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Video vs. Live: The Great Poker Debate

Poker is the hot game in casinos these days. I’m going to use the phrase “live poker” so it is easy to distinguish from video poker. Live poker tournaments are regularly televised and repeated often enough for the better players to attain celebrity status. New players enter the game all the time because of this notoriety, so there is a lot of “new money” in the game coming from inexperienced players. All of these things improve the financial outlook of good, live poker players.

Nevertheless, I prefer video poker.

At the outset let me point out that my preference for video poker over live poker is in some ways analogous to, say, my preference of strawberry over chocolate. It’s a matter of personal preference, based on my particular strengths, and people differ with one another about these things. Still, there are others trying to decide which game is a better choice for them so a discussion of these matters may help them.

Video poker is a solved game. Every hand has one correct play. Using the appropriate tools, these plays can be mastered. If you gather the top 20 video poker players in the world (if you could possibly define what it means to be in the top 20) and have them play the same 400 hands of 9/6 Jacks or Better, each of these 20 people will play the hands in exactly the same manner.

In live poker, there is a lot of room for style and individuality. If you get the top 20 poker tournament players and give them 30 tricky no-limit hold ’em tournament situations to analyze, it is likely that there will be considerable variation in their answers.

Video poker is an easy game, relatively speaking. In video poker, there is one question per hand, and that is, “how do I play this hand?” In the typical game, you always have the same amount of information (i.e. you see five cards before you need to make your decision).

In live poker, frequently there are several betting rounds. You get more information (i.e. see another card, and there’s another betting round). Playing against a single opponent is a different game than against four, or nine. You need to figure your position in a hand, the pot odds, your relative chip strength, your relative skill level, whether anyone at the table (including you) is “on tilt,” and myriad other considerations. You need to be unpredictable while predicting what others are doing.

Video poker emphasizes analytical and execution skills over people skills. I’m not particularly adept at looking someone in the eye and accurately judging whether he or she is telling me the truth or not. And my life works better if I tell the truth to others. In live poker, bluffing (which is a form of lying) is an art form. The best players are very good at both executing the bluff and figuring out when others are trying to do the same.

The other half of this equation is that video poker requires that you memorize (or are able to obtain and correctly use an excellent strategy card) a large number of hands. Figuring out “at the machine” whether to hold two cards or four from Ah Ks Qd Jd 8c in Jacks or Better is not easy for me (answer: it depends on how much you get for the full house) but memorizing the correct answer is.

Live poker is a social game. Dealing with various personalities is part of the game. Video poker is largely a solitary game. It’s just you against the machine. My personality is such that I prefer the solitary game. If you give me the choice of watching a Super Bowl I really want to see with a group of ten friends or by myself, I’ll pick the latter. I’m very good at finding reasons for not attending family functions. I don’t hate people, but all in all I prefer my own company to that of others.

There’s a lot of judgment and guesswork in live poker. You hold a pair of eights and someone else bets enough to put you all in before you’ve seen any other cards. Are you going to call or fold? Part of this is judging what your opponent holds. Even if you judge correctly that the other guy is bluffing, the draw can still beat you. He could have an unsuited three-two (the weakest possible starting hand) but end up with four of a kind or a straight flush because of a lucky draw. No amount of judgment can foresee this.

In video poker there is no guesswork. Every hand has one correct play—if you’re properly prepared. You can be lucky or unlucky after the draw, the same as in any gambling game, but at least you can maximize your chances by playing accurately before the draw.

In video poker, you can accurately assess your chances up front. You can learn how much the game returns (i.e. 9/6 Jacks or Better returns 99.54 percent; 9/5 Super Double Bonus returns 99.69 percent, etc.), and most slot clubs can be analyzed. There may be drawing tickets or other goodies with a hard-to-calculate value, but most of the value is calculable. You can know before you ever enter the casino that you will have a 0.2 percent or 1.2 percent edge today.

In live poker, so much of the value of playing depends on which players will be there today, and it’s hard to know whether they’ll bring their “A” game or some lesser version.

The comps are better for video poker than live poker. Shirley and I have stayed in luxurious hotel suites and have eaten at numerous four- and five-star restaurants compliments of the house, just because we play enough video poker. We’ve spoken to a live poker player at The Mirage, and whenever he wants a buffet comp for two he tokes the poker room supervisor five dollars and gets his “free” comp.

Bets are the same size in video poker. If you’re playing $5 video poker, then every bet you make is $25 all night long. In no-limit poker games, you can have 90 percent of your bets in the $10–$20 range, but occasionally somebody bets $1,000 and you have to decide whether or not to call.

I’m already good at video poker and would have to start near the bottom of live poker players. This is key for me. I believe (based on my experience at backgammon years ago) that I’d be able to rise to the strong-intermediate level of live poker players easily enough, but I’ll never be among the elite. In video poker, though, my skills are strong. And whether I’m better than other players or not isn’t important, because I’m not competing against them. I’m competing against the house.

Winning at video poker is impersonal. Winning at live poker is very personal. If I hit a royal flush in video poker, I’m paid off by casino employees who’ve paid off hundreds of royal flushes before. It’s no big deal. But if I bankrupt a player in live poker, I have to witness his or her anguish. I know from my experience at backgammon that this part of the winning process made me very uncomfortable.

Video poker allows you greater control over your hours. In Las Vegas, where I live, good video poker games are available 24/7. If I want to play for three hours beginning at 2:30 a.m., there will always be available games. In live poker, you need enough opponents willing to play the same game you want to play at the same time you want to play it. That’s much more difficult to manage.

Overall, I’ll stick to video poker so long as it is profitable to me. If the good games dry up, though, I’d try live poker. I like the gambling lifestyle, so live poker would likely be the next game I’d attempt—if I had to. Hopefully, that day will never come.

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