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Maximizing Promotional Dollars - Misleading Payouts
by Sam Braids

A casino with a poker room where I am a regular, frequently provides me with a promotional coupon for slot machine play. The coupon cannot be redeemed for cash but instead must be inserted into one of the machines on the floor which will then give you a credit towards play. You can only cash what you win after betting the promotional credits. Therefore, maximizing your promotional dollars becomes a matter of finding the best machines to play. However, I discovered that this is not possible in the way that I thought it was. The casino can be very misleading with their payouts.

I discovered this bit of deception by doing the most obvious thing that a poker player can do with a free slot machine credit -- play video poker. In particular "Jacks or Better" video poker is one of the most player-friendly machine-style games that you can play. Depending on the payout a table, a knowledgeable video poker player is close to even-money with the house. The keyword here is of course "knowledgeable." Similar to basic strategy in the game of Blackjack, there is a mathematically optimum play that must be memorized for video poker hands that vary slightly with the payout tables. For a Jacks or Better machine with a 9/6 payout table, optimum play will on average return 99.5% of the money wagered. The "9/6" refers to payouts of 9 to 1 on a full house and 6 to 1 on a flush. All the payout tables pay 1 to 1 for a Jacks or Better pair, 2 to 1 for any two pair, 3 to 1 for three-of-a-kind, and 4 to 1 for a straight, which is why the variations in the full house/flush payouts define the machine.

Of course, as these payouts drop so do the players' returns. An 8/5 machine pays 97%, a 7/5 machine pays 96% and a 6/5 machine pays 95%. This later payout rate is close to the 94.7% return for American roulette, which is one of the worse bets that you can make in a casino. It is not uncommon for video poker machines in a casino to have varying payout tables. A check of the payouts for a number of machines should be performed before play so that the optimum machine can be selected.

At the casino where I had my coupon, I performed a check on a half dozen or so machines and the best I could find was a 7/5 machine (most were 6/5 payout tables). I inserted my coupon and my promotional credit appeared, but at this point I discovered a strange deception. The payout table transformed to a 6/5 table, and even worse, the 2 to 1 payout for two pair changed to 1 to 1, which is a significant decrease to the expected return because two pair is a common hand.

I had transferred my promotional dollars to the machine, so I was committed to playing them. But, not wanting to play with real money under these conditions, I cashed every time I won. I did not roll over any of my winnings and keep playing. The result was a stack of printed tickets of varying amounts that I had to insert into a cash machine after I was finished playing through the credits. Curious about the amorphous payout table that reset to the normal 7/5 payouts after I finished, I inserted a single dollar bill into the machine. The payouts did not change this time. I played my one dollar under the condition that two pair paid 2 to 1.

The machine had been programmed to pay players using promotional coupons very differently than players using cash. And, since it was "free play" I couldn't complain about the deception. The lesson is that not all casino promotional dollars are equal. Promotions are frequently used to entire players both online and in brick and mortar venues. It pays to read reviews, particularly for some of the top online casinos and know which promotions offer the most in real playing dollars.