January 2010
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The worst video poker game I ever played

The time has come to say a tearful farewell to my Diamond Total Rewards card.

The current card is still valid until the end of March, but as I won’t return to Las Vegas until the beginning of April, that does me no good whatsoever.  In order to retain it, I needed to have achieved the requisite number of tier credits by the end of last year.  I didn’t get there.

The number of tier credits required to achieve or retain Diamond is 11,000 – representing $55,000 of action on slot machines, or $110,000 on video poker.  Or some secret magic formula of time, money and whether or not the pit boss likes you when playing table games.

I’ve achieved this before, using a 50-line 9/6 Jacks or Better game in Harrah’s Laughlin.  It takes some commitment (and some balls to trust in the numbers when you run bad), but a 99.54% game with (usually) 0.3% returned as comp means it’s a decent proposition.  Cycle $110,000 on that game and you expect to lose about $500 in cash, but receive $330 to spend on food and stuff.  Net cost: $170.

Consider that most video poker on the Strip is in the 97-98% range.  A typical player qualifies for Diamond status with a theoretical loss in the region of $3,000 for a given year.  They still only get back the same $330 as comp, so doing it my way is a pretty good discount.

Yes, slightly better plays are available.  I just don’t have the bankroll for them.

Here’s one that you won’t find on the vpfree2 web site.  That could be down to a lack of casino monitors, the inability to actually find what you’re looking for since the site switched to it’s new craptastic format, or just that members of the so-called community are no longer sharing data like they used to (you know, the way most of them actually got started), just reporting a handful of so-so games but keeping the best information to themselves.  I liked the old site.  I miss the old site.

I may get death threats for talking about it, but Harrah’s Laughlin has a 9/6 Jacks or Better in a $1 Multistrike game.  Or at least it did in December 2009.  It’s a slant-top, just inside the high limit area, next to the poker room.

Multistrike video poker requires you to pay for four hands at a time.  If you win the first, you play the second with a 2x multiplier; if you win that you play the 3rd at 4x and – if you get there – the top line is paid off at 8x the regular win.  If you don’t win on the first attempt though, you’ve just lost four times the usual stake very quickly.

Yes, the swings are big.  But making some adjustments to the way you play the game teases the odds in the player’s favour.  You can get almost 99.8% payback (so it’s a profitable game when you add in other benefits) and at $20 per game it’s very quick to cycle money.  Perfect for a professional with deep pockets, but given that a not-insignificant part of the overall return comes from large 8x wins – including an extremely rare top line royal flush – I was only able to have a quick punt on this one.

How sweet it nearly was though.  One card away from thirty two grand…


I did actually abandon an attempt to achieve Diamond in a Day at Harrah’s Laughlin (requiring only 3,000 tier credits in 24 hours) on a $1 Deuces Wild machine.  Although it’s a solid play at 99.7% payback, I wasn’t familiar with the game and it was more volatile than I expected – and was comfortable with – so I bottled it, took the money and ran after hitting a lucky quad deuces.

After that, I got back to Vegas with roughly 3,200 tier credits showing for the year.  There was no way I’d get Diamond now, but I only needed to reach 4,000 to ensure Platinum for the next year.

Frankly, Platinum isn’t worth much.  At some hotels you can use the same VIP check-in as Diamond, but at others it looks like you have to wait in the pleb line.  There’s no queue-jumping at restaurants or for taxis, and if the valet is “full” you actually have to pull cash out of your wallet to make a space magically appear, not just a players card.

You do get some kind of show tickets offer though, and an invitation to the Summerfest tournament.  But mostly, well, I just wanted my players card to not be gold again.

Do you see why these tiered programs are so successful?…

It’s not (quite) all vanity.  I do like the idea of flashing a shiny player’s card when I sit at a poker table to let everyone else know I gamble.  I’ll then most likely turn to granite for two or three hours, by which time nobody is fooled when I check-raise with a sigh, but just in case I hit a monster early on it certainly can’t harm my action.

I wasn’t sure where that 3,200 number had come from.  In the summer, I used a Macy’s gift card promotion to play a few otherwise unfavourable games with an edge and Claire and I between us racked up about 1300 tier credits.  In December in Laughlin, we’d done a little more than 700 more in total.

So that’s 1200 tier credit that had to have come from somewhere….  Who knew it was from poker?

This is a new phenomenon, apparently beginning earlier this year and, according to Poker Grump, awards 28 tier credits per hour in addition to the usual 100 spendable credits (worth $1 towards eating).

