The very basics of slots and video poker

Bare-bones video poker strategy

Video poker: Jacks or better
Four of a kind, straight flush, royal flush discard 0
Straight, flush, full house discard 0
1 card missing to make a royal flush discard 1
1 card missing for a straight flush discard 1
Two pairs discard 1
Three of a kind discard 2
High pair (jacks or better) discard 3
2 cards missing for a royal flush discard 2
1 card missing for a flush discard 1
Low pair (10s or less) discard 3
Two suited high cards discard 3
One high card discard 4
Junk discard everything

There's another video poker variety called "Deuces Wild" that has even better payout rates, but a more complicated chart. Get your feet wet with Jacks or Better, then move on to the serious strategy involved with Deuces Wild.

Slots are the backbone of casino gambling. They're as easy to play as putting money in a vending machine and typically pay out more than 90 percent -- often 95 percent or even higher -- of what they take in over the long term, but that small fraction of house advantage generates more revenue for casinos than any other form of gaming. Think about it, the machines require almost no overhead and operate 24 a day. Small percentages add up in a big hurry.

There's no strategy involved in playing the slots -- other than perhaps playing the maximum units per spin, in case you hit one of the incredibly rare jackpots -- so play whichever game you find the most fun.

You may be surprised at just how quickly you can burn through a budget on the slots, since you can easily play three or four spins in the span of a minute, but keep in mind you control the pace. If you're down a hundred bucks before a cocktail waitress has even looked your way, that's a good sign maybe you should slow down how often you hit that "Spin" button.

Video poker

Video poker is a mainstay of casino gaming, getting almost as much real estate as slot machines. Gamblers like it because it's non-intimidating and almost everyone has at least some idea of poker hand rankings. The payout rate is also very good, up to 99 percent or so if the right game is played using the right strategy.

The downside to video poker is that it's not a social thing. It's not like a table game, where several people are playing at the same time, talking and interacting. Video poker players are wrapped up in their own little world, telling the machine which cards to hold and which to trash.

Still, many players enjoy the video poker experience, so it's worth trying. Start by looking for the right variety of VP. There are many versions, but you want to find a "Jacks or Better". These have the some of the lowest house edges.

Once you've found the right game standard strategy says to be the maximum allowed on each hand (betting can usually be 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5 units) in order to get the maximum payout on winners. But this really only comes into play for the highest-ranking, jackpot hands. You're not likely to hit one of these, so if you want to play 1 unit at a time, go right ahead and do it that way.

From then on, the following charts will tell you how to handle each hand. Start at the top of the list and work your way down. Keep/discard cards according to where your hand fits in the chart. This is a stripped-down version of the game's mathematical strategy, but it'll put you in a better spot than most players.

Airport slots

As soon as you get off your flight you'll run into your first chance to gamble in Las Vegas, the slot machines right there in the airport. Most books advise against playing them, as they're reported to pay less than casino slots. But, come on, you're on vacation. Loosen up. Drop a buck or two in the machines and give it a spin. In all likelihood the one-armed bandit will take your cash fast enough that you won't even be delayed getting to baggage claim.

If you are one of the rare winners, make sure you do all the math before celebrating your winnings too loudly. While waiting for a red-eye flight back to Texas several years ago the quiet of the late-night airport was shattered by an excited slot player. "Whooo! I won big!" he bellowed. "Biiiig baby! Whoooo!"

The he suddenly got quiet. My buddy who had gone to investigate came back laughing. "Dude forgot for a minute that he was playing on a nickel machine," he told me. "He thought be had $800 coming, then remembered to divide that by 20."

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