Gaming and Indexing

Prefatory warnings: You will learn nothing of any use about indexing from this post. You will learn nothing that applies to libraries from this post. On the other hand, you will not be urged to buy books in this post. It is a long and rambling post about a topic that some may find offensive. If I allow comments at all, you will find it difficult to comment without triggering a “discard, don’t even mark as spam” rule because of certain words. This is the “long and boring post” I referred to recently, and if you find it too long or boring, I can only offer you a Lehrerism of sorts–you’ve yourself to blame if it’s too long, you should never have let it begin: You can go right on to some other post. I won’t be unhappy. Of course, I won’t even know…

I enjoy doing Cites & Insights, sometimes more than others. I enjoy doing other library writing–again, sometimes more than others.

But there are aspects of C&I and of other writing projects that are at best dull, at worst so annoying that I’ll waste hours just trying to avoid doing them. A prime example is preparing index entries for each issue of C&I (by adding to a dummy Word document that consists entirely of index entries and page/section breaks). It’s necessary–I’m sure a few readers appreciate the end-of-volume indices, and I certainly refer to them in later years–but it’s a dull, repetitious drag, one that reminds me I’ll never be much of an indexer.

There are others. Preparing leadsheets for source material is one. The last time I did a major essay without preparing leadsheets, I wasn’t that happy with the results–the organization was too chronological and failed to pull together things that might have related nicely. The two-part essay in C&I 11:2 and 11:3, on the other hand, benefited considerably from leadsheets: The segments of the essay suggested themselves to me as I was arranging piles of leadsheets on our big coffee table. The sorting process is interesting, but requires frequent breaks. Printing the leadsheets is just plain drudgery, particularly since I absolutely have to do Print Preview for each source before printing “page 1”–since some blogs don’t show the post text until page 2 or 3 (or 7, in one case), and some blogs won’t really show me the post text at all.

There are others, of course. When I’m doing some big research project (if I ever do one of those again!), I can only work on it for an hour or two at a time without going a little more nuts than usual. And, for that matter, when I’m into an essay I’m really happy about, it rarely makes sense to write more than two hours at a stretch, both for physical reasons and for mental reasons. And there are Wednesday afternoons: After a long hike in the morning, I’m rarely up to doing much of anything “mental” in the afternoon.

Gaming and gambling

I found a solution of sorts, to this and to another problem, and that brings up the first word in the title above: Gaming. Yes, I know, most cynics figure Las Vegas and others just call gambling “gaming” to make it more innocent, but for some of us there’s a real distinction, one I’ve discussed before. To wit:

  • Gaming: Cheap entertainment, with known limits on what will be spent, with no expectation of “winning back” anything–or, in general, winning at all. The gaming itself is the pleasure.
  • Gambling: Wagering in the real hopes of winning, with The Win being a big factor in whatever pleasure is there.

You’d never game with more than a tiny fraction of your leisure income. Gambling is another question entirely.

I tried gambling once, in Las Vegas, more than 33 years ago. I’m not cut out for it: I’m too acutely aware of the real mathematics to be willing to risk significant sums, I don’t have the nerves for the action at craps (for example), I apparently don’t have an addictive personality (cross fingers, but so far…), and I didn’t really get turned on by the excitement of the blackjack table.

Gaming, however, is something else. My wife & I both used to enjoy going up to Reno two or three, sometimes four, times a year–usually visiting interesting places (of which there are a lot in Northern Nevada) during half of the day and playing during the other half. Both of us gravitated toward video poker, usually at the $0.25 level for me and that or slightly lower for her: It combined some modest intellectual effort with simple fun. We set a limit of $50 per person per day, probably 30 years ago, and never increased that limit–but we also never spent that limit. Back in the day, particularly when we’d go up in the winter via Amtrak, we could get such cheap high-quality hotel rooms and food in Reno that adding $100 per day total (which we never spent all of) to our total costs still made them cheap vacations.

