Interview with a Professional Video Poker Player
by Steve Bourie Learn more about the author read more »
Anyone who’s played video poker for any length of time has probably heard stories of professional players who can consistently beat the casinos. But, is it really true? Are there actually players out there who can do that? Well, yes there are and I was fortunate enough to track down one professional video poker player who agreed to an interview to give me some insight into his lifestyle and how it came about.
My inital meeting with Johnny Chung (not his real name) was at a restaurant in a "locals" casino in Las Vegas in November 1998. I ran some general video poker questions past him and it was quickly obvious that he was an extremely knowledgeable player. He lives not far from Las Vegas with his wife and two daughters and relies solely on his gambling winnings to make his living.
Keep in mind that I didn’t ask to see his bank accounts to verify his income but I did check with other knowledgeable players and I am very confident that his story is true. Two months after our first meeting I conducted the following interview by telephone from my home in Florida.
How did you originally get involved in gambling?
Chung: The first time I came to Las Vegas was to play blackjack during the early ‘70s. I would come on the weekends and I was strictly a card counter back then.
Were you successful at it?
Chung: Not as much as I could have been, if I had really concentrated on it.
So, you were just doing this for fun and trying to make a little extra money?
Chung: Yes, and I only played single deck. I didn’t try to count multiple decks. Then, when the video poker machines started coming out in the early ‘80s, I thought it was a lot easier to make money off those than it was from the blackjack games. I started studying them and I began playing them on weekends too.
Did you stop playing blackjack then?
Chung: Pretty much so. It was too hard and the main hassle was that they always shuffled up on you or they kicked you out. I didn’t like that.
Did you ever try to disguise yourself at the blackjack tables?
Chung: No. It seemed to be too much trouble for me and the return didn’t seem to be enough.
When those first machines came out, was it generally known that there were some machines that you could make money from?
Chung: Not really. You kind of had to hand-calculate the returns and I just made estimates. That was really before they had computers and the software that could analyze the games.
What kind of machines were you playing back then?
Chung: Jacks or better progressives.
8/5 (8 coins for a full house/5 coins for a flush) progressives?
Chung: 8/5 and 9/6 progressives.
Were you just playing if the jackpot was above a certain amount that made it a positive expectation machine?
So, you discovered that if you only played progressive machines when the jackpot was above a certain amount, you had a theoretical advantage?
Chung: Yes. Actually, it was Stanford Wong who first started publishing books about the progressives and what levels the jackpots had to be at in order to win.
That was Professional Video Poker? His book that’s still out now?
Chung: Yes, I think it’s been revised since then, but originally he was the first one who published anything about it. Then in the late ‘80s some other books started coming out along with computer software that really let you analyze every game, so you could see exactly what the payback was and also what the strategy was for every game.
But you still weren’t trying to make a living fromvideo poker at this point?
Chung: No, up until 1994, I was just playing on weekends and I would drive there from my home in California.
What happened in 1994?
Chung: Basically, the aerospace industry fell apart and my company laid off everybody.
Then you had the option of going out and finding another job?
Chung: Well, I saw it coming and I knew I was just going to play video poker full time as soon as I was laid off.
When the big change came, what happened? Did you pack up and move to Las Vegas?
Chung: Yes. The whole family: my wife and two daughters. When I first moved here I lived right next to the Santa Fe Hotel in North Las Vegas. We only moved out here to our new home about a year ago.
Were you successful right away?
Chung: Yes, the first year I made about $80,000 and the next two years about the same. Last year was the best: about $135,000.
What’s the worst year you ever had?
Chung: Well, full time $80,000.
Did you ever have a year when you lost money?
Chung: No, never even had a month.
Is this a full-time a job for you? How much time do you put in?
Chung: 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.
So it’s like a regular job?
Chung: Well, I can vary that however I want, depending on the conditions. If I find an especially good machine I will play more.
Do you work on the weekends?
Chung: If there’s a special promotion that gets me an added return, I might.
How do you find out about these special promotions?
Chung: Newspaper ads, or friends of mine. We have a message beeper network where we leave messages for each other about what the best plays are and everything.
So there are other people who do this besides yourself?
Chung: Yes, I would say, in Nevada, maybe 25 people do this full-time for a living and maybe another couple hundred part-time.
Are there professional video poker players in other states?
Chung: Well, I haven’t seen anyone outside Nevada I would consider a full time professional.
Besides Las Vegas are there other places to play professionally? How about Reno?
Chung: If there are professionals who live there, I don’t know who they are. I’ve been up there and I don’t think there are enough machines there to sustain them full time.
So, as far as you know, the only people doing this are the ones around Las Vegas?
