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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…

multistrikeoneoff

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?

My supreme loyalty; or How to use your iPhone when you visit the USA

For those interested in how to travel to the USA and still manage to feed a healthy iPhone addiction without racking up massive data roaming charges, here’s how I did it.  YMMV, and various other disclaimers.

The answer lies with T-Mobile, not AT&T.  While AT&T still have exclusivity on the iPhone, they don’t offer any kind of service plan that is suitable for a visitor.  T-Mobile, on the other hand, has FlexPay – where you can pay for each month of service in advance, with no minimum commitment.

For 500 voice minutes, 500 text messages and unlimited “smartphone” data, the cost is $59.95 (+ local sales tax).

I’ve read some reports that you don’t need to admit that it’s a smartphone and the web access still works, saving you some money.  But this time I wanted to make sure there wouldn’t be any problems and was up front about wanting to use an iPhone work, so I can’t vouch for that.

It’s not cheap for a 10-day trip, but at least it keeps the costs under control and still comes in at less than the cost of a 50Mb data roaming bundle (£50 with O2) or about 7Mb otherwise (at a horrendous £8/Mb).  My thinking was that I’d probably top up $10 on my prepaid phone for texts and pay $10/day for hotel internet anyway.  That’s just to check my email, do random browsing and for blogging – nothing I couldn’t do on a handheld gizmo really.  The added bonus of being able to instantly brag about my jackpots on Facebook, or to say “where’s the nearest cinema and what’s on?” was pretty sweet.

Here’s the amazing thing: T-Mobile don’t (can’t) sell the iPhone.  But they already have enough of a customer base that it’s very well supported.  When I called to ask for the network settings, they put me through to the “unsupported handsets helpdesk” – which surely should not exist! – and got me up and running in no time at all.

T-Mobile certainly appreciated my supreme loyalty too.  When I got home and needed to make sure I wasn’t signed up to a recurring payment (I wasn’t) they thanked me for being a customer for almost two weeks.  Sarcasm?  I’d be surprised.

tmobileloyalty

Anyway, here’s how I went about it:

I got my iPhone unlocked in advance the legitimate way – by asking O2.  I’d only had the phone a month, but that doesn’t matter any more.  They’ll unlock any contract iPhone for free and any pay-as-you-go for fifteen quid as long as you’ve had it at least a year.  (Other unlocking methods are available).

I checked what would happen when I put a US SIM card in it, using my basic T-Mobile pre-paid account.  The phone froze up and demanded it be connected to iTunes immediately to activate the new SIM and I obliged.

I expected that I would have to do the same thing again when I got a new SIM, so I prepared for this by loading just enough of my iTunes library onto my laptop to get by.  That is: iTunes Library.itl and the folder iTunes Media/Mobile Applications.  I couldn’t find a way to stop it wiping my apps if they weren’t present on the computer, but the music and video files don’t have to be there.  As long as the iTunes library on your computer looks the same as it does on your iPhone, there’s nothing to sync so it won’t bother trying to transfer any files.

I tested this several times before leaving the country as I couldn’t take my whole iTunes library with me (my laptop is a few years old and it didn’t have enough free space).  I also decided to uncheck “automatically sync when this iPhone is connected” and to turn on “manually manage music and videos” as an extra precaution.  This is actually the only reason I took a laptop with me this time.

In fact, once I got the new SIM card, I didn’t need to activate it. That’s probably because the phone had already seen another T-Mobile SIM, rather that it being a one-time only step so don’t bank on getting an easy ride if you try this.  If you switch the SIM and can’t hook up to iTunes, you might end up locking your iPhone until you get home  - or having to sneakily sync it with a random iTunes library at an Apple Store to bring it back to life (but wiping your music library and apps in the process).

But getting hold of the magic SIM was ridiculously easy.  I went into a T-Mobile store, said “I’ve got an unlocked iPhone, can I get a prepaid SIM card that will work in it?” and it was as easy as that.  No problems with being foreign or anything, they just swiped a credit card and I was on my way.

To configure the internet was pretty easy.  I should have printed this off in advance but it was easy enough getting instructions over the phone.  For future reference:

Go to Settings -> General -> Network, set Data Roaming on and 3G off (if you have an iPhone 3G; T-Mobile’s 3G frequency is different, unfortunately).  Under Cellular Data Network, set APN to internet2.voicestream.com That’s it.  You don’t even need to note down the old settings for later, as it will remember the right values for whichever SIM is inserted.

