Professional Video Poker - How to Play VP Professionally
During the last decade and change, the previously hidden world of poker professionals has been brought into the limelight, courtesy of Chris Moneymaker, the World Series of Poker, and ESPN's wall to wall coverage during the industry's boom days.
The idea that talented and driven individuals can earn a quality living playing poker is now widely accepted, and poker pros like Phil Hellmuth have achieved crossover celebrity status.
As for video poker professionals, however, it's a different story altogether. This select group of consistently profitable players can still be found toiling away in collective anonymity.
Video poker pros aren't patched up with sponsor logos, and indeed, the public rarely learns so much as their name.
Clearly, video poker and traditional poker are two completely different games, so the comparison isn't exactly apt. But even so, the dichotomy between how world class video poker players are regarded is something to behold.
Breaking through the barriers of negative expectation, variance, and supplementary expenses to turn any profit as a video poker can be difficult enough. Managing to do so with any level of consistency, and somehow sustaining your winning play for years at a time, is next to impossible for all but a few rare talents.
Many sites out there might claim that they can "teach" you to become a video poker pro, but we're not trying to trick anyone here. We're also not in the business of stamping out our readers' dreams either, so if you're intent on at least taking at shot, this page will run you through a few prerequisites for the job.
Life as a Video Poker Pro
Once again, we aren't recommending that you do try and turn pro.
In our personal experience as an advantage play specialist (more on this to come), earning steady profits from our favorite video poker machines is the ultimate challenge, and a thrilling one at that.
We've been in the game for decades now, grinding from our home base in Las Vegas, or our home away from home in Atlantic City, and all points in between. And when that perfect card appears onscreen to fill in a royal flush, four aces with a kicker, or another jackpot hand - the moment is still just as exciting as it ever was.
That's because we don't rely on video poker to earn a living - we simply live to play video poker. Sure, we could probably strike out on our own and win enough to get by, and we've even tried that road once or twice before.
The problem, from our vantage point anyhow, is that playing to put food on the table strips away the game's natural appeal. Instead of being happy to score a big hand pay or two during a session, we'd find ourselves growing irritated when the cards refused to cooperate.
Let's be honest about the game we all love for moment, shall we?
Video poker is a largely solitary experience, setting man against machine in a battle of wits. Without fellow players to commiserate with, or a dealer on hand running the game, you'll largely be alone during an extended video poker session.
And if that's the case, why would you want to be miserable?
We didn't, so we simply scaled our play back to a "pre professional" level. Don't get us wrong on that account, as we still scoured the Earth for full pay machines, practiced careful bankroll management, and put in the work required to play as perfectly as possible.
The only difference was, when variance inevitably swung against us and we headed home empty handed, it wasn't the end of the world.
The life of a video can be a grueling grind, one defined by the often futile pursuit of positive results in the face of a negative expectation game.
Just ask Bob Dancer, the recognized "Godfather" of video poker and an old school pro who regularly generates several million dollars' worth of W 2G earnings reports from his hand pay exploits. In his 2003 book Million Dollar Video Poker, Dancer recounted his first seven years as an aspiring video poker pro, during which time he gradually moved up from tentative play on quarter stake machines to titanic jackpots in the $25 games.
It wasn't always easy though, and in an interview with Steve Bourie of American Casino Guide, Dancer described how he dropped $100,000 in just six months, and the suffering that comes with an extended losing streak:
"Video poker swings can be long and large, and I was experiencing one firsthand. Despite only playing machines where I had the advantage, I was still losing a distressingly large sum of money."
Along the way, Dancer's decision to play video poker professionally cost him romantic relationships, and cast him under suspicion by curious casino managers. That level of stress is obviously tough to manage, whether you're making good money or not, so every aspiring video poker pro should ask themselves if they're prepared to live such an intense lifestyle.
The Appeal of Advantage Play
One reason people view video poker as a possible profession, while other casino gamblers have no such ambition, is the game's extremely player friendly nature.
The standard video poker game of Jacks or Better, for example, offers players an expected return of 99.54 percent (when playing optimal strategy on a 9/6 full pay machine). That's slightly better than the 99.50 percent expected return enjoyed by expert blackjack players who play a perfect basic strategy.
The key words there are "basic strategy," because you'll never come close to even breaking even at video poker until you master the proper plays for every possible scenario. We won't dive into the intricacies of basic strategy here, but sufficed to say, you have some study sessions in front of you if the goal is to play at a professional level.
You'll find plenty of blackjack pros out there extracting a living from the casinos, because that high (yet still negative) expected return can actually be turned into a positive return when a few tricks of the trade are put into practice. Card counting, hole carding, and other advantage play methods allow blackjack sharps to turn the house's precious edge on its head, sending a slight advantage to the player's side of the table.
As for video poker, advantage play comes in the form of sound game selection, as certain variants and/or pay tables are set to offer a positive expectation experience.
Take the full pay version of Deuces Wild, which somehow offers players an expected return of 100.76 percent.
Simply locating one of these machines in the wild - which are admittedly rare nowadays as casinos continue to consolidate and cut costs - can provide a skilled player with an immediate opportunity to chase the rarest sight in casino gambling: a positive expectation wager.
Video poker offers a few other positive expectation setups for advantage play specialists to hunt down, making the game a perfect venue for those trying to go pro.
But even if we confine the discussion to variants like full pay Jacks or Better that offer high, but still negative, expected return rates - video poker can be eminently beatable when you know where to look.
The savviest advantage play proponents in the video poker world manage to generate "wins" even when the cards are cold as ice. By enrolling in every Players Club, or similar wager activity tracking program, you can easily begin earning comps on food and drinks, lodging, entertainment, and shopping based on your play alone.
