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Knowing basics can improve players odds at video dollars

Here's the predicament: You're playing the maximum five quarters per hand at your favorite "jacks or better" video dollars machine, but it's been a dry experience on almost all of your allotted $40 bankroll gone. You have enough credits with your machine for five full plays, on a couple of quarters left over. You press the "maximum bet" button with your machine and up pops this winning hand: king, jack, six, nine and 10, all of hearts. The five-coin flush pays 6-to-1, or 30 quarters, and that'll give you an additional six chances at hitting every video dollars player's dream: a royal flush.

But, hey, three cards of your flush are part of a potential royal flush. By holding the king, jack and 10, you need only to draw the ace of hearts and queen of hearts -- two specific cards out of 47 remaining in the randomly shuffled, computerized deck -- to claim the $1,000 payout. What's more, you're only one card shy of a nine-through-king straight flush.

If you surrender only the six and are fortunate enough to draw the queen of hearts, you'll win 250 quarters, or $62.50. It's better odds than drawing to the royal flush, because you need only one card out of 47. You pause. "What the heck," you say to yourself. "I haven't been this close to a royal all day." So, you discard the six and nine -- and up comes the six of clubs and the four of spades. You forfeited your winning flush of $7.50 -- not to mention a 1-in-47 chance at a straight flush -- for the 1-in-1,081 odds of a royal flush.

Smart or stupid? "It depends. Sometimes you have to listen to your ESP (extrasensory perception). If you sense the machine 'screaming' at you to do it, then you probably should," says Collin Pratt, a freelance video dollars and keno analyst. "But, statistically, you shouldn't. in almost all cases, you shouldn't throw back a winning hand." But it's the thrill -- not to mention the financial windfall -- of catching a royal flush that has made video dollars the most played cash game in Nevada. (Falling under the classification of slot revenue, which also includes slot and video keno machines, video dollars helped generate $3.94 billion statewide in 1993, including $2.89 billion in Clark County.)

Video dollars differs from table dollars in several ways. Not only are you playing one-with-one against a computer microprocessor rather than against a table of stogie-smoking, stone-faced wise guys, you're making your bet before you even see your first card. in standard "jacks or better" machines -- which can be for nickel, quarter, half-dollar or dollar experience -- the bet usually is anywhere from one to five coins. Winning hands are paid in multiples of the coins bet, on the exception of the royal flush, which can be a larger, set amount or part of a progressive jackpot.

"Jacks or better" machines are those that pay winning hands of anything equal to or greater than a pair of jacks. Just as certain hands in table dollars are rated better than others because of their relative infrequency of being drawn, certain hands in video dollars pay better than others.

Therein lies the lure. For example, a one-coin bet resulting in a pair of jacks, queens, kings or aces returns the bet. Any two pair pays 2-to-1, three of a kind pays 3-to-1, a straight (any five cards in sequence, regardless of suit) pays 4-to-1, a flush (any five nonsequential cards of the same suit) pays 6-to-1, a full house (five cards consisting of three of a kind and one pair) pays 9-to-1, four of a kind pays 25-to-1, a straight flush (five sequential cards of the same suit) pays 50-to-1 and a royal flush (10-through-ace of the same suit) pays 250-to-1, except when maximum coins are bet.

with some "jacks or better" machines that feature progressive jackpots with royal flushes or gimmick winning hands to lure the customer, the payouts for straights, flushes, full houses and/or fours-of-a-kind may be less so that the house -- as the owner of the machine is known -- can compensate.

Pratt, who has spent more than two years studying and writing about video dollars and also teaches thrice yearly seminars each at Community College of Southern Nevada's Cheyenne Avenue and Henderson campuses, advises video dollars players to look for machines that provide "best pay" schedules -- that is, the fair odds previously listed for straights, flushes, full houses and fours-of-a-kind.

"Most of the other machines are tourist traps. They're designed for players who don't know what to look for," says Pratt, who markets his xerographic writings under the name of cashWise Productions. Knowing what to look for probably is the most important aspect of video dollars -- after picking the right machine -- that means knowing which hands to hold and which hands to go for.

According to Pratt's statistics, there are approximately 2.6 million five-card hands possible in a 52-card deck. Forty-seven percent of the time, a player will be dealt a winning hand with his first five cards. The sound experience is to hold any winning combination and try to improve it to a higher level on the draw, which is the machine's second deal to replace any discards.

The actual frequency for winning hands, following a deal and draw, are as follows:
--High pair (jacks, queens, kings and aces): 43 out of every 200 hands.
--Two pair: 13 out of every 100 hands.
--Three of a kind: one out of every 13 hands.
--Straight: one out of every 90 hands.
--Flush: one out of every 92 hands.
--Full house: one out of every 97 hands.
--Four of a kind: one out of every 423 hands.
--Straight flush: one out of every 9,610 hands.
--Royal flush: one out of every 40,120 hands.

This is not to say, however, that you either will be dealt or draw to any of these hands exactly the number of times listed; however, over an extended period of experience, these numbers should hold true.

Many people who have never hit a royal flush become frustrated and believe it never will happen. Pratt, who has worked as a keno writer for 20 years, including the last five at Jerry's Nugget, estimates that for every 80-100 hours played, a player should average one royal flush. "At some of the busier cash, they'll pay out as many as 50 royals each day," Pratt says.

Pratt, 50, adheres to the universal philosophy of always holding a winning deal and then trying to improve with it on two exceptions: you should sacrifice any winning hand when only one card is needed for a royal flush and you should sacrifice any high pair when only two cards are needed for a royal flush. When not dealt a winning hand with the deal -- which occurs 53 percent of the time -- Pratt advises that you go for what appears to be the most "win-able" hand on the draw.

Pratt's experience scheme is to come away each time a winner, and that doesn't mean playing recklessly or for a prolonged period of time in a kamikaze effort to hit a royal flush. Savvy video dollars players, Pratt says, will control a predetermined bankroll and be satisfied on a 60-80 percent take over their initial investment -- for example, if you set aside $20 and lose it, quit; if you set aside $20 and can get back $32 or more, leave a winner. Obviously, the more money you have to experience on, the greater chance you have of hitting a high-paying hand; conversely, the more money you have to experience on, the more money you can lose.

As contagious as video dollars can be for some people, Pratt recommends playing no more than three days per week, and no more than two hours per outing. Any more, he says, and your senses will become numb to modest winnings and you will be more prone to lose your bankroll.

Pratt also offers the following tips, which he believes may give players a slight advantage:

At the time you're looking for video dollars machines on "best pay" schedules, also look for ones that have been paying. Often, that means nothing more than checking the credit buildup of machines being used to see how much other players have won.

Establish early how low pairs are paying. Pairs of 10 or less must become three of a kind before paying, and if you are having trouble coming up on that third card when you hold a low pair, Pratt says you should consider discarding the pair and using singular high cards to draw to a high pair or better.

If that fails, move to another machine. Avoid gimmicky machines, which cheat the player with middle-range hands to cover the cost of the gimmick. Because the gimmick hands are hit about as frequently as a royal flush, you only hurt yourself in realistic payout terms by feeding these machines.

experience only if you can make the maximum bet. According to Pratt, you're only helping the house by dropping one or two quarters into a machine. If you hit a royal flush, you will get only a small percentage of what you could get if you had bet the maximum coins. Even if you have only two quarters as you leave the grocery store, Pratt says you're better off holding with to them until you can add three more for a five-coin experience.

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