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Best of John Grochowski

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A shuffle through the gaming mailbag

29 September 2011

Q. A fellow video poker player told me that, by Illinois law, video poker machines cannot have a pay table set to produce a 100% or higher return. I made an attempt to go though the Illinois Gaming Board site but got lost. Thought you might know the answer to that question.

A. Your friend is correct. Illinois regulations say that no electronic gaming device may pay less than 80% nor more than 100%. Virtually every state with legal casino gambling has a minimum payback percentage on slots and video poker. Some, including Illinois and Indiana, also have maximums. Those maximums are designed to protect state interests in collecting taxes on casino revenue.

Video poker is tricky, because player strategy can affect payback percentages. States that have maximums have interpreted the regulation to mean no video poker machine may have a theoretical payback percentage in excess of 100% given expert play.

There was a time when gaming laboratories weren't up to the task of accurately measuring a video poker game's theoretical return. In the mid-1990s, the Illinois Gaming Board approved 10/7/5 Double Bonus Poker. Well-informed players knew the game returned 100.17% with expert play, but apparently the Illinois test program didn't use a strategy properly adjusted for the pay table. Tests came in under 100%, and the Empress Casino in Joliet put it on its floor.

There it stayed for seven or eight years, until Empress moved off its boats and onto a new barge. Had it just moved the old machines into the new facility, it might have been able to keep the high-paying game. But the operators purchased new machines, and each chip had to be approved by the gaming board. This time, the testing program was up to the task, the full-pay 10/7/5 game was not licensed, and Empress ramped down to 9/7/5 Double Bonus.

Jumer's in Rock Island, Ill., kept 10/7/5 Double Bonus several years longer on its old boat, but adjusted the pay table elsewhere to put it on the new boat. The 250-coin payoffs on four 5s through kings and on straight flushes became 239 coins instead, dropping the payback percentage just enough to make the game legal.

In my view, maximum payback percentages are unnecessary at best. It takes expert play to really get more than 100%, and very few players are experts. The real payback percentages on such games are less than 100% — Empress and Jumer's both made money on the games, which also served as attractive marketing points.

Q. When playing basic strategy in blackjack, is it right to surrender versus take a hit if one has a total of 15 or 16 against a dealer's 9 or 10 up card? Is this the right play whether playing with two, six or eight decks?

A. I'm going to assume you're talking about late surrender, where the dealer first checks to see if he or she has blackjack. A dealer blackjack stops the hand, and surrender is not offered. Early surrender, where you get the chance to surrender half your bet instead of playing out the hand before the dealer checks for blackjack is rare. I don't think I've seen it offered since the mid-1990s at the Holiday Inn in Las Vegas, though it may have cropped up in locations I haven't visited.

With late surrender, strategy depends both on number of decks in play and whether the dealer hits soft 17.

In single-deck, if the dealer stands on all 17s, surrender hard 16 if the dealer shows a 10 value or ace. Do not surrender hard 15. Also surrender a pair of 7s if the dealer shows a 10.

In single-deck, if the dealer hits soft 17, surrender hard 15 against an ace, hard 16 against a 10 or ace, hard 17 against an ace, and a pair of 7s against a 10 or ace.

With two decks, if the dealer stands on all 17s, surrender hard 15 against a 10, and hard 16 against a 10 or ace.

With two decks, if the dealer hits soft 17, surrender hard 15 or 16 against a 10 or ace, hard 17 against an ace, and a pair of 8s against an ace.

With more than two decks, if the dealer stands on all 17s, surrender 15 against a 10, and hard 16 against a 9, 10 or ace.

With more than two decks, if the dealer hits soft 17, surrender hard 15 against a 10 or ace, hard 16 against 9, 10 or ace, hard 17 against an ace, and a pair of 8s against an ace.

I don't remember the last time I saw surrender in a single-deck game. Mostly, the multi-deck strategies are the ones to learn.

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

Winning Tips for Casino Games

> More Books By John Grochowski