We gave up on Reno as my wife’s asthma and sensitivity to smoke grew worse, as my desire for clean air also grew, and as the bargains diminished–although the other issues were the deciding ones. We went to the Indian casino where my wife’s niece works a few times–it has a good true nonsmoking area, although the video poker odds are mediocre at best–but the available lodging didn’t excite us and the local restaurants we’d use seemed to have gone downhill. In other words, after 20-25 years of gaming perhaps 4-6 days per year, we haven’t gone in two years or so.

Oh, I’d also game on cruises–not a lot, perhaps 6-8 hours a week, mostly during sea days for an hour or two. If any of the shipboard casinos had been smokefree, I might have played more (and my wife would definitely have played more), but…

How cheap is gaming as entertainment? Well, there were some holiday vacations in which the Reno hotel/casino gave us our room for three nights (or charged $50 for two or three nights), meals were good and inexpensive, and we probably each averaged $25/day on video poker (and occasionally other slots). At least once, the gaming money came from hotel points that I’d accumulated over the years, making the total gaming outlay $0 (less, actually). And I fondly remember the casino on Crystal Symphony, one of our favorite cruise ships (when we could still afford it), which at the time was operated by Caesar’s and had full-odds poker…but with drinks supplied by Crystal. At least two evenings, I sat at the bar (with inlaid poker games), played poker for an hour or so…and drank a free glass of DeLoach Chardonnay, spending less for the poker than the DeLoach would cost in a bar.

Were we really lucky in order to be able to get by for less than $50/day? Not really, as it turns out–indeed, the fact that I never once got a royal flush in 25+ years of playing video poker, and only got one straight flush during that time, suggests that my luck wasn’t really very good. (You should, on average, get about one royal flush for every 40,000 hands, and one straight flush for every 9,000… I’d guess I probably used to play about 10,000 hands a year.)

In fact, full-odds video poker, even if you’re not playing five coins at a time, has better than a 98% payback rate–better than 96% even without royal flushes. (If you’re playing five coins at a time and playing perfectly, the odds are something like 99.5%. I don’t play five coins at a time–and I think the constant advice that you MUST do so is bad advice for gamers, although not for gamblers.)

About that “always play max coins” advice. Yes, you will theoretically get a higher percentage payback that way–if and when you hit a Royal Flush. Which, if your luck is perfectly even, happens once every 40,390 hands. How much higher? Payback for full-odds Jacks-or-Better poker with max coins played is supposed to be 99.5%. Payback with one coin played (or any number less than five) is supposedly about 98.4%–but when I add up the numbers, I come up with about 98.1%. During all the time that you’re not getting Royal Flushes, there’s no difference–payback is about 97.5%.

But if you’re playing because you enjoy playing, or if you have a somewhat limited bankroll, the huge difference is that you’ll play five times as long at one coin as you will at five coins–and the streakiness of true randomness without memories virtually guarantees that you’ll run out of limited stakes much more often at five coins, before you have a chance to get a Royal Flush. How streaky? A run of mildly bad cards can make you go “down 40”–40 coins at one coin per play, 200 at 5 coins–in 80 hands, and it’s not at all unusual to go down 40 in 150 hands or fewer.

Oh, and if you do play 40,356 hands, play them all perfectly (the casino’s big edge with video poker is that very few people will play perfectly) and have perfect luck–well, at that point (having played 40,356 coins at one coin per hand or 201,780 coins at five per hand), assuming your coins are quarters, you will be down $252 if you’re playing five coins at a time…and $161 or $190 at one coin (depending on whether you believe 98.4% or 98.1% as payback). Try as I might, I can’t make a loss of $252 to be winning compared to a loss of $190. Ask me if I’d rather spend 1.6% or 1.9% of $1,000 or 0.5% of $5,000: I’ll have the same answer, and it’s not one that favors five coins at a time.

If you’re playing half decently, you should average at least 90%-95% payback…and that means it takes 2,000 to 4,000 hands to go through $50 at $0.25 per hand. In a casino, I doubt that I ever play more than 150 hands an hour or about 1,000 a day. Thus, it’s not at all surprising that we didn’t spend $50/day. I did have a three-year period in which I was ahead throughout the three years…which, it turns out, also isn’t all that odd, especially as I was probably only averaging 3,000-4,000 hands a year.

