Just to the right of the main entrance of the Meadows Racetrack & Casino, dozens of Game King video poker machines line a wall and are grouped in nearby clusters.
They present options that could have been played when casino gaming first came to the Washington County harness track in 2007: single-line jacks or better, deuces wild, bonus poker, and the like.
Walk 100 feet past those, however, and patrons are playing versions never imagined when video poker machines were created in the 1970s. At Hot Roll Poker, Ultimate X Poker, Super Times Pay Poker, and others, players utilizing up to 10 hands at a time — even 100 hands on one machine — can get multipliers and bonuses that create all kinds of bigger opportunities for wins (and of course, losses, as those special features require a bigger investment per hand).
These new variations are part of a strategy that has grown video poker from about 6% of the machines at the Meadows a few years ago to 8% of the 2,500 on the floor today, said Benjamin Baugh, the casino’s director of slot operations.
“Our utilization at peak periods is very strong, and some of the highest utilizations are in video poker. It’s something that seems to have gathered interest,” he said. “There’s now excitement from the multipliers, the different bonuses, and the progressives with multipliers … This has really changed the player experience.”
It’s for drivers, not passengers
Since its debut more than four decades ago and through various updates over time by primary manufacturer IGT, video poker has remained a niche interest for casino patrons who understand card strategy and view the slots as mindless. They may not cotton to the time and socialization required of live poker games, but they appreciate being dealt five cards and using math skills to assess the best ones to keep and throw away, all the while hoping in the back of their minds for that 1-in-40,000 royal flush to hit.
Bob Dancer, recognized as one of the foremost authorities on video poker, described video poker players on his blog as those who want to be behind the wheel of the car on a road trip, while slots players prefer to be passengers.
“The best video poker players are bright,” he wrote. “Not necessarily genius, but at least average intelligence or better. Every hand may be played in 32 different ways — one of which is uniquely best.”
Some locals-oriented casinos in Las Vegas contain as many video poker offerings as slots, because regular customers in them are drawn to the machines that contain an element of skill and higher payback percentages than slots. That type of balance will likely never be the case in Pennsylvania, but the gaming operators know they need to keep video poker patrons in mind.
“Demand is the biggest factor,” said David Zerfing, general manager of the Valley Forge Casino Resort. “At the end of the day, if customers want those types of machines, they will go somewhere else if you don’t put it on the floor for them.”
As a resort casino, restricted to 850 machines in total, Valley Forge is more limited in what it can offer and has to be “laser-focused” on what customers will play most, Zerfing said.
Video poker makes up about 5% of what the casino offers, and he said newer versions like Ultimate X and the rest allow for the kind of bonus wins and bigger payouts to which slots players are more accustomed.
The new variations still keep players involved in strategy affecting their outcome, however, which is the main difference from slots.
“They’re making decisions as opposed to just pushing a button,” Zerfing said. “The video poker player is a lot like a blackjack player. They like the analytics of the game and determining their fate. It’s really a different type of player.”
Side by side, some games look very different
Pittsburgh’s Rivers Casino has about 220 video poker machines out of its total of 2,600, about 8% like the Meadows.
In one row of three machines there, a player in the middle would be playing the new Powerhouse Poker, where being dealt a winning hand to start (a high pair or better on the first five cards dealt) creates a new set of up to nine bonus hands to draw to on a screen above, some of them containing multipliers.
At the machine to the right, someone playing Super Draw 6 Card Poker receives a bonus sixth card along with other cards drawn, enabling special payouts for unusual hands such as three pairs or quads with a pair.
And on the left, someone playing Spin Poker — which looks as much like a reel slot machine as a video poker device — plays a dizzying array of nine hands from among configurations identified within three horizontal rows and five columns.
Those all are made by IGT, which keeps tweaking its portfolio of games offered to casinos while remaining aware that video poker players won’t try just anything.
“Video poker players tend to be more loyal to their preferred games and do not readily embrace change,” said Darnell Johnson, IGT’s director of product management, video poker. “When IGT creates new video poker products, we take a very measured, research-based approach.”
Thus, while adding games such as Hot Roll Poker, which brings a dice roll into play to determine multipliers on winning hands, Johnson said IGT’s biggest video poker volume is from Game King machines, “which can be found in almost every bar in North America that allows gaming,” and from its Super Star Poker bundle that includes versions of Ultimate X Poker and Super Times Pay Poker on the same machine.
“All of these themes have been in the field for many years and have developed a loyal following over that time,” Johnson said.
Video poker paybacks are way better than slots
Andre Barnabei, Rivers Casino’s vice president of gaming, said the Pittsburgh property was once at only about 5% video poker before officials decided to increase it.
“We did some research, met with guests and some video poker experts, and really dove in to expand our offerings,” he said, which included adding 24 video poker units at the new sportsbook bar.
When casinos devote more space to video poker instead of slots, they have the potential for hurting their bottom line. In Pennsylvania, machines overall on gaming floors return about 90% of money wagered back to players, but video poker typically returns a far higher percentage than slots.
There are nothing like the machines in Las Vegas that might carry signs advertising nearly 100% payback, but a player in Pennsylvania understanding the basics of the game should net a return of 95% or more.
“The higher payback percentage does affect decisions related to how much video poker to offer, and where to place it,” said Sunil Mukul, director of casino operations at Mohegan Sun Pocono, which has 98 video poker options, about 5% of its machines.
“A popular location for these types of games are certainly on bar-tops at casino bars, and otherwise, there is not a need to be overly strategic on the placement of video poker, as the average player of these games will seek them out.”
Barnabei and Baugh said their casinos have certain video poker machines with a theoretical return up to 97-98%.
The casinos rely on the prospect that a video poker machine returning more to a player than the average slot machine can make up for that by being utilized at a higher rate.
“If someone is playing video poker optimally, they have a better advantage,” but they need to be accommodated, Barnabei said. “You have a group of players who come here to play video poker who will not transition to anything else. It’s an offering to people who might not come in otherwise.”
VP players want a little more quiet
The casino’s research resulted in other considerations for them, Barnabei said. Its video poker is clustered away from the main casino activity, placed where there are fewer other customers passing through and the music is played more softly.
“Based on feedback, video poker players enjoy more of a laid-back, quieter, less-volume-of-traffic-through-the-area type of space,” Barnabei said. “We try to put them in areas of the casino that are a little less energetic … I would say it is a bit less social environment certainly than table games, and even slots.”
It is not uncommon to see a video poker player engrossed in a game for hours, devoting more time to his or her machine than would be typical for a slots player. It does not mean, however, that they’re having a winning session.
There are various strategy tips available by websites such as wizardofodds.com and books from Bob Dancer and others, but like everything else in which you’re playing against the casino, the odds are stacked against you.
Dancer, who teaches classes about the game in Las Vegas after spending part of his life trying make a living from it, wrote on his blog that despite everything he knows about finding the best games and playing them the best way, he loses two out of every three sessions.
“In regular poker, good players will win most of the time. In video poker that won’t happen,” he advises.
The new versions, however, might at least add more interest to any losses along the way.
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