October 2009
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Grab your terrible trunks

The clocks have gone back, it’s getting dark early and the weather’s getting really miserable.  Summer has been well and truly over for weeks.

Except in Las Vegas where it officially ends today – according to Terrible’s casino, who are running the last pool party of the year.

Considering I’m already sick of hearing about Christmas, seeing this would have been a pleasant surprise even without the awesome picture of Mr Terrible in his swimming trunks.

It’s clearly not going to be Rehab and I doubt they’ve done any kind of deal to make sure there are some whores strippers there.

In fact, I wish I could go to see what kind of turnout they get to a late October pool party at five on a weekday evening where the price of admission is a thousand slot points.

That’s worth just $3.33 when you spend it on beer or donuts – and even less at the buffet – but it’s probably high enough to weed out most of Terrible’s clientele.

Spooky booze news

Sometimes I wonder whether I’ve subscribed to too many Las Vegas mailing lists, because the messages I get from a lot of them end up straight in the trash.

But then something comes along that’s just so beautifully random that it makes me glad I bother.  Like this gem, just in from Lee’s Discount Liquor.

One of the Ghostbusters is in town on Halloween.  Why?  As if he needed a reason, it’s to write his name on bottles of liquor shaped like a skull of course.

According to the promotional video for Crystal Head Vodka, which, in my opinion, talks about drinking far too responsibly, the contents is described as "only the most challenging arena in the legal recreational consumables industry".

What a buzzkill.

Dan goes on to explain that it’s top quality, authentic Canadian vodka.

I’m not a vodka drinker, but I’m going to stick my neck out and say that’s an oxymoron.  I have to admit I didn’t even know such a thing existed.

I have a feeling you’re not actually meant to drink this stuff though, especially if it’s been signed by Dr Ray Stantz, so it’s probably irrelevant.  May as well be a bottle of ectoplasm.

FWIW, I’m on Lee’s mailing list because I love their sub-$20 deals on huge 1.75L bottles of Jim Beam.  This is mindblowing to someone who lives in the UK, where it’s considered a premium bourbon and it’s usually twice the price for half as much.

On the other hand, Americans seem to think that Newcastle Brown is a fine imported beer.  I guess it’s all about perspective.

My new book: The Ultimate Video Poker Pocket Book

I should probably admit that my "new book" is not actually that new any more.  I had almost completely finished writing this one over a year ago. 

Call me a perfectionist if you like, but I think procrastinator is probably more accurate.

I had to jump through a few hoops (and pretend to be American) to get an ISBN so that Amazon might list it, but when it came to it this week when I decided to finally publish the book there wasn’t much more I had to do than copy a chunk of text onto the copyright page and add a barcode to the back cover.

So, before I have chance to put it off any longer, may I proudly present: The Ultimate Video Poker Pocket Book.

It’s a grand title for something so small – and with such an unimaginative cover – I’m sure you’ll agree.

Furthermore, while I’m proudly trumpeting the arrival of a book I’ve written about video poker, it’s fairly easy to see that I’ve not actually had to write all that much at all myself.

In total, I wrote 10 (tiny) pages and I got a computer to create the rest.  Although, to be fair, there was quite a bit of work involved in doing that, not least of which was teaching it how to typeset everything just the way I wanted.

The end result is, in my completely objective opinion, an essential collection of video poker strategy charts and pay table data, all compiled into one very handy, very compact little book – it’s about the same size as a postcard.

The idea of the book is that you don’t just have one basic strategy chart to take to the casino or for playing video poker online – you have lots of slightly different ones.  Then, regardless of which game you decide to play and how the pay table is set, you can be sure that you’re playing optimally and making your money last as long as possible.

The concept evolved from an ever-growing stack of strategy cards I’d created for myself, held together in the corner with a split ring.  Rather than just carry a general strategy for, say, Jacks or Better, I wanted to make sure I was playing correctly if I found a machine that offered a different payback to what I was used to.

For example, the Stratosphere casino used to have JoB with a 10/6 or 9/7 pay table, which is even better than the "full pay" 9/6 game I usually like to play.

In this notation, the first number represents the payout (as a multiple of your bet) for a full house and the second is the payout for a flush.  On the 9/7 game, the value of flush draws (and straight flush and royal flush draws) goes up compared to 9/6.  Whereas the 10/6 version has a meatier full house payout, meaning that pairs – and even just high cards – become more valuable compared to draws.