One mistake I made was not registering on the T-Mobile web site before I left.  You can only get a password to manage your account online via text message, and you can’t get international roaming – except for Canada and Mexico.

But as you can see from the online chat above, I managed to make sure the account was cancelled once I got home, and they said I can also use chat to get it reactivated before I go back next time.  The account remains dormant for 60 days (they say; I’ve read reports of it being much longer) before you lose the phone number.

This works out just right for when I go back to Las Vegas at the beginning of April :)

Christmas leftovers

Bit late with this one but still… what sums up Christmas in Las Vegas better than this: a showgirl sitting atop a bauble?

Maybe it’s a statue in Caesars Palace wearing a Santa hat.

Not actually free then

Does this look like a complimentary room offer? I thought it might be a mistake but they have actually charged it now. Screw you, Suncoast.

Best three dollar shirt ever

I can’t really wear it for a few more months but it’ll keep. This is why post-Christmas outlet mall shopping rocks.

I also got another one in a slightly different colour, but that was a whopping $4.98.

Better watch out

Or you may get one of these as an actual Chrismas card next year.

Happy Christmas!

Tempting fate

The gallery may not actually grow any more now I’ve decided to brag but at least there are some wins to report already :)

The two video poker wins were very nice. Two grand at the four queens, proving once again that The only way I can make a royal flush is to fluke it from a very weak draw. My career record so far: twice from two cards, once from just an ace and once on the deal. I have never hit a royal from 3- or 4-card draw.

The other was a $1000 win at Harrah’s Laughlin on dollar deuces wild which Claire hit while we were trying to work out if that machine would let us get in enough play to retain Diamond status. We played too scared and decided to take the money instead of losing it back to get a shiny players card. Maybe I’m losing focus…

The slot wins are just for fun obv.

Like driving on the Strip, except less annoying

Photos from the Gift of Lights show at Sunset Park.

I didn’t know much about this until I turned up and drove around it but it is pretty cool.

You stay in the car the whole way round and drive through and around lots of Christmas lights.

It looks like the displays are donated by businesses. Some even insisted that their own name was written in lights.

Others had provided a traditional Christmas scene.

Because it’s Vegas, there has to be an Elvis.

Some of the casinos even made an appearance. This is an approximation of the Circus Circus sign. You may need to squint a bit.

And then some were just completely random. The relevance of Nessie to either Las Vegas or Christmas is…?

Little big car

I booked an economy sized car but thanks to bmi diamond club I had a voucher for a free two-class upgrade and thanks to Hertz being shit last time we used them I also has $75 in credit to use. Basically I turned with all this junk and said “how big can I go”.

The answer was a Subaru Outback.

I don’t know what size they class it as, but it’s practically an SUV.

So imagine my surprise when the valet brought it to us this morning and said “I like this little car”.

It is pretty sweet. But little?

It also claims to have this feature:

Partial zero emissions vehicle.

Because some fraction of zero equals… ?

Las Vegas – Gateway to the black country

I’d heard – although not really believed – that the new British Airways route from Heathrow to Las Vegas was not just to get British tourists to Sin City. Apparently it also gave Americans a whole new way to travel to Europe.

People fly to Las Vegas to transfer onto another flight? I thought I’d believe that when I saw it. And then I saw it.

The girl sitting next to us on the transfer from San Francisco clocked our accents and asked for some advice.

“Do you know how I can get from the airport to Birmingham New Street?”

She did indeed pronounce the “h” in the name of the city, which to be fair is the way that it’s written.

My first reaction was what a nightmare it would be having to do that on the train on your first trip to England and particularly when there’s a little bit of snow on the ground which is often enough to grind the whole country to a standstill.

Apparently it’s because of the snow that she was having to do this. Originally her English friends were coming down to meet her at Heathrow but a dusting of snow mean that it would be “easier for everyone” if she got the train instead.

That’s the kind of friends I know I would fly around the world to spend Christmas with.

I tried my best to help including launching Tube Deluxe on my iPhone as a visual aid. Having no idea whether there was a way to avoid central London (maybe you can get to Watford Junction or Milton Keynes) I showed her how the Picadilly Line almost went to Euston station (but not quite) and said that I thought that would probably be easier than having to get underground at Victoria with a lot of luggage if she took the Heathrow express. Then I wished her good luck.

“Are you staying in Birmingham for Christmas?” I asked.

“Actually they’re taking me to Willenhall”. Which she also pronounced with an “h”. I could hardly contain my excitement.

“Is it quite a small town?” she asked.

“It’s got a market”, I offered.

I’m sure there’s a Christmas tree somewhere too.