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Video Poker Getting info and trading secrets

If you made a list of skills you would expect professional video poker players to have, would that be one of them? You might not think it, but the ability to convince your competition of something, to spin truth to your advantage, is critical to success. And we all do it.

“Information is the most valuable commodity.” So said Gordon Gecko in Wall Street. That flick was about investors, and so is this article. The pro gambler is an investment expert of sorts. Remember Charlie Sheen motorcycling through the streets of Manhattan, following corporate raider Sir Larry Wildman as he slid from meeting to meeting, preparing to swoop down and gobble up Anacott Steel? This same sort of thing happens in gambling. It’s a game I call “Follow The Dirtbag.”

Here’s how it works. Salvo Slipcoin plays professional video poker. You’ve seen him at all the big drawings and slot tournaments, in the high-limit room pounding the $25 machines. If you were to follow him around from place to place, you could discover all the good plays he knows. Additionally, if you were to see him playing at a casino where you didn’t think there was anything worthwhile, you’d know it’s definitely time to investigate.

Unfortunately, this spying works both ways. I’ve had people who know me stop in their tracks when they find me sitting at a machine they’re unfamiliar with. After checking it out, they know what I know. Not much you can do except try to hide when you see them coming.

Recently, I was at a pretty good drawing at a Strip casino. After checking in, I took a walk through the high-limit room and saw…nobody. Nobody I knew, anyway. Where were all the usual suspects? This is always a bad sign. What was I missing? There must be a better play somewhere in town, or out.

Once, a few years back, a locals casino in North Las Vegas held a double royal promotion: a second royal flush in 24 hours would pay double. Normally, this is a safe promotion for casinos, as the odds of getting two royals within this short period aren’t very good, while those scoring a first royal have a strong enticement to keep playing in hopes of bagging a second. This results in much additional play and profit for the house.

But at this particular casino, there were two things that changed that. One, the best game was a liberal $1 10/7 Double Bonus game. Two, it was a Triple Play machine, making a royal flush nearly three times as likely on every deal. Though it’s now common for casinos to exclude or restrict multiline games from some promotions, at the time, slot directors didn’t give this much thought.

Knowing how valuable it was to the player, and that there were only two machines, I made sure to get there two hours before midnight, expecting to find at least one machine already locked up. Instead, I found both seats empty. What was wrong? I started wondering. Had I miscalculated something? Had I missed some fine print in the details that made it a bad play? Had there been heat? I went and got the rules sheet, read it all, both sides. Then I read it again. No problems I could see.

The next Sunday, when the promotional period began anew, I showed up fashionably late, well after midnight. If no one else wanted to play this thing, why rush? This time, both machines were already taken by players I didn’t recognize. I casually asked one of them how long he was planning to play. Though I was pretty sure he was a pro, I wasn’t positive. He might just have been a recreational player. Even a pro might not be there for the long haul–he might be tired, or have a late-night dentist appointment or something.

Wishful thinking. His answer: “I’m going to play for four days straight.”

At least it was the truth. Many pros will tap dance to this kind of question, answering, “Hard to say,” or, “I really hadn’t thought about it much.”

I later learned that a casino in Henderson had held a very strong drawing the previous week, and that’s why no pros had shown up here. They were all whacking away on the other side of town.

But it’s not just strangers who will play this game.

“I hate it when someone outright lies to me.” It was The Menace. He had just asked another whacker who was seated at the one and only Fifty Play machine how long he was planning to play, and the player had told him he would be there only 10 minutes or so. An hour later, it was clear he was camped out.

“Know what you mean,” I said. It was amusing to hear this, because The Menace had a habit of “outright lying” to me on a regular basis. When he wasn’t doing that, he was trying to be a master of misdirection, attempting to wave me off good plays by trying to sell me on an inferior one. And when he wasn’t busy doing that, his silence would speak volumes.

“Why are you playing over at La Basura?” I’d ask. “You know that place is no good. The cashback is bad, the drawing is weak, the airfare policy is bad, and they over-invite people.”

“I like playing there,” he’d say nonchalantly.

That was B.S. The Menace doesn’t give a damn about nice rooms, nice restaurants, nice pools, or anything else but getting the best deal for his gambling buck. By pretending to pick a play based on how much fun it was, he was insulting my intelligence. But like an Electrolux salesman at my front door who’d been told to take a hike, he kept pushing. No matter how frequently I demonstrated that I could see through his spiel, he’d never give up trying.

Some pros are such reliable B.S.ers that they inadvertently provide good information. “The man will try to sell you anything,” said The Menace, describing one pro. Recently, he found out about an unusual deuces game and asked this pro what he thought of it; he was told it was no good. “He tried very hard to tell me it was no good, so you know we definitely have to check it out.”

It’s also quite amusing to observe the contradictory manner in which pros attempt to keep secrets. The rules of who you can tell and who you can’t are more complex than when to hold ace-jack offsuit in Double Bonus. I tell Marvin Greenheist about the best play in the last three years, after making him swear up and down on his mother’s grocery list that he wouldn’t tell a soul. Two days later, I find out the whole town knows. When I ask him how this happened, he says, “You know I have to tell my partner everything. That goes without saying.” His partner just happens to be The Town Crier.

Then there’s the Terminators: big players with a reputation for killing good games by beating them to death. If someone finds out you’ve told these guys anything–or worse, if you’re friends with one of them–they’ll assume you are a conduit of information for them. Trouble is, some of these same pros are also friends with a Terminator or two, and share with them everything they know. Why is it okay for them to do it, but not you? You’ll have to ask them.

Everybody pretends that there is some kind of universal standard defining who’s “inside” and who’s “outside,” but there isn’t. Like a leaf in the wind or U.S. foreign policy, it gets jerked around depending on what seems like a good idea at the time. Of course, the whole idea–if you can get away with it–is to try to get more than you give.

One common way pros do this is to tell someone else about a play after it’s over. “I just found out about it,” one will say, after he’s been whacking it steadily for three days. “I tried to call you.” Uh huh. Or he may tell you about a second best play, while keeping knowledge of the best one to himself. This poses a problem for him when you find him actually playing a different machine from the one he recommended. Brace yourself for an onslaught of lame excuses: “I think this one has a better theoretical”; “I’m rusty on the strategy for that game”; “I just like this game better.” Have you ever considered the advantages of owning a complete set of encyclopaedias?

I’d tell you more about this whole Liar’s Video Poker thing, except I’ve gotta be somewhere. Don’t worry, it’s not like I’m off to go hit some great play somewhere in town. If I were, I’d tell you. Trust me.


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