Mental Floss

How To Lose With Style

Chris Higgins

Wrapping up my week of Las Vegas blog posts, I thought I'd finally mention gambling. I am not a gambler. However, I am a nerd. So when my brother and I sat down in front of the simplest, lowest-bet (5 cent) video poker machines we could find, my first thought was: what is the optimal strategy for this game? If I knew what to do for each set of cards that came up, could I make money at this? (And yes, I am a naive nerd...more on this in a moment.)

Web to the rescue, of course. Optimal Blackjack strategy can be expressed as a chart comparing your current hand against the dealer's visible card. So that's pretty simple, and a normal human being has some change of learning the rules. However, poker has more cards involved, and more complexity in the winning condition. Texas Hold 'Em Poker Strategy is often expressed as a calculator requiring you to enter your hand as well as the cards on the table to get a recommendation on next steps. But none of this was what I really needed -- my brother and I were playing five-card video poker. Here's an encyclopedic "Jacks or Better" offense to the strategist, but utterly incomprehensible to me. The simple strategy is better, but still requires a lot of homework.

After a little thinking, it occurred to me that even playing the optimal strategy, you're still losing money -- it just takes longer. So I just spent my remaining few bucks on Megabucks, which involved pulling a big lever and yelling "Megabucks!" -- well worth the $1 per play. (Note to purists: you cannot win the Megabucks jackpot without betting at least $3, which as you can see, reduces your lever-pulling by 2/3, which makes it totally lame.)