
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