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An Unusual Video Poker Tournament Strategy

I frequently receive emails from people saying they are going to be in a video poker tournament next week at such-and-such casino and they want me to tell them how to win it. My typical responseBob DancerBob Dancer is one of the world's foremost video poker experts.  He is a regular columnist for Casino Player, Strictly Slots, and the Las Vegas Review-Journa land has written an autobiography and a novel about gambling.   He provides advice for tens of thousands of casino enthusiasts looking to play video poker.  Bob's website is  is that every tournament is different and until you know what the rules are, you can't work out the strategy.
While my response is correct, it's not useful to some people. After all, if you don't know what to look for in tournament rules, reading them won't tell you a lot. Since people must learn such tournament examples one at a time, let me discuss a month-long event going on right now in Detroit at Greektown Casino.
Since I live in greater Las Vegas, I rarely write about out-of-town events. But it happens that I was hired to teach Jacks or Better classes on April 8-9, and also to give a 10-minute talk about "How to do well in the tournament" immediately before each class. This article is largely the class notes from those talks and is being prepared the week beforehand.
One of the participants in the class has taken the position that my strategy is wrong --- and has bet me $100 to that effect. After I explain what my strategy is, I'll explain the bet.
Here are the main aspects of the rules. This tournament goes on for a month. To earn a "free" entry, you need to play $10,000 coin-in. Single-line nickel players will find this an impossibly steep entry fee, while $5 and $10 players will find they earn more than one entry per hour. This entry allows you to play three minutes on one of three 9/6 Jacks or Better machine. The top ten scores over the month of April win cash prizes, totaling $25,000 overall, including $10,000 for first place.
The first thing I notice about these rules is that it is a "speed" tournament. That is, your score is the sum from as many hands as you can play during the three minutes. (This is a LOT different than an event where everybody plays 200 hands over 20-minutes-at-most and almost everybody finishes early.) Here there's a premium on fast play. If most people average 45 hands per three minutes and you can squeeze out 60, you have a MUCH better chance of winning. This means using both hands on the buttons (you need to practice this beforehand) and definitely NOT using the touch screen feature. "Thinking about" the correct play is expensive in this game.
The second thing I look at in any set of rules is trying to figure out what it will take to win. Although I am writing this in the first week of April and the tournament won't end until April 30, it appears to be likely that there will be AT LEAST ten royal flushes during the event. Players playing super-aggressively for royals connect on them once in 23,000 hands (approximately), and 4,000 ­ 5,000 rounds playing 45-60 hands each should create more than ten royals. Will there be this many rounds played? I think so, but I can't be sure. The casino has considerably more play than this, but not everyone will enter the tournament and there will be a lot of wastage, as playing $19,500 gets you one entry, not 1.95.
But if you assume you need a royal flush to get in the top ten, then it makes sense to me to play for the royal EVERY HAND. That is, from Ah As Ad Ac Kh, you should hold Ah Kh and toss the other three aces! Although some people will find it against their religion to break up four aces, keeping the hand will only give you 125 credits. That's peanuts when you need 4,300 or more to win! On a practical basis, it is impossible to get 35 four-of-a-kinds in 60 hands in order to reach the goal of 4,300 without getting a royal. Your only chance to get enough is to play appropriately and hope to get lucky.
If you want to "practice" this game ahead of time, simply go to WinPoker, choose any non-wild game, and set the payoffs of every hand (except the royal) to zero. Whether you say the return for a royal is 1 coin or 100,000 doesn't matter, so long as all of the rest are zero. The computer will prompt you to hold the most number of suited honor cards (i.e. A, K, Q, J, T) and discard everything else. If you're dealt a suited T9876 straight flush, the appropriate play is to hold the ten by itself. If you're dealt a 33344 full house, the correct strategy is to throw away all five cards. This strategy is VERY easy to master, once you come to the conclusion that a royal-or-bust strategy is appropriate.
The hard thing for many players is to keep in mind that coming in eleventh place and coming in 4,011th place are exactly tied for last. Getting 600 credits (a VERY high score in 60 hands) is not better than ending up with 100 credits. Both of them still get the prize of $0.
If you use this strategy and play 60 hands per entry, you're only going to hit a royal once every 400 hands or so. Someone with only a few entries is not likely to connect. That's the nature of events where there are only ten winners and thousands of people enter. But you never know if this is the time lightening will strike your machine or not. The only way to find out is to play like the devil and hope for the best.
It's possible, of course, that my assumption of needing a royal to win any prize is incorrect. Some people will wait until the last few days of the month to play their rounds so that they know the score to shoot for. I suspect that there will be a "logjam" of people on the last few days because they can only handle 45-50 entries an hour. If somebody has accumulated 10 entries, for example, whether he/she will be able to play them off back-to-back-to-back is uncertain. That is probably the best way to do it, but with only three tournament machines this could make everybody else wait for a considerable length of time.
Were I in the event, I would play the rounds much earlier in the month. My royal-or-bust strategy can't be too far off (maybe there will "only" be eight royals during the month), and avoiding long lines to play is worth it to me. Each entry is worth about $6 (or more, if you're really fast and utilize the royal-or-bust strategy) so standing in line to cash something of that size isn't my style.
A player who goes under the pseudonym of VP Pappy when he writes very amusing video poker articles has bet me $100 that there will NOT be more than 4 royals during the month. We'll see. (As of the time I left Greektown at 6 p.m. April 9th, the top score was 655). He told me that if he won, he would never cash my check, but rather would frame it as a memento of beating Bob Dancer at a gambling bet.
I told him that so long as he was not planning on cashing the check, I was quite willing to make the bet $1,000 rather than $100. I found this more amusing than he did.
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