Video Poker and Tipping - Advice for When and How to Tip

Video Poker Tipping

Every stroll through the casino floor presents video poker players with a seemingly endless stream of service.

From the cocktail waitresses who dutifully keep your drinks coming, to the coin runners who take care of your financial transactions, and if you're lucky, the attendants who deliver those precious hand pays.

Gratuities are the lifeblood of the gambling industry, and essentially every employee who doesn't reside on the executive tier depends on the generosity of players to earn their living. For this reason, games like blackjack, baccarat, craps, and roulette come equipped with fairly standardized rules and rituals for tipping.

These aren't hard and fast rules mind you, and any American has the right to play for hours on end without tipping a dime. But for the most part, casino gamblers appreciate the expertise provided by dealers and floor staff, so sending them a $1 chip after a win - or even a $5 "redbird" when you're riding a hot streak - is seldom an issue.

On the other hand, those of us who play their trade on machine-based games like video poker and the slots don't enjoy that same level of engagement. In fact, you can probably walk into your local casino, head to the video poker parlor and take a seat, and play for hours at a time without engaging with anybody but a stray cocktail server.

There are exceptions of course, usually in the form of casino lounges and bars outfitted with video poker machines. Even here though, the game is played one-on-one between you and the machine, with no staff on hand to supervise the game, handle payouts, or otherwise earn a tip.

This dichotomy has led to a distressing situation, with the video poker community developing a reputation for being cheap relative to the rest of casino customers. A small but growing group of players have convinced themselves that the lack of employee involvement, which defines other games like blackjack and craps, doesn't obligate them to tip like they normally would.

We're not here to tell you how to spend your money, but this page hopes to steer you down a different path. For video poker players, three common situations will present themselves during extended sessions - and at each juncture you'll have the chance to tip. After learning a few widely used formulas pioneered by video poker experts over the years, you'll be better prepared to decide when and how much to tip. But more importantly, you'll understand why tossing a toke is the right thing to do given the circumstances.

The three employees below will become your best friends during your video poker journey, so it's best to treat them right. For each entry, we'll run through the standard operating procedure for tipping in that spot, along with the perspective of a few well-known video poker pros and gambling industry experts.

Cocktail Servers

Most experienced gamblers know the deal with cocktail servers in a casino, but just in case you haven't heard, service industry workers rely on gratuities to survive.

According to the income data aggregator Salary.com, the average annual income for a Las Vegas cocktail server is only $17,132 without tips. That's just above the federal poverty line for two-person households, and just over the line for the three-person families.

In other words, choosing to stiff a hardworking cocktail server who just hoofed your Seven & Seven a few hundred yards across the casino is akin to a criminal act. Again, we can't tell you how to spend your money, but if you ever hope to see the same server twice, tipping should be considered mandatory.

And we didn't even mention that drinks come free for players in almost all Las Vegas casinos.

If you're the guy or gal grinding away on a video poker machine, risking $5 every few seconds, declining to tip on a free drink just makes you look bad.

For the most part, players in any game - video poker or otherwise - toss the cocktail server a $1 chip upon delivery. You can always modulate that upwards depending on your budget and lifestyle, but never feel bad for tipping a dollar because that's what servers expect.

But the service industry is all about service, right?

If somebody really hustles and makes their rounds quicker than most, or completes a complicated drink order correctly on the first time out, rewarding their hard work with a redbird will make you a king among the regulars.

And that may not seem like much at the moment, but in our estimation, every little edge makes a difference in the perpetual video poker grind. Margins are just so thin in this game, and playing from a place of comfort can be the difference between perfect decision making and the occasional lapse.

If you treat the serving staff well by tipping as a standard practice, with a handful of "bonuses" thrown in to curry favor, you'll never want for a drink, ashtray, or anything else they can provide. Conversely, a non-tipping strategy will turn you into video poker parlor's pariah in no time, leaving you looking around in vain for a server while you should be focusing on the cards.

Bartenders

The atmosphere is a bit different at the casino lounge, which is usually lined with talkative tourists clicking away at video poker machines built right into the bar.

Here, you'll be dealing with the actual bartender mixing your drinks, and depending on your proclivities that will entail a certain level of labor.

If your grabbing a bottle of beer - which will come free of charge if you have money in the machine - the standard casino tip of $1 should be well-received.

For mixed drinks and cocktails that require a little know-how to make properly, use your judgement and up the ante. These complimentary cocktails will typically use off-brand liquor rather than the top-shelf stuff, so don't go crazy, but anything between a few bucks and a fiver is appropriate here.

Many of the major casinos in Las Vegas will also provide foodservice to their video poker bars, or even machines in restaurants. If that's the case where you're playing, and you feel like noshing on a snack in between hands, we recommend using the usual 15 percent tip that any other restaurant waitress or waiter would receive.

Hand Pay Attendants

The actual video poker parlor can be a solitary place for the most part.

No dealers, no pit bosses... nobody from the casino side assists your session when playing video poker. It's simply you and your wits versus the machine's random number generator, with no human intervention to speak of.

Until you happen to trigger a hand pay that is.

Hand pays are so named because when you land that elusive royal flush (on Jacks or Better and related variants), or another high-value "jackpot" hand in other games, the machine doesn't dispense the payout per the usual procedures. Instead of seeing your credit counter tick up, or a payout voucher issued, jackpots which require a hand pay will lock the screen in place, while signaling an attendant.

