22 October 1999

Southern Gamblers beware!

by Kate Melville

How would you like to spend 500 hours playing poker, but as part of your education? Well that's exactly what Todd Mateer a master's degree mathematical sciences candidate at Clemson University did while researching video poker gambling in South Carolina.

His findings will worry gamblers particularly those in South Carolina, as his dissertation showed that often the numbers just don1t add up in the gambler's favor. "I found that an expert-level player can average a positive wage (about what might be called a 'minimum wage') if he played 40 hours a week over a two-year time period on a casino-style video poker machine in Las Vegas. But that's impossible for even an expert in South Carolina because of state-mandated caps and lower pay-off tables. And, realistically, most people are far from being experts."

Video poker was allowed in South Carolina in 1986, and has become very popular. The pervasiveness of the game has it played everywhere from convenience stores to casinos. However the social impact has been significant and legislation is now pwending to ban video poker.

This is almost an identical situation to that seen in Australia which now has the highest per-capita number of video gambling machines.

Mateer 's work used probability theory and extensive computer simulation programs to examines the precise moves that should be made by a player for an optimum return, and assuming such play, reports the probabilities and expected returns of various forms of the game currently existing in South Carolina. His work verifies claims made in gaming literature that some machines have expected pay-off levels of 99.54 percent if played perfectly - meaning that for every $100 put into one of these machines, the player can expect about $99.54 in return. A player who does not use a perfect or expert strategy plays at a much lower expected return - sometimes as low as 50 percent - and loses money at a much faster rate than the expert player.

Other video poker games, if played perfectly, are considered winning games because they have expected returns of just over 100 percent. However players need to remember that hitting the jackpot, occurs, on average, only about once in every 40,000 games! Unfortunately this is a best-case scenario in Las Vegas and South Carolina's mandated $125-per-day payout means that even those expected pay-offs are much lower. "The mathematical effect of the pay-off limit is that it has reduced the expected return on nearly all South Carolina machines and has transformed the perfect-play winning games on the fairest machines into losing games," Mateer says in his research paper. Mateer has steered clear of the emotions at play in the video poker debate.

With his research over Mateer's recommendation is that for players, like him, who enjoy the thrill of the game. "Save some cash and trouble and just buy a video poker simulator for your home computer."