The top Players Club programs in Las Vegas are Total Rewards (at Caesars Entertainment properties) and M Life Rewards (at MGM Resorts properties), and both will credit you with 1 comp point per $10 wagered on video poker. Those comp points are exchangeable across the network of affiliate casinos too, so you can hop from game to game and continue accumulating comp points with every hand you play.
Here's how Bourie describes Bob Dancer's famously large appetite for casino comps as part of the aforementioned interview:
"Shirley was ready to take the money and run, but Bob believed it was still worthwhile to pursue a game where they had an advantage.
Besides, he pointed out, they were accumulating player's club points redeemable for cash and gifts, plus frequent flyer miles for trips on American plus fabulous free gourmet meals, plus their play also earned them some free nights in the MGM's private "Mansion" villas which, if it opened to the public, would rent for about $3,000 per night.
Bob's logic won out and they continued to play."
As you can probably tell, Dancer was one of the first to realize the immense power held by casino comp programs. Simply by participating in the system, betting at his usual rate, and playing often - Dancer could easily offset a year's losses by eliminating his non gambling expenses.
As he told Bourie during their interview, Dancer now views the Players Club and its comps as the true challenge for an aspiring professional video poker player:
"Actually, learning the game is the easy part. Once that's mastered, players need to learn the slot club inside and out.
Talk to other players to find out what promotions are in place. Every casino has its own idiosyncrasies that aren't written down anywhere, but you can find out about them by networking with other players. Video poker players make more off promotions than they do off the games.
That was true in the past and it's still true today. The best players learn how to calculate when they have the edge by analyzing how much the game pays, how much the slot club pays and how much the promotions are worth."
For Dancer, and legions of his loyal followers, the power of optimal strategy and bankroll management can only go so far. Negative expectation games will still eat away at even the most skilled player, so the only way to overcome those odds and generate steady profits is by claiming every last comp point you can.
Another interesting element of Dancer's rise to video poker glory concerns his conscious decision to play within his means.
After beginning at the quarter stake machines, max betting for $1.25 per hand, Dancer experienced an early drought and dropped $1,200. This was enough to spook his partner, both in life and in the games, to hightail it back to California. As is often the case with successful casino gamblers, Dancer transformed a tragedy into triumph, as he told Bourie during their extensive interview:
"Interestingly, her leaving led to a turnaround in my fortunes. Within two weeks I hit three Thursday royals and broke even for the rest of the time, so my bankroll doubled."
Blessed with a bankroll of $25,000 at this point in his career, Dancer could've easily succumbed to the same mistake that has doomed so many gamblers before. But instead of "feeling his Wheaties" and jumping in stakes, Dancer patiently grinded on those same quarter machines until he had doubled his holdings to $50,000.
Only then did he take a shot at the higher paying $1 machines ($5 max bets), knowing that one sudden downswing at these increased stakes could bring him right back down to the bottom of the barrel in no time flat.
As Dancer recounts, the temptation to fly higher and play $5 machines ($25 max bets) did grab a hold of him from time to time. But in those instances, he simply arranged a backer to provide the stake, while splitting any profits with them. In this way, Dancer further protected himself from the whims of variance.
Over time, as his bankroll swelled to $200,000 - and eventually to the $1 million mark which provides the title for his classic book - Dancer gradually climbed up the ranks until he was regularly playing $100 machines ($500 max bets).
And as Bourie details, Dancer's success wasn't limited to cold hard cash, as his expert exploitation of Players Club benefits enabled him to accumulate the following windfall from the MGM Grand alone:
"When it was all over, Bob and Shirley had won slightly more than one million dollars (including cashback from the player's club), plus several cars, two computers, a home entertainment center and more than four million frequent flyer miles."
But as his fame grew, casino managers began conspiring to add Dancer's name to their list of advantage play specialists - meaning he was under constant scrutiny. That scrutiny led the MGM Grand to curtail Dancer's once generous Players Club membership, which he had enhanced to the top tier through a decade of regular play.
Without the cushion provided by those comps and benefits, Dancer made a decision that defines what it is to be a professional: he moved down in stakes.
Here's how he described the choice return to his roots when talking to Bourie:
"I still got invited to casino promotional events, but I did have to go and find games to play at the $5 level and sometimes at the $1 level."
Dancer is one of the true lions of the video poker world, but even after earning six figures playing the game, he decided to be proactive in protecting his bankroll.
And that's probably why he's still around today, taking full advantage of full pay machines, optimal play, and Players Clubs to earn the hardest "easy" living imaginable.
Unless you're prepared to manage your personal video poker bankroll like an accountant, turning pro will always provide a start and stop experience. You'll go on some nice streaks and build it up, only to see everything burned away by one extended drought of bad cards.
The best pros in any gambling game are those who combine the discipline to play down with their relentless ambition to climb higher.
Playing video poker professionally may seem like a great way to ditch your "real work," but as players like Dancer have proven, this is a full time job. It's surely possible to achieve your goals, but we'll be the first to tell you it's definitely not probable.
Dancer will too, as he offered the following message to video poker enthusiasts when speaking to Bourie:
"The average person is not going to be successful at video poker.
Video poker is applied mathematics and the average person with a casual interest in the game won't get a long term advantage over the casino because he isn't willing to study hard enough to get an edge."
You'll need to play every hand as perfectly as possible, survive the swings inherent to gambling variance, cope with the emotional stress - and dodge the all seeing eye of casino managers.
And even if you prove capable of juggling all of those tasks, the cold reality of video poker probability ensures that you can still walk away a net loser.
Simply put, professional video poker is a climb many players pursue, but only a rare few ever complete.