There's nothing quite like the feeling of earning a hand pay, with the red light swirling overhead and sirens alerting the entire casino to your good fortune. Personally, we find this experience to be as appealing as the game of video poker itself, as that brief moment in the spotlight serves as validation for the long hours of study and diligent grinding that made it happen.

After the attendant shows up, they'll whip out a stack of crisp, clean $100 bills and get to work. Watching a big payout of $4,000 being counted out in front of you is thrilling to say the least, and within minutes you'll have your winnings safely in hand.

But what comes next is a matter of great debate among video poker enthusiasts.

For most of us, hand pays are the perfect time to flex those tipping fingers, especially after several hours of play where tips were largely avoided.

The attendants responsible for running your money over are usually young people pursuing their first jobs in the casino industry. These fresh-faced employees are responsible for checking your identification, and informing you about tax form procedures (on wins of $10,000 or more) - so don't take it personally if they ask a few questions. They're just doing their job after all, and making sure you have everything needed to claim to your big win.

The biggest problem for recreational players isn't deciding whether or not to tip, but finding the sweet spot in terms of amount. Winning a hand pay is a thrill like we said, even for the most experienced players, so you'll probably be excited and in a generous mood.

But after you win $4,000 - the standard pay for a royal flush at 800 to 1 odds on $5, when max-betting on a $1 machine - deciding how much to tip can be overwhelming.

The industry standard says to tip 1 percent of your total jackpot win, so you'd be forking over $40 in this instance. That may seem like a bundle for a short trip over from the cashier's cage to your machine, but when you think about it, sending a sizable chunk of change their way makes sense.

Scoring a royal flush in a standard game of Jacks or Better involves beating 1 in 649,740 odds. Those odds are obviously enormous, which is why you'll remember every royal you ever hit.

That rarity works in the casino's favor, but not for the casino employee. Sure, they'll be around to see more hand pays than you will, that's just a factor of their job. But if an attendant works a full eight-hour shift and delivers just two royal flush hand pays over that time, receiving $40 on each, they've only added $10 per hour on top of their base wage.

At this point we should note that royal flushes only represent a small fraction of the total hand pays issued by any given video poker parlor. You'll trigger a hand pay for landing four aces and a kicker, straight flushes, or any variety of jackpot hands in variants like Deuces Wild and Joker Poker.

All of those winners offer significantly lower odds than the royal flush, so naturally, attendants will be far more active than our example outlined.

Knowing they've probably heard the hand pay siren sound a few times before you got there, and they'll hear it a few times after you leave, is a logical justification for scaling your tip percentage down by half to 0.5 percent. Handing over a $20 bill mere moments after getting your hands on $4,000 might leave you feeling like a cheapskate, but all things considered, it's a perfectly acceptable baseline to work with.

Especially if you're a frequent player, semi-professional, or outright pro.

Players like us put in hundreds of hours on the machines, grinding through thousands upon thousands of hands in pursuit of that most elusive of prey for casino game player: a positive expected return.

Video poker is our game of choice for a reason, as it's combination of skill-based gameplay and an extremely low house edge on most games - including a negative house edge on a handful of variants - makes it the perfect way to eke out a profit.

But when profit is the name of the game, and the margins can't get any slimmer, sending hard-earned money back into the casino economy almost seems cruel.

The game's greats know this too, which is why some of the most successful video poker players to ever live are among the stingiest tippers around.

In a 2012 blog post written by Bob Dancer, video poker's resident expert and the recognized "Godfather" of the game explained exactly why he tips just $0.50 on $4,000 hand pays - oronly one-tenth of 1 percent.

According to Dancer, frequent players like himself have one major factor working against them when it comes to tips.

Because grinders tend to play at much higher stakes ($5 or $10 max-bets) than the average recreational video poker fan ($0.50 or $1 max-bets). This alone makes the job of turning a profit that much harder, because the inevitable swings that come with the territory cost significantly more money to withstand.

And as Dancer explains, the higher stakes result in adjusted odds that make hand pays far more frequent.

In his estimation, based on decades of professional play, triggering a royal flush at the $0.50 max-bet level is a "pretty rare, every 40,000 hands event." Conversely, for players at the $5 or $10 max-bet level, "you're probably getting hand pays every 400 hands."

Dancer then dives into the mathematics of that disparity, but we'll give you a crash course.

Players at the higher stakes are receiving hand pays 100 times as often as their low-stakes counterparts. Thus, they should be tipping 1/100th of the amount to compensate - which equates to only $0.20 per hand pay as opposed to $20.

Dancer is no fool, and he's not advising anybody to toss the attendant two dimes as compensation, but he uses this math to form a new baseline for pros and high-frequency players. For him, that baseline is $1 for an $8,000 jackpot while playing at the $10 max-betting machines.

We can't argue with a man who takes home millions of dollars in W-2G tax forms, but Dancer's approach is simply too rigid for our tastes.

Summary

And that's really what tipping in video poker is all about - personal preference. So long as you're giving the attendant a reasonable reward for their time and energy, feel free to tip based on your budget, the stakes in question, the service received, and any number of factors.

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