A commenter on that post saved me some calculations by noting that you can reach Diamond status with 393 hours of play and Platinum with 143 hours.  That’s out of reach for me.  I’ve failed in three consecutive summers to reach my target of 100 hours play in a month-long trip.  I’m sure I could do it with a little more focus, but as I take real work with me on long trips, I don’t go to Vegas to make poker feel like a job.

It does actually sound like a great deal though. It seems that if you lived in Las Vegas and gambled recreationally, playing $2/$4 Hold’em would be a much less stressful way to get to Diamond than any other kind of low stakes gaming.  If you play poker with any kind of seriousness (and loyalty) you’ll do it several times over.

At least it feels like Harrah’s are being generous to poker players.  In fact, even using a conservative estimate of $10 rake paid per hour†, a Diamond poker player is worth at least $3,930 to Harrah’s.  That’s actually more than a video poker player who isn’t completely clueless about strategy, or a slot player who gets there by playing games with 93% payback or higher (which is about right for $1 slots on the Strip)!

[†20 hands per hour maxing out the rake at $5 per pot gives this number when averaged across a full table of ten players; it could be double this, which would put it on a par with penny slots].

Anyway, I’ll gladly take advantage of any opportunity to reduce the amount of machine play I need to put in to reach a player’s club tier, especially when the machines you can do it on just keep getting worse.

Last week, in a last-ditch attempt to try to salvage my Total Rewards status, I decided to play quite possibly the worst video poker game I had ever sat down at.  (Well, at least since I realised that not all games were created equal.)

Imperial Palace.  7/5 Bonus Poker.  98.0% payback with optimal stragtegy.  The last surviving 8/5 paytable (99.2% payback) is long gone.

Actually it was slightly better than that – it was a Super Times Pay game.  STP lets you play an extra coin on each hand for the chance of being dealt a multiplier card worth 2x, 3x, 4x, 5x, 8x or 10x on a winning hand.  The multiplier appears every 15 hands and averages 4.05x, and those numbers actually make it a slightly profitable bet.  Unlike Multistrike, no change in strategy is needed to benefit from the additional payback, but it’s still quite volatile.  Even on a 25c machine the long-term return accounts for hitting a 10x royal flush, worth $10,000.

Super Times Pay is a slight improvement – worth about 0.3% overall – which, unfortunately, made this machine the very best of a bad bunch.

The question was: would this gamble be worth it?

I had to give Harrah’s $8,000 more action in order to retain my level.   Add on roughly 0.3% in comp credit to the 98.3% game payback and I stood to lose 1.4% of the total amount bet.  That’s an expected loss of $112 – too much to pay just for a free afternoon show (of someone else’s choice) and entry into a $40 tournament (if the dates worked out right).

But because I was doing it at a Strip casino rather than out in Laughlin (where being able to count the spots on two dice is generally enough to get you a free room) there was the possibility of that action being enough to qualify my account for the much more valuable Las Vegas comps again.

It’s not surprising that I had lost my free room privileges, but it’s surprising it took so long.  Nearly a year after I began booking weeks of free hotels at a time, doing little more than stealing the soap (or at least trying) and not gambling a penny in Harrah’s casinos in Las Vegas, they finally caught up and decided I needed to start paying to stay there.

What’s even more surprising though, is that it only took a couple of days after this short stint at Imperial Palace to get those freebies back again.  They started showing today!  It looks like almost any dates for five free midweek nights are available for at least one of: Flamingo, Bally’s, Harrah’s or Rio.  It only takes a couple of nights to cover that $112 loss in full!

I don’t really care that my offers don’t include Caesars or Paris, or even the “Luv Tub” rooms at Imperial Palace that had tempted me so much in the past.  Rio suits me down to the ground.  It’s within walking distance of places I actually want to gamble at (Gold Coast, Palms) and close to the freeway for getting places.  If I want to play poker on the Strip, I can be at Caesars Palace in about 5 minutes.

A good result then, but fortunately so this time, I think, rather than being a brilliantly calculated advantage play.  Even that 1.4% theoretical loss on a game is too high to justify retaining Platinum – and certainly too high to justify shooting for Diamond – for next year.  I’ll either have to find a better game that I am comfortable with, increase my tolerance to risk significantly, or just play lots of poker at Harrah’s casinos to bump up the numbers.

There is one more option.  A cunning backup plan.  It involves one of the spare copies of my old Diamond card that I started stock-piling last week and a black marker pen.  Can you tell what it is yet?