Chung: Yes, but there are also some who do it by traveling to a few other good spots around the country.
What is a typical day like for you? Where do you go to play?
Chung: Right now I have three places that I go to where the best machines are. I really don’t want to say what they are, but it’s the same game in three different places and I just split up the action among the three places.
These are machines that return more than 100%?
Chung: Yes, 103.2%, plus cash back too.
That’s it? Those are the only machines you play?
Chung: Right. Generally, what I do now is play until I get a royal flush in one place then I go to one of the other two places because I don’t want to get too many royals at the same place.
You don’t spend all your time going to those three places every single day, do you?
Chung: Well, right now, yes. That’s the way conditions are now, but it’s not always that way.
But, if there’s a special promotion somewhere, would you go there instead?
And you find out about those specials by either reading the newspaper or from your friends?
Chung: Yes, and sometimes the casino will also send you monthly newsletters that tell you about these specials.
When do you decide that it’s best to leave Las Vegas and go around the country to try other places?
Chung: Mainly when there is nothing in Nevada that’s over about 102%. That’s what I try to play as a minimum return - 102%. That will give me about $35 to $40 an hour.
On quarters or dollars?
Chung: On quarters.
Do you ever play $1 or $5 machines?
Chung: Not really, because fluctuations are a lot higher on those machines, plus you won’t find nearly as many games offering the higher payback percentages.
So you would prefer to play quarter machines?
Chung: Yes. Unless you find an exceptional play on a dollar machine, which is very unlikely. About the only thing I’ve played on dollars is Williams Blackjack.
If you found a quarter machine with a 102% payback, and you also found that same machine at the dollar level, would youstill prefer to play the quarter machine?
Chung: It depends what the game was and what kind of fluctuations you could expect in that game, but generally speaking that’s probably true. But, you also have the additional problem with the dollar machines that you get tax forms on the royal flushes and you have to report that to the IRS.
One thing I’ve always heard about professional video poker players is that they would rather play a $5 machine, than a quarter machine, assuming they had the same paytable, because the profit per hour is much higher.
Chung: Yes. Except, it’s something you get frequent tax forms on and you have to wait about a half-hour hour for each one. Plus, you need a lot larger bankroll to play the higher machine.
Have your ever played $5 machines?
Chung: No, I’ve never played a $5 machine. You hardly ever find one that’s above 100% to begin with, and if it is, it usually doesn’t last for very long.
The machines you’re playing now are 103%, but if they take those machines out and the video poker inventory become bad, you would then decide to go somewhere else in the country?
Chung: Yes, I would.
But do you know ahead of time when you are going to these places that there is good video poker there?
Chung: Yes, I pretty much know ahead of time before I go.
And how do you find that out?
Chung: I know a couple of people back there that keep me posted on what’s happening. Right now Bettendorf, Iowa and Kansas City, Missouri are the only places that have enough to make it worth traveling to. One has blackjack machines and the other has video poker. You could probably make about $40 to $50 an hour, but you could do the same thing here, so there’s no reason to travel right now.
How often do you leave Las Vegas to travel around the country?
Chung: Well, last year I did it a lot because there was very little in Las Vegas, but now there’s quite a bit, so I probably won’t be going anywhere for a while.
Is there a certain kind of machine that opened up in Las Vegas that made it better?
Chung: Well, yes. There are certain types of games now.
You don’t want to mention the game?
Chung: There are two games actually. I can mention one because everybody knows about it. It isn’t the one I’m playing, but it’s the one I would play if something happens to the other one. It’s the quadruple deal Odyssey machine.
There are three or four places here that have them with full-pay jokers. It’s a 101% game and 101% on that is the same as playing about 103% on a regular machine because you can get three times as many hands.
You don’t like full-pay deuces on those machines?
Chung: Well the joker’s a higher pay back. It’s 101% and the deuces is 100.7%.
How much time did you spend outside of Las Vegas last year?
Chung: Last year was virtually 11 months out of 12.
It was that bad?
What do you play when you go to these other places?
Chung: In Kansas City I played All American video poker. That was a 103% game. Then in Illinois and Iowa I played $1 Williams blackjack.
Are those machines still around?
Chung: There are a few of the Williams blackjack games still around, but on the All American video poker they changed the payoffs, so they’re only 100.7% now instead of 103%.
What was the big advantage on those Williams blackjack machines? They allowed early surrender?
Chung: Yes, it was a single-deck game with early surrender and doubling only allowed on 10 or 11. That makes it a 100.35% game (against perfect basic strategy), plus the cash back.
Could you double after a split?