The optimal strategy doesn’t change wildly, but it does change.  Although the 10/6 and 9/7 games had a positive expectation (and the casino advertised this fact loudly), to get the maximum payback it was necessary to adjust the way you play according to the pay table.

Sadly, these games died a death several years ago and never resurfaced.  Their pay tables didn’t even make it into the book (I concentrated on profiling the most popular games that exist today) but the same principle applies to any situation.

If you usually play 9/6 Jacks or Better and know the strategy well, but one day the only game you can find is a 7/5 or 8/5 machine (typical on the Las Vegas Strip) you know the payout is going to be worse than you’re expecting – but it’s going to be worse still if you don’t adjust your strategy to account for the short-paying hands.  

As the payback for the flush and full house gets smaller, the value of a straight draw increases.  Not by enough to affect most decisions, but some marginal hands should be played in a different way.

For example, if you were dealt 99TQK, it would usually be correct to hold the pair over the straight draw, but with a 7/5 pay table the optimal play is to draw to the straight, or try to pair the queen or king to make a winning hand.

Well, in truth the optimal play is get up and find a better game than 7/5 JoB, but sometimes that’s just not an option.

How do we know this is right?  Computer says so.

You’re just going to have to trust me on this, but the strategies have been thoroughly tried and tested on real games as well as on simulators that tell you when you’re making a mistake.

Heck, I’ve been using this book for 18 months and it’s prototype for years before that.  If there were an error, I’d have found it by now.

Here’s how the book looks when you hold it open on a particular page.  If you have really good eyesight (or just the initiative to click the image to enlarge it) you can have this strategy for free! 

When held this way round, the upper page shows various pay tables for one type of game.  In this case it’s Bonus Poker.  One of the pay table variations is shaded and as you flick through the pages the shaded column moves.  When you’re looking at a shaded pay table that’s the same as the one on the game you want to play, the strategy on the lower page in the book is the correct one to use.

The book also lists payback percentages, so you see how your chosen machine compares to pay table variations of the same game.  This allows you to shop around and find the best games more easily.

Or if you already know which game you’re looking for, the shaded bar along the edge of each page contains that information and makes it easy to find.

If I may say so myself, it’s quite ingenious. 

So, how do you read the strategy charts?  The book explains in a bit more detail what all the abbreviations stand for (you can read the whole introduction in the preview, here), but once you see what’s going on it’s logical and quite straightforward.  Here’s an example.

Suppose, when playing Bonus Poker with an 8/5 payable (corresponding to the picture above), you are dealt: 7s 8h 8c 9h Jh.

Your hand contains one pair, a four card straight draw with one gap and a three card straight flush draw with one gap.  However, the draws each also contain a jack, which is considered a "high card" as this game pays out for pairs of jacks or better.

The relevant sections of the strategy chart are items 15 and 19, enlarged here:

Item 15 is "1P (2-T)", which means "one pair (as long as it is between twos and tens)".

Item 19 groups two similar types of hands into one item, and the second one is our draw.  "3SF (8-Q) 1GAP 1HC" translates as: "A 3 card straight flush draw (having all cards between 8 and queen) with up to one gap allowed, but it must also contain at least one high card".

Once you know that SF is a straight flush draw and HC stands for "high cards", you can read the chart very quickly. 

The hands are listed in order of their expected return, with the most valuable first.  So the optimal play in any given situation is to hold the cards that correspond to the highest ranked (i.e. lowest numbered) item on the strategy chart that features in your hand.

So this tells us that your pair of 8s is a better hold than 8-9-J for a possible straight flush. 

If a combination of cards isn’t on the chart, you don’t hold it.  The inside straight draw (7-8-9-J) in your hand doesn’t make an appearance – it would be represented as "4ST 1GAP", or possibly "4ST 1GAP 1HC" if having the jack made a difference.  It’s correct to hold an inside straight draw in some video poker games, but not this one.

The only other listed hand you have is "1HC (J)", which is way down the chart at number 32.  The pair and straight flush draw are both better holds than just the single high card.