Long digression, I know…but not really a digression. (“Poker” as a search term here will find previous posts on gaming and Nevada, along with some entirely unrelated posts.)

Our daily vacation and the urge to game

We never owned a vacation home–with California real estate prices and our library-field salaries, that was never a plausible option. We also didn’t much care for the idea: Why pay for a property you’re going to use two or three weeks a year, and be more-or-less stuck going to the same place every year? We did, of course, go back to the same places year after year–although the most interesting vacations were those where we tried new places (as in “Seeing the world by cruise ship”).

A funny thing happened when we moved to Livermore, however. We found ourselves in the lightest, airiest house we’d ever owned, we were suddenly living in wine country (with two wineries in easy walking distance, two dozen in easy biking distance)…and, well, we suddenly owned a vacation home. A full-time vacation home, since we’re both essentially retired. Heck, there’s even a very good public library (which, although Will Manley apparently doesn’t see them when he’s there, always seems to have at least half a dozen people in the bookstacks finding books when I’m there, and usually even more–along with, to be sure, those in the children’s section, those working on computers, those reading in easy chairs and maybe one or two sleepers), and lots of reasonably-priced ethnic restaurants, albeit not as many as in Mountain View.

We haven’t actually been on an away vacation since we moved here in late May 2009. That will change–I’m not sure when, but it will change. There are several reasons (my wife has food sensitivities, we need to find the right catsitters, we think about long-term financial issues…), but one cluster has to do with our daily vacation. As my wife says, unless we’re really doing something special, why go somewhere else with inferior rooms/beds, more expensive and probably inferior food, and quite possibly inferior views?

I was grumbling about wanting to game once in a while, but couldn’t really argue with the other points and with the infelicities of most casinos these days. And then I thought about a very old CD-ROM I had–from 1995, although the software seems to have been written in 1991-1992, based on the copyright statement: Masque Video Poker. Back in the day, I tried it out and played for a while, certainly taking advantage of its training tools (it will show you the preferred cards to hold and warn you if you’re not holding them, and you can print out a long list of which things you should hold, in descending order), but it wasn’t the same…and I found the music and sound effects annoying.

Just for fun, I got out the CD and installed it on my current notebook (not knowing whether this antique would even run under Windows 7, much less run politely and well). It ran, surprisingly in a proper Windows window (resizable and all), and looking through the settings I found that I could turn off all those annoying sounds (which also speeds up the game).

And I found that I liked it just about as well as actual casino play. It doesn’t look quite as good, but it looks fine. I can keep the training function on (which I mostly ignore), which should make me a better player when I do go to a casino again (on a cruise ship, for example…or, for an hour or two, at Harrah’s in New Orleans during ALA, possibly), as I’ll have the proper holds ingrained into me. While it may be missing some of the excitement of a casino itself and nobody brings me free drinks, I never have to change machines because a chainsmoking yahoo has sat down next to me, I never have to think about earplugs from overloud music, the chair’s a whole lot more ergonomic, second-hand smoke is simply not an issue… [Since I drink white wine, the free drinks in casinos aren’t much of an incentive anyway…]

…and I can play 10 minutes at a time, 20 minutes at a time, five minutes at a time, just when I need a break from something else. It turns out to be perfect for C&I indexing: Do four pages; play for five minutes; do four more pages; play for five minutes…and so on until done. I can just leave the game minimized most of the time, or put it on the secondary screen (great for printing leadsheets, which is mostly delay).

It also turns out that this game appeals to the numbers geek in me (I did have an informal math minor at UC…and it was the national math contest that kept me from going to the state National Forensics League tournament in my senior year of high school, which was the wrong choice but felt right at the time). To wit, one of the training functions is that you can call up a table that shows how many hands you’ve played and how many of each kind of hand you’ve had. If the game just keeps running all day (or over several days), which it can since its memory and CPU usage are so small I can’t even locate them, I can pull up a chart after a few hundred or few thousand hands (I play much faster on the computer–maybe 500 hands an hour if I’m playing full-time) and see whether my luck is improving.

