Are Video Poker Machines Rigged?

I received an email from a video poker player who asked me this question:

“I can never win at video poker. Are the video poker machines rigged?”

It turns out that the above was not the first, or the last question, I’ll get from players about “rigged video poker machines.” Many players, especially those who play slots, have an uneasy feeling about playing video poker machines. They believe that casinos can somehow rig the cards in a video poker machine to make it harder to get a winning hand. If you believe that casinos can do this, you definitely need to read what I’m about to say about this.

First, let me ask you this question. If we were to play a game of video poker on a kitchen table with a deck of playing cards, how would we do it so that the game is honest? Suppose you make a bet and I take a standard 52-card deck, shuffle it, and then randomly select five cards from the shuffled deck and place them face up on the table. While you are looking at your five-card hand to determine which cards you want to hold, I’ll continue to shuffle the remaining 47 cards in my hand. Let’s suppose that you tell me that you want to hold the first three cards in your hand. I would remove the two cards in your hand that you want to discard and place them aside, stop shuffling, and give you the top card from the 47-card shuffled deck and place it face up in position four in your hand, and the next card in the my shuffled stacked would be face up in position five in your hand. The hand is over. If your five-card hand contains a pair of jacks or higher poker hand, I’d pay you an amount based upon a pay schedule of winning hands that I would have shown you before we started playing video poker. After I paid you (assuming you had a winning hand), I would collect all the cards, put them in one 52-card stack, and start shuffling them again for the next hand.

I think you would agree that the above procedure results in a fair game because each card in the deck has the same probability of being selected. Furthermore, on your initial hand, if you decided to discarded, say, a two of clubs, there is no way for you to get the two of clubs again on the subsequent draw. In other words, I haven’t rigged the game in any way.

The way I dealt the cards above is exactly the way the cards are shuffled and dealt in a video poker machine in a casino. In order to emulate the above procedure, video poker machines have a computer chip to simulate the process of shuffling a standard deck of 52-virtual cards, and then randomly selecting the cards for each hand so that each card has the same probability of being selected. (For techno geeks reading this, video poker machines have a random number generator program “burnt-on” the computer chip that does all this.) The computer chip that is in the video poker machines is tested and certified by an independent testing lab to be certain they will do exactly what I described above. Furthermore, state gaming regulations mandate that the programs in video poker machines must operate per the above, and if they don’t, a casino can be fined, or worse, lose their gaming license. (The latter is too much risk for a casino for very little return; especially when they make oodles of ore profit from their video poker machines by legally decreasing the pay table on a machine with no risk.)

Here’s another fact about video poker machines that is important to understand. The odds of getting any of the winning hands in a video poker game can be calculated with great accuracy since every card must have the same probability of being selected. This means you have the same chance of getting a royal flush in a Jacks or Better machine in casino A as you do casino B, or C, or any casino located anywhere on this planet. (This assumes a random selection of cards per the above.) Since a casino can’t change the odds of getting the winning hands in video poker, the only way they can change the return on their video poker machines is to change the payoffs on winning hands. (That is why it is important that you look at the pay table on a video poker machine for a particular game before you play it.)

If you are a slot machine player reading this, the symbols you see on a slot machine do not have to appear with the same probability as the cards in video poker must do. For example, the first symbol on the reel of a slot machine could be programmed to appear 0.1% of the time, whereas symbol number 2 might appear 5% of the time (and so forth for the other symbols). In other words, the casinos can alter the odds for the winning combinations of symbols in a slot machine but they can’t for the cards in video poker. All they can do for video poker is (legally) change the payouts for the winning hands.

Some video poker players believe a machine is ‘rigged” after they play for “a long period of time” without getting a royal flush. The mathematical facts are this: it’s possible to play 40,000 or more hands without getting a royal flush. The average number of royals is one per cycle of 40,000 hands, meaning an average of many cycles of 40,000 hands. In any one cycle you could get more than one royal flush, or none. (I’ve personally played over 200,000 hands without a single royal flush, and trust me, the machine was not rigged.) Therefore, playing for a long period of time is not an indication that a machine is rigged.

Lastly, think about this. If you were the head of a major casino company, would you rig your video poker machines knowing that if you were caught you could face losing your gaming license, be fined, and possibly face massive class action lawsuits by players for fraud?

The bottom line is this: you can rest assured that video poker games in major gaming jurisdictions are not rigged.