This may all sound a little dry and the book is certainly not going to be to everyone’s taste.  It’s designed to be a useful companion, not something you’ll want to read cover-to-cover.

I’ve also realised from how long this post ended up being that it’s going to be quite a difficult sell.  If you’re still with me this far, you probably deserve a medal.  I need to work out how to explain what the book is all about (and why you need 80 different strategy charts in your life) in a couple of sentences!  

But at least I’m using a publishing on demand service so if nobody buys it, I won’t have piles of the thing sitting around gathering dust…

You can buy The Ultimate Video Poker Pocket Book from Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

iSpin and iSpy

This is pretty sweet – it’s a mobile phone optimized version of the Harrah’s web site:

I know everyone’s doing it these days, but I hadn’t seen this before.  Harrah’s web site has always been way ahead of the game for communicating with players and their mobile version is no exception.

The lightweight site has virtually everything you get on the full scale web site, except it doesn’t bombard you with pictures of Bette Midler or adverts for the latest poolside debauchery.  You can access to your Total Rewards account – including all your offers, and it lets you make reservations.  Very nifty.

The site address is and I’ve bookmarked it already.

It actually took me a while to find the address for this even after I knew it existed. I only came across it through their iPhone app, iSpin, which is a Harrah’s branded slot machine simulator.  You can actually choose how you want it to look from 8 of their casino brands.

The game itself is OK I guess.  Reels spin and you win or lose fake money.  Of course it’s rigged heavily in the favour of the player to make you think you’re eternally lucky, so when it’s a close call on whether or not to take out a third mortgage to go to Las Vegas with, you’ll think back to some happy memories of pretending to gamble on your phone and decide that you can’t possibly lose.

In fact this game lets you hold up to two of the three reels to increase your chance of winning.  As there’s a prize for just one cherry on the pay line, all you have to do is wait for that symbol and hold it indefinitely to get at least a 100% return on investment on every spin.

Needless to say, there’s no actual casino slot machine that plays this way. 

There’s a few annoyances, like it plays irritating casino background noise which you can only turn off once you’re into the game.  So if you were already listening to something on the iPod, it stops when you launch the app.  I hate that.

The thing crashed on me a couple of times already too, so it’s not that stable.  But it does a fine job at helping you to kill a few minutes, and I guess that’s what it’s there for.  A free play slot game was always going to have a limited lifetime for me.  I was really just curious as to what they were giving away and how they were using it for casino marketing.

It was the Total Rewards integration that really caught my eye though.

I thought that was interesting.  A Total Rewards app for iPhone?  Even if you have to access it through a slot machine game, it’s still a pretty good idea.

Unfortunately, this is the extent of the information you can get from the app.

Then the orange links take you off to the mobile site on the web where we started, except that the site is irritatingly locked in landscape mode whether you like it or not – and you have to log in again.  Forget that – just to skip the game and go straight to

The only other thing of note about this app is that it asks for the iPhone’s location at start up.  This has absolutely nothing to do with the game or anything else in the app.

Big Brother at Harrah’s is watching you.  They not only want to know that you have downloaded and run their app, they also want to know where in the world you are.

They probably just snagged your phone number too.

How to pretend to almost take down a casino by Derren Brown

I hoped I’d have something to say today about Derren Brown’s latest TV stunt: How to Take Down a Casino. 

The idea was that he would predict live on TV the next number to be spun on a roulette wheel in an actual casino somewhere in Europe by placing a bet of £5,000 using money that he’d previously stolen from a viewer without them realising.

Sadly, I just didn’t get it.

If you didn’t see the show, the only copy on YouTube currently that Channel 4 haven’t zapped yet has embedding disabled, so click here while you can for the anti-climactic final moments. (Or find it on 4OD for the next week if you want to watch the whole show).

And then the credits rolled.  The end.

What we apparently saw was Derren with a hidden camera up his sleeve and one other undercover cameraman filming him using his super-charged brain to assess the velocity of the wheel, calculate the speed and rate of deceleration of the ball and then compute where it was going to land.  Except he didn’t – he was off by one.

There are indeed computer systems designed for cheating a casino that can do this, and they only aim to predict a segment of the wheel where the ball is going to land.

