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Best of Donald Catlin

Gaming Guru

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Million Dollar Video Poker

7 June 2003

The first Global Gaming Exposition, or G2E as it is called, was held in late September 2001, a few days after the dastardly attacks in New York and Washington. The keynote speaker was Whoopie Goldberg. I imagine that other attendees, like myself, were curious as to how this funny woman would approach that task given that the country was in such a state of shock and sadness. I can tell you that she handled things with grace and was indeed very funny.

To assure that I got a seat for this event I arrived early. I found a seat easily near the rear of the hall; in fact there were a couple of empty seats next to me. A minute or so after I got seated an attractive woman asked me if I was saving those seats for someone and I promptly plopped my program on the seat next to me and told her the seat was hers. Typical of my luck with women, she told me she needed two seats since her husband was coming. So I appropriated the two seats and she made her way down the row and sat down next to me. We chatted for a couple of minutes and, sure enough, her husband showed up. We shook hands and he sat down with us.

The guy looked familiar to me but I couldn't place him. A minute or so later we exchanged business cards and then it became clear that a few years earlier I had listened to him speak about Video Poker in an Atlantic City conference. It was Bob Dancer and I had been talking to his wife, Shirley. I was delighted to meet him in person and especially delighted to meet Shirley because, as you know, she is frequently the subject of Bob's Video Poker stories. I can tell you that Shirley is every bit as charming and outgoing as Bob's articles describe. Bob Dancer is a nice guy and speaks modestly of his Video Poker talents. When I told him that whenever I play Video Poker I have to go back and study the strategy charts again because they fade from memory when I am back at home computing rather than competing. "Yes," he said, "so do I." Sure Bob!

I mention all of this because having met the Dancers in person made the reading of Bob's new book Million Dollar Video Poker, Huntington Press, 2003 seem like the story of personal friends. Then again, maybe it seemed that way because it is so well written. Whatever the reason, I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Let me begin by telling you what the book is not. It is not a book about how to play proper Video Poker strategy. Bob, together with his friend Liam Daily, does have such books available to players, but that is not what this book is about. In a sense though, it is a "how to" book. Not how to play Video Poker but how to be a professional gambler.

The book traces Bob's quest to beat the game of Video Poker. He came to Vegas with $6000 and a six-year-old car and started his quest. The book illustrates how he began learning the game and how, in time, he refined the strategies of others into perfect playing strategies. The book tells of his spectacular wins and his spectacular losses. It tells how he had to learn to manage his bankroll. At times he had to negotiate with other players to get playing time on the machine of his choice. The book relates the story of how he met and romanced Shirley and how she learned to become a competent player. At times, according to Bob, Shirley was nervous about the stakes at which they played and the wild swings that occurred in their bankroll. But she stuck with him and his undying belief in the mathematics of gambling. All of this and more. It is a fascinating story that ends with Shirley hitting a Royal Flush on a $100 machine at the MGM. The $6000 turned into $1,000,000 and the six-year-old car turned into a new Mercedes.

Romantic? Yes, I suppose that on one level it is. But what struck me the most about the story is the effort that went into this quest. First, Bob and Shirley had to become expert players, and at more than one game. Also, casinos sometimes introduced twists into their promotions that necessitated a revision of playing strategy. But as Bob says in the book, this was the easy part. I believe it. The really hard part was the constant searching out and evaluating of promotions, whether it was for airline tickets, cash back, or merchandise. This necessitated gleaning information on just how promotion points were awarded on a specific machine, calculating the overall expected return, and then getting enough playing time during the promotion to let long run frequency kick in. In the latter case this often meant playing for long hours and staying up all night -- playing one hand after another as fast as they could. To me, this is not entertainment; this is hard work. What is more, sometimes the long run frequency kicked in and then sometimes it didn't.

This book convinced me of one thing for sure. I will never be a professional gambler. The work involved coupled with the idea of being imprisoned in a noisy, garish casino for hours on end, day after day, would absolutely drive me crazy. Oh, the Dancers had some good times with some of the comps that they received, but on balance it wouldn't be enough compensation for me.

This book is a really good read. It is funny in spots, philosophical in spots, has lots of Shirley stories, and it is rich with good advice. Anyone who is seriously considering becoming a professional gambler should definitely read this book. I was amused that in the latest issue of Global Gaming Business there was a review of Bob's book and the reviewer thought it was a must read for casino executives as well. The reviewer said that the book "can help casino decision-makers avoid making the same mistakes," meaning offering promotions that together with good play would enable advantage players to get the edge. If, however, history has any say in the matter these "mistakes" will occur again and again.

Was there anything I didn't like about the book? Yes, one thing. On page 189 someone, probably some copy editor, screwed up one of Bob's jokes. Here is the correct version. What is the difference between praying in church and praying in a casino? Answer: When you pray in a casino you really, really mean it. See you next month.

Donald Catlin

Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers
Donald Catlin
Don Catlin is a retired professor of mathematics and statistics from the University of Massachusetts. His original research area was in Stochastic Estimation applied to submarine navigation problems but has spent the last several years doing gaming analysis for gaming developers and writing about gaming. He is the author of The Lottery Book, The Truth Behind the Numbers published by Bonus books.

Books by Donald Catlin:

Lottery Book: The Truth Behind the Numbers