Originally published on bj21.com Green Chip, edited for this format.
Blackjackwinner21: Can you play with an edge at video poker when you factor in every comp that you can receive via even the most conservative comp programs such as M life and Caesars Rewards? What is the edge that one can attain by playing, say, $5 Jacks or Better and getting freeplay, point play, and other discretionary comps in addition to free rooms?
My main reason for using video poker is to generate room and food comps for blackjack trips. I just don't want to give up too much in playing this negative-expectation game even though it is just a small house edge. I have done some figuring myself, and seems to be possible to make up the difference. Am I correct?
Captain Jack: Don't expect a roadmap. First, some straightforward answers to your questions … and then some not-so-straightforward advice. The value of comps is the value that YOU place on them. If a room is a room to you, getting comped in Las Vegas at Wynn or getting comped at Sunset Station has the same value. Likewise, a comp to the buffet or a comp to Picasso depends on how much you value gourmet food. Most comps can't be easily converted to cash, so I wouldn't factor them into your payback percentage. However, there are comps such as cashback, bounceback cash, and marketing offers which have actual cash value beyond the return of the game. Focus on these.
Now for the abstract advice … Sometime after the internet bonus-hustling boom died down, I converted from being a blackjack advantage player to being a general-casino advantage player. My annual number of hours card counting is down to almost zero. My total number of hours pursuing other advantage play opportunities is closer to 1000 hrs/yr. Making the casino think I'm a big loser is a goal; actually losing what they think I should theoretically lose is what I try to avoid. Video poker is a base ingredient in that.
Understanding how a casino works, literally at every level, exposes inefficiencies. The biggest inefficiency related to $5 and up video poker is that variance can be exploited. Losses can be exaggerated. Comps can be milked. Sometimes the best game to play is not the game with the best return.
Very little information about exploiting casinos on this level exists publicly in print; paper or electronic. I'd prefer it stayed that way. Trust circles are small when it comes to this sort of knowledge. My advice for someone looking to get started would be to pick a casino which has frequent promotions and study those promotions until you find an angle. Don't overthink this. There is a human element to comping the higher stakes player that doesn't come into play at lower levels. Eventually, you'll find someone to share that information with and form a trust circle.
A good example on how to beat a casino can be taken from what the MIT Lottery Team did on the Massachusetts Lottery Cash Winfall. Don't read the fluffy Huffington Post or Wired articles on it -- read the Massachusetts Inspector General's report. The MIT team out-thought everybody else and found a procedural inefficiency that allowed them to win large amounts.
Yes, spotting that lottery was like finding a video poker pay table that is positive EV; it's not that hard to know what to do. However, what they did was akin to playing video poker while other pros circle around looking for their pound of meat, and knowing how to out-fox them for the lion's share.
ECBJ: Setting aside the occasional extraordinary find, let's suppose you play a couple hours on Jacks or Better -- your theoretical loss is around $25, and you get comped a $100 room. Let's suppose that your play earns you $50 of freeplay the next visit, and that you determine your EV for the time you put in to be about $125.
Now suppose you were to spend the same amount of time playing a decent counting blackjack game instead. If you deduct the cost of what you'd pay for a room from your theoretical win from playing blackjack, is the overall number better or worse than video poker? For me, I've found that just paying for a cheap room and playing blackjack is a better option.
WRX: Good points, ECBJ, but counting at blackjack while using a player’s card carries with it potentially dangerous exposure to the pit and surveillance. For many, a little bit of machine play can be a good way of generating room and food offers that have real value. If the casino wants to sweeten the pot with some bounceback free play, so much the better. And many players will find themselves with free time on their hands in the course of a trip that can be devoted to some machine play.
One thing that Captain Jack said was, "Understanding how a casino works, literally at every level, exposes inefficiencies. The biggest inefficiency related to $5 and up video poker is that variance can be exploited." But maybe it doesn't have to be at a level as high as $5. Let's say you get brand new player's cards at Casino A and Casino B. At Casino A, you play video poker at decent stakes for an hour, and lose $1500. At Casino B, you play video poker at decent stakes for an hour, and win $1400. Casino A now thinks you're a loser, and sends you some nice mailers. Casino B thinks you're a potential action player, and maybe sends you some decent mailers in spite of your win.
Just don't play so much that you really are a big loser. Unless you're Bob Dancer, your goal is probably not to exploit some razor-thin edge obtained through multiple point days, drawings, and so forth, playing hundreds of hours a year. And because all of this relies on the high variance of the game, you have to be willing to take a chance of a painful loss.
Blackjackwinner21: When I go to Las Vegas, I usually have my wife to entertain and I have to find a way to make it enjoyable for her as I drag her around to a multitude of casinos for several days. There is a big cost involved in taking a trip to a resort with fine dining and a fancy lifestyle that my regular wage at my day job won't provide for me. As a part-time advantage player, I feel as though all of the comps have a significant value to me as comps enable me to live the high life for a few days and eat better than I usually do on a regular basis.
Like I said before, I still get in plenty of time at the blackjack tables unrated and at that point I can generate some serious EV by the end of my trip. If I was traveling alone, only looking to generate EV and keep expenses low, I would play video poker about half the amount of time at a casino to generate room comps at a cheap hotel and generate just enough to pay for buffets and coffee shops while on my trip. But to me this would make blackjack even more of a part-time job than it already is. Aside from all of that, I actually don't mind playing video poker as a change of pace, relaxing compared to the high alert on which we must always be when playing blackjack.
ECBJ: I should clarify that I was not suggesting that you play blackjack rated. I was saying that I play spend those two hours playing a positive EV blackjack game, and pay for my room out of the EV earned.
For example, if I played video poker for two hours, my theoretical loss might be around $30, but I get a $50 room and maybe $100 in free play on a future trip. My net EV for those two hours was $120.
Now suppose I spend the same time playing a $400 per hour blackjack game and pay for the $50 room. Here, my net EV for the two hours is $750 -- more than six times the result versus choosing the video poker option.
WRX: Understood, and let me clarify, too. Some of us would rather not play a counting game at all, because of the exposure to the pit, and the danger of getting backed off, which would leave us unable to play a more-valuable game in that casino, should one pop up. Rated or unrated, the danger is still there. Also, those more-valuable games can't always be found, unlike the situation for the counter, who can typically rely upon his game being available most hours of the day, once he's decided what casino and what game is worthwhile to play. That being so, we may end up with time on our hands, and can play a little video poker without incurring a big opportunity cost. That can be a good way of generating room offers and so forth. For some players, getting the value of those offers may be the best overall use of that time.