Even Jessica Alba’s super cat-person mind can’t be any more accurate than that:

I couldn’t find a version of this clip with the sound (a song in the background got it removed by YouTube), but you can read the script here.  Spin to about 2:00 for the start of the action.  At 2:20, she says "I can tell you where it’s gonna land, but I can’t call the bounce".

On a side note, I noticed that the TV gambling channel has a "live wheel" roulette game with an automated wheel, where the ball gets to orbit the wheel at least a dozen times before it’s too late to place a bet.  If this game is fair, it should be beatable by anyone with a home computer and the right software.  And yet they’re still in business…

Although there’s no reason not to believe that parts of Derren Brown’s show were live (the parts with the viewer who had been mugged were a decent convincer) my main problem is that I just don’t believe it took place in a real casino.

I thought it was just plain odd that a European casino would have the layout written in English.  Certainly, in France this wouldn’t be the case.  There would be bets for "Pair", "Impair", "Manque" and "Passe", and it’s traditionally a wider style of layout.

Clearly I can’t say for sure how it works in every European country, but I thought that in the same way that American casinos offer European or American roulette, in Europe the choice is generally between American or French roulette.  While American Roulette may indeed have a layout printed in English, and I guess you may even find those dealers speak in English, the game would have a double-zero wheel.

Not to mention that before Derren is even playing at that table, you hear the dealer announce "sixteen, red".  In English, and English only.

But, most importantly, isn’t it lucky that the table he’d singled out, that he’d been watching for weeks had a spot open at the right moment he needed to place the bet live on TV?  Not only that, it was a spot that gave his hidden camera an excellent view of both the part of table he was moving his chips into, and the wheel itself.

Assuming that this bet was not taken by a real casino, it actually makes sense that he would plan for the result to be not quite correct.  Otherwise, with a perfect prediction, it would be Channel 4 who would had to find £175,000 to pay out to the mug who apparently bankrolled the stunt.

Coming close by one is the next best thing to getting it spot on, but if that’s the end of the show and the result of an hour of hype is "close but no cigar" (rather than revealing the actual number that was spun had already been written on a nearby chicken, or something) it’s rather lacking in both flair and impact.

Which, frankly, fits in with the other shows in this latest series.

I’m a big fan of Derren Brown.  I’ve seen three of his stage shows, two of which were amazing and the other was pretty good but spoilt, I thought, by an obvious switcheroo as part of the final big reveal. 

Until now I’ve loved the TV shows and they’re still among the very few programmes I make a point of watching.  I know the tricks he does are almost never anything at all to do with what he says they are.  But if he’s still producing an illusion that makes you think "how the hell?", or just creating compelling TV, I don’t really care.  He is a fantastic entertainer.

In fact, the part of last night’s show where he made a girl throw a squash ball into a court and accurately predicted where it would finally come to rest after several bounces on a numbered grid was an impressive piece.  Of course it had nothing to do with his explanation of extreme mental physics calculations.  That’s just Derren’s "Abracadabra".  But it was an illusion that made me think "that’s so cool" while scratching my head over how it was really done.

However, I was left thoroughly disappointed that his lottery prediction stunt gave me no reason to believe that it was anything other than a camera trick.

His attempt to control the nation using a subliminal film (which "won’t work if you watch it on the Internet" – despite YouTube now being able to carry a better quality picture than terrestrial TV) left me feeling like I’d wasted an hour because it didn’t do a thing for me.

Then his attempt to project an image into the minds of viewers was so blatantly obvious that I wondered how on earth only about a third of people actually got it.

This week I’ve gone full circle.  There’s absolutely no reason to think this wasn’t another camera trick.  Either the casino scene was pre-recorded all along, after as many takes as it took to get a spin where the bet placed was one away from the actual number, or the film was switched out (like they do to Dennis Hopper in Speed) to show an earlier spin once Derren had placed the bet on a neighbouring number.

The interference on his hidden camera feed (which I don’t believe is genuine anyway, they had weeks to plan this and work out how to get a good signal) would have made it easy to splice that in, and there’s no communication with the guy in the truck once the casino cams go live. 

While the lottery prediction at least had an initial "wow" factor because it was done live at the same time as the actual draw (before he completely spoiled it in the reveal show with a preposterous explanation), going to so much effort to make it look like he missed a spin of a roulette wheel by one number is just, well, meh.

OK, I guess I did have something to say about it after all.