Dan Paymar's Video Poker Reviews
Million Dollar Video Poker

Million Dollar Video Poker
by Bob Dancer
HP 2003, $16.95, 240 Pages

This is not a book on playing strategy. It's more a biography of how the author extracted over a million dollars from the casinos. Many of his tactics are described in great detail. The really amazing thing is that anyone would be so candid about his personal life and the things he's done, and how he rationalizes doing things that many people might consider unethical, immoral or perhaps even illegal. One sentence on page 170 is especially revealing: "I'd had a lot of people work with me, get mad at me, and want nothing more to do with me." He seems to delight in being disliked.

There are many good recommendations, such as learning a game thoroughly before playing it and continuing to practice on a trainer program so that your skills don't deteriorate. I especially liked the sections titled "The care and feeding of slot hosts." Flattery and gifts (bribes) will get you over a lot of hurdles.

On the very first page of the text, Bob shows his disdain for less than perfect players. Consider a Jacks or Better hand containing a suited J-10, an off-suit King, and two low cards, one of which may or may not be a flush penalty card. The "best" play when there is no penalty card is the J-10 (highest EV by 0.01). I could go into a mathematical analysis discussing how infrequent such a decision occurs, and how frequently there is a penalty card, thus making the K-J the best play in most cases, but Bob would come back with dozens of other trivial situations. Therefore, I'll simply point out that several respected analysts have shown that a penalty-card-free strategy comes much closer than 0.01% off of perfect play, and even my easy-to-follow Precision Play rules come within 0.01% of the game EV.

On a $1 Jacks or Better that's a cost of less than 30 cents on $3,000 action, not just on the example type of hand, but the total for all penalty card situations. That's probably important for the 50 or so truly professional players (Bob's estimate), but the rest of us would probably lose more expected gain through playing errors and reduced playing speed when trying to follow perfect strategy.

In spite of Bob's insistence upon perfection in playing strategy, he says he never uses a mathematical risk of ruin calculation. He uses the "3-to-5 royals rule" instead. For example, for a game with a $1000 royal, he is happy with a $3000 to $5000 bankroll. On Deuces Wild that figures to a modest 7.4% to 21% risk of ruin, but on Double Bonus Poker, it's 61% to 74%. Most serious players would feel that he is often playing way above his bankroll. A few pages later he says, "...I learned that one pro had lost $80,000 on the [$5 15/10] Loose Deuces play at the Frontier. Wow! I had no idea that a loss of this magnitude was possible." A quick run with the Sorokin formula reveals a 39.5% probability of losing an $80,000 bankroll on that game. $80,000 is four royals. So much for the "3-to-5 royals rule." I might risk a few hundred dollars with a 40% risk of ruin, but not $80,000.

To be fair, however, we must acknowledge that Bob doesn't play where his only advantage is about 0.1% on the game itself. Slot club rebates, comps and promotions add a lot to the expected value, with a corresponding reduction in risk of ruin. Still, I would want to estimate the total value to me of such amenities and incorporate that into a mathematical risk of ruin calculation.

As he has done so often in the past, Bob goes out of his way to criticize my work, and the facts be damned. On page 41, he says, "I'd picked up Dan Paymar's 8th edition of Video Poker Precision Play. His Jacks or Better strategy was an eye opener. It was considerably more complex than Wong's, but , as I learned as I went along, full of mistakes. Still, it gave me added insight. In a footnote in one of Paymar's appendices, he'd written that you should hold a suited high card-10 over two unsuited high cards unless there was another card suited with the high card-10."

That's apparently his best example that my strategy is "full of mistakes," but the error is entirely his. The footnote in question can be none other than note "m" on page 57. Quoting verbatim from that edition, "‘Honor-10 suited' means A-10, K-10, Q-10 or J-10 of the same suit. Don't hold a suited 10 with an ace if the jackpot is less than 940-for-1, and don't hold a 10 with any honor if any discard is the same suit or a straight card." Nothing at all is said of two unsuited high cards in this note, but in the hand rank table to which it refers, "Two honors (unsuited)" is just above "K-10, Q-10, J-10 suited." How does Bob interpret this to say that a suited high card-10 should be held over two unsuited high cards? Moreover, his error was pointed out to him when he wrote the same thing several years ago.

On page 125 he says, "... Jokers Wild is an extremely difficult game to play.... Paymar's [strategy] was probably the best and I estimate it generated a return that was still at least .25% less than perfect." Actually, unless you're trying to be as perfect at Bob, Joker Wild is much easier to learn than Double Bonus, and an independent expert has determined that my hand rank table comes within 0.02% of perfect. Bob's "estimate" was off by more than an order of magnitude.

On page 175 Bob says, "Today, Dan Paymar's Video Poker Optimum Play... is currently the best book on how to play video poker on the market." Thanks for the compliment, Bob. It's too bad you were unable to resist the temptation to say that it's full of errors. You wrote a long harangue (your word) on those "errors" several years ago, and I showed that altogether they added up to less than 0.01% of the total game EV. Jazbo Burns confirmed that, using his proprietary strategy analysis software. That "cost" may be important to Bob, but not at all to me or my audience. Also, the grammar is a bit confusing. I don't think anyone plays video poker on the market. ;-}

It's a minor point, but many places in the book Bob refers to a payoff as, for example, 800 to 1. I'm surprised that Anthony Curtis didn't edit this to the mathematically correct 800-for-1 (the "1" is not returned with the payoff). The difference is small on a royal flush (but still large if you view small errors as Bob does), but on a pair of jacks there's a 100% difference between 1-for-1 (returning your bet, which is just a push) and 1-to-1 (a real win of an amount equal to your bet, as on a winning craps pass bet).

In summary, Million Dollar Video Poker is a very important book for anyone intent on becoming a professional gambler, no matter whether your game of choice is video poker, blackjack or anything else. Perhaps the most important lesson is that Bob spent several years learning how to take advantage of every potential opportunity, during which he made far less than he could have earned in a regular job in spite of admittedly stealing from the casinos (page 88). If you are not up to the task, the book will hopefully dissuade you from the attempt.

By far the most valuable part of the book is the final chapter, "Winning is a Process, Not an Event." These four pages give the best advice I've ever read for a wannabe professional gambler. Buy the book for this section if for nothing else.

The goal of making big money playing video poker boils down to a lot of hard work that would likely have yielded even greater rewards in a productive endeavor. And it's getting even harder as the casinos learn to structure promotions to be less vulnerable to pros.

It should also be noted that much of Bob's success was pure luck. On those big plays that he calls "potshots" he was playing way over his bankroll, in some cases with a risk of ruin in the high ninety percentile range, but several times he got very lucky and hit the royal on a relatively small number of hands. It would be foolhardy for anyone to attempt to duplicate Bob's outstanding success on a small bankroll.

On page 210 Bob says that Deuces Wild is much more fun than Jacks or Better. I consider it very significant that this is the only time in the book where he says anything about video poker being fun. But don't despair; you can still have fun playing video poker as a skilled recreational player and supplement your income without all that work if you start with the strategy book that Bob recommends.