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Royally Screwed

Claim:   Hapless video poker player who was dealt a royal flush lost his jackpot because he failed to mark all the cards as held before pushing the "Deal" button.

Claim:   Hapless video poker player who was dealt a royal flush lost his jackpot because he failed to mark all the cards as held before pushing the "Deal" button.

Status:   Multiple:

FALSE: Could happen on an IGT video poker machine, by far the most common machine.
 
UNDETERMINED: Could happen on a video poker machine manufactured by someone else.

Origins:   During a 2004 sojourn in Las Vegas, I had the unspeakable good fortune to be dealt a royal flush on a video poker machine, an event the math gurus say will happen only once every Royal Flush 649,739 deals. (To better explain how unusual an occurrence that is, the odds of arriving at a royal flush even after a five-card deal and appropriate redraw are about 1 in 40,000. [1 in 42,000 if you favor a Deuces Wild machine]. Dealt royals are the stuff of daydreams, not of reality.)

My shock at this unexpectedly fortuitous turn of events did not, however, keep me from noticing a behavior of the machine that served to cast doubt upon a story I'd heard in 2000, a tale I now believe to be an urban legend.

Although there are various forms of video poker available to the gaming enthusiast, the holy grail on each of these games is the elusive royal flush, that peculiarly beautiful combination of the ten, jack, queen, king, and ace of the same suit. Except on certain unusual specialist machines, its appearance generates the highest payout on the game, typically 4,000 units of the game's denomination if full-coin have been played. In easier-to-understand terms, on a 25¢ video poker machine, provided the maximum bet of 5 coins had been made ($1.25), the royal flush results in a jackpot of $1,000 for the lucky winner. The cards need not be in sequence to generate the prize; they can appear on the screen in utter disarray and still be worth the 4,000-coin payout. (Some specialist machines grant an additional prize for the cards appearing in a certain order, but even on them disordered royals still pay the usual amount.)

In a typical game of video poker, after the bet is made, pressing the 'Deal' button results in the appearance of the video representations of five playing cards on the game's screen. The player decides which "cards" to keep and which to throw away in hopes of improving his hand by way of pressing the appropriate 'Hold' buttons located beneath the five images. He presses 'Deal' again, with the machine replacing the unheld cards with new ones. The player is now paid for any winning combinations found in these final five representations.

So much for the mechanics of the game, now for the story.

According to the tale of woe I heard from a blackjack dealer in 2000, one fellow of a friend's acquaintance had recently had a royal flush dealt to him on a video poker machine at a convenience store. (These games can be found in many small businesses in Las Vegas; they are
not limited to just the casinos.) This hapless, foolish lad had, in his excitement upon seeing the suited beauties land on the screen, failed to press 'Hold' under each of the five cards before hitting the 'Deal' button, thereby discarding all of the winning cards. Because this took place at a convenience store, a slot technician was not on hand to open the machine and verify the game's memory, so the win could not be substantiated. The man who had seconds before been favored by one of Dame Fortune's rarest smiles now had only his memory of the royal to keep him warm, not the $1,000 that should have come with it.

Previously, I had not had occasion to doubt the story about the guy who'd pitched his royal. I've spent enough time in and around casinos to no longer be amazed by what folks will do while gambling. However, how my machine behaved upon dealing its royal flush to me called this tale into question — mine had immediately marked all five cards as held, declared the hand to be over, set the "summon attendant" light atop the machine to flashing, and started playing the happy music that signals a royal's having been hit. I had not so much as been offered the chance to hold all the cards; the machine had done it for me. It had subsequently performed the mechanized equivalent of pressing the 'Deal' button on my behalf, thereby ending the hand on the dealt royal and making it impossible for me to unhold any of the cards.

If video poker machines always behave that way upon dealing royal flushes, the story I'd heard could not be anything but a fairy tale because the ill-starred man would never have been in position to undo his winning result. But was it possible this "hold all the cards and lock the machine" behavior was new to the game? For an answer to this, I turned to International Game Technology, the world leader in slot machine and video gaming machine design and production. IGT knows video poker in that it created and marketed the first such machines in the 1970s. Moreover, to this day it continues to command the lion's share of the VP market.

According to the poker gurus at IGT, the origins of the "hold everything on the dealt royal" function are lost in the mists of history. This feature has been a part of IGT machines for so long that they've forgotten when it was added, which leaves open the possibility that it has always been there. IGT incorporates this feature into its slot offerings as well, which means Megabucks winners and the like are never at risk of inadvertently playing off their big wins before casino personnel can verify that these jackpots have been hit.

Granted, not every video poker machine is made by IGT, and other manufacturers may not incorporate the "hold everything on the big win" feature in their products. For that reason, the story of the pitched royal cannot be utterly ruled out.

Yet whatever remote possibility of veracity still remains, the story should be viewed as a cautionary tale that admonishes folks (video poker players and non-gamblers alike) to always exercise due care. The apocryphal fellow who pitched his royal and by so doing lost his $1,000 prize had acted in haste — had he taken his time, he'd have left that store with the grand in his pocket. We are expected to draw a lesson from that man's plight and apply it to our own lives, to use his unhappy experience to forestall similar outcomes in our own.

Barbara "grand disappointment" Mikkelson

Last updated:   1 July 2014

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