Chung: No. In fact, you couldn’t re-split. Dealer stood on soft 17. And if you got six cards it was an automatic winner. The early surrender was the big difference. You could surrender on your first two cards against a 10 or an ace. So, even if the dealer had a blackjack, you still got half your bet back.
That’s the game they used to have in Atlantic City when they first opened the casinos?
Chung: Yes. It’s about a break even game at six decks. With single deck it’s about a .35% edge for the player, plus many of those casinos had a lot of cash back along with it too.
So you did well on those machines?
Chung: Yes, I made about $50,000 on those by themselves.
Don’t the casinos find out that these machines are beatable?
Chung: Well, eventually, just by the amount of money they lose. I guess if the company that makes the game tells them the payback is less than 100% they believe them for a long time, even if they’re losing money on them. Finally, they have to come to the conclusion, after they lose a couple of hundred thousand dollars, that the company was wrong.
Don’t you think that most people don’t pay properly and they can’t achieve those paybacks and the casinos probably still make money on those machines?
Chung: With the quarter machines you might be right and that’s why a lot of the quarter ones are still there. But the dollar ones attract the pro’s.
When you go out to play do you think you’re going to win money every day? You must have bad days.
Chung: Last year there were 262 winning days and 58 losing days.
So you keep a log every day?
What’s the worst losing streak you have ever had?
Chung: About $3,500.
That’s in quarters?
Chung: That’s in dollars too. But, remember it’s only blackjack I play in dollars and there are a lot less fluctuations in blackjack because you don’t have to wait for any rare hands to win.
How long did it take you to lose $3,500?
Chung: Oh, probably 3, 4 or 5 days. If you lose that much it’s usually over a period of time. Any longer than that and it’s going to come back up.
That doesn’t seem like that much money to lose in 4 or 5 days.
Chung: Well, all I can say is that I‘m a lot more conservative when I play than most of the pros and by playing video blackjack I’ve had a lot fewer bad days than I would have with video poker alone.
Do you put a limit on your losses? Say if you lose $1,000 you stop for the day?
Chung: No, I just play for as many hours as I want to play.
So, when you start your eight hour day, if it’s 9 o’clock in the morning, you decide you’re going to play video poker and you’re not going to stop until 5 o’clock no matter what happens?
Chung: Yes. There’s no sense in stopping. I try to play my game so the expected win is about $300 a day. Total money times percentage makes about $300.
But you don’t stop when you hit the $300? You keep playing?
Chung: Yes, for 8 hours or so. I try and look for a game that would have an expected return of at least $300 for eight hours of play.
So, if it’s a 103% game and you’re putting . . .
Chung: Eight hours and 1,000 hands would be 8,000 hands x $1.25 a hand. So, it’s $10,000 x 3% which is $300.
So, if you started playing at 9 a.m. and at 10:30 you hit a royal you wouldn’t stop? You just say it’s part of your overall win and keep going?
Chung: Yes, and I’ve hit seven in one day.
Seven in one day? That’s pretty good!
Chung: Yes, that was unusual. I’ve had quite a few where I’ve hit three in a day but seven was unusual.
What’s the longest you’ve gone when you haven’t hit a royal?
Chung: Well, not counting all the time I was playing the blackjack machines, probably about two weeks.
How many hands do you play an hour?
Chung: On one machine about 1,000; two machines about 1,400.
1,000 hands an hour? That’s pretty fast!
Chung: Yes. You have to hit the keys immediately. You can’t have any time to think about what you’re going to do. It has to be automatic.
Does your wife have any problems with your gambling for a living?
Chung: No, actually she plays with me sometimes.
Does she want to become a professional?
Chung: No, she just plays for fun, but she’s been making money on it too.
How old are your kids?
Chung: One is 20 and the other is 17.
Do either of them have an inclination to gamble?
Chung: I’m sure the older one wants to try it when she’s old enough.
Do you think she might want to become a professional player?
Chung: Of all the pros I know it’s almost exclusively men and I’d say only one or two are women. But, I know she has enough of a mathematical inclination, so she might.
As noted previously, this interview was originally done by telephone in January 1999. I followed up with Chung again in late August and he was back in the Midwest. He said he had left in April to play $1 blackjack machines but he "found something much better."
Of course, he wouldn't say exactly what it was, but he did say "it involved a programming error on certain video poker machines and it was very, very profitable." Chung was spending all of his time traveling throughout the country searching for these particular machines (he found them at 25 different casinos) and he only returned home for about three days each month.
I lost track of him after that last conversation but I later read some stories about a malfunction with certain video poker machines at casinos in the midwest and, evidently, the casinos had lost millions of dollars to customers who were able to "milk" these particular machines. Was he one of those people? I don't know for sure, but I'd be willing to bet on it!