To be sure, I won’t see a cash reward if I hit it big. I also won’t see any cash losses if I have a bad run…and I was never playing video poker in the hopes of hitting it big in any case.

For me, for now, this is a nice little solution. I’m not grumbling about the need for any old vacation anymore: we’ll wait until we both really want to see something. I’m finding a way to break up annoying tasks. And I’m finding out more about how real-world video poker works out. Yes, of course, I have a spreadsheet–one showing how long it takes for me to go through 200 coins ($50 in quarters) using my single-coin-but-with-variations-based-on-possible-streaks betting. (Yes, it’s a system; it probably costs more often than it benefits, but it adds a little extra interest. There’s a reason casinos love systems: Most of them are losers. Overall, I’d guess this one is too.)

Results so far? The first run where I tracked results until I was down 200, it took 2,425 hands: That’s a payback of 91.75%. I didn’t have the training line on at the time, and was probably misplaying some hands. The second run, where I did have it on, I suspect I was having fairly average luck: 4,382 hands or 95.44% payback. Thing is, either of those results tells me why I don’t go through $50 in one day: There is no way I’d play even 2,425 hands of video poker in one day in an actual casino.

And then there’s the third run. (No, I don’t keep the game running indefinitely–I like to turn my computer off overnight, not just put it in hibernate mode. I jot down the mark at the end of the day on a 3×5 card, or rather keep a running total until I hit -200 total.) I can’t say where this one’s going to wind up, but I can certainly see how I went three years being ahead. So far, I’m at 17,266 hands. I’m ahead 460, which means I have 660 coins left to play in this run. I’ve been steadily ahead since somewhere around 4,700 hands. That’s more than 12,500 hands so far: Easily a year’s worth of play. Sure, I could go through the remaining 660 coins in 660 hands, but more likely it will take at least 6,600-13,200…

What’s happening, apparently, is that luck is catching up with me: My overall results are tending back toward the norm. Beginning with, well, this:

I remember one time when some stranger passed by as I was playing one-coin video poker and felt compelled to admonish me for not playing maximum coins. “How will you feel if you hit a royal flush and didn’t have five coins in?” the stranger said. My response: “I’ll feel great: I’ll have finally gotten a royal flush.” And that turns out to be the right answer. It’s taken more than 20 years, but it still feels great–even if the actual cash return is $0.

I grabbed that partial screen using Windows Snipping Tool. If you’re not aware of it, you might check it out–“Snipping” in the Start menu search box should find it in W7 and Vista, and you can make a shortcut. It lets you choose any rectangular portion of the screen, make annotations, highlight portions, and email, copy, or save as PNG (default) or JPEG or another format. And, y’know, it’s already part of the OS, albeit as a separate program.

Interfering with other stuff?

So am I becoming a video poker junkie? Well, you know, for two years I didn’t play any video poker–not in casinos, not on my PC. I missed it, but only a little.

Now? Great for breaks. Great for parts of Wednesday afternoons when I’m too tired for writing. The biggest “waste of time” connected with video poker so far is writing this post. It’s not interfering with writing or FriendFeed. It might help keep me from doing huge research projects when nobody much cares about the results, but it won’t keep me from doing booklength projects. I’m actually reading more books now than before (yes, I’m tracking them this year), and we’re watching neither more nor less TV than before…although, if I’m tempted to channel-surf, video poker is a whole lot better use of that idle time than, say, Surreal Housewives of Sioux City or Minute to Spin It or whatever.

It may be interfering with my two-a-week old movies: I’m finding that I’d rather watch one old movie and spend a little more time reading, playing video poker, and out walking in wine country. I can live with that.

Oh, by the way: If there was any question remaining about my disputed claim that I live within two hours of snow: For this weekend, at least, 30 minutes is more like it. There’s snow on the hilltops in both directions. That’s as close as I want it.

I’m disabling comments for this post because it will predictably draw lots of spam related to poker and gaming…and because legitimate comments will disappear because of words in my discard list. Turns out I can’t even comment on my own post. Such is life.

Comments are closed.