Lady luck. (computer gambling simulations)(includes related article and product listing) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Paul C. Schuytema
A deck of cards is unimposing all by itself, but put those cards in the hands of a dealer, and they seem to come alive. Fifty-two cards. That's all there are. And yet that finite number yields an almost infinite array of games. One of the most popular of these permutations is poker, a game of posturing and anticipating, all to create a hand of cards numerically superior to the others.
Poker has been with us for centuries, evolving from the French game of Gilet in the sixteenth century. During the French Revolution, the first serious betting techniques were applied to the game, and later, the English added the skill of bluffing. Poker, almost more than any other card game, is focused on a system of wagering which adds interest and financial reward to the game. Close on the heels of poker in terms of sheer popularity is the game of blackjack, or twenty-one, a fast and simple game that draws crowds at nearly any casino.
Since the very earliest days of computers, the electronic world has been simulating the world of the 52-card deck. Now, these games have advanced far beyond just a good play, providing instruction, statistics, and advanced theoretical problem solving.
Because of the universal popularity of games like poker, casinos have recognized a huge potential in their slot halls, and slot manufacturing companies such as Sigma and international Gaming Technology (IGT) have answered the call by marrying the game of poker to the traditional slot machine to produce the most popular casino game machine to date: video poker.
Video poker is basically a five-card draw hand (with many house variations) which is played on a betting machine in a casino (or in a pub or tavern). The player drops in quarters to place a bet, five cards are presented on the color monitor, and the player decides which cards to hold and which to throw. Then the draw is made, and if the hand comes up a winner, coins fall into the lucky patron's lap. Otherwise (and most often), the video poker machine deals a losing hand and prompts the player to drop in more quarters to bet again.
Video poker is an entirely different animal from real face-to-face poker, full of its own frustrations and enjoyments. While real poker is an interpersonal game, video poker is a statistical game, pure and simple, and there is no posturing or bluffing. The best payoff is the royal flush, which is destined to occur about once in every million hands. The trick is to be ready for it.
The popularity of this game has spawned an entire industry of help products, and the video poker games available for the PC are the most exciting of the lot. Video poker games on the PC serve two purposes: entertainment and training. Video poker is fast paced and exciting, and nearly every package allows a different array of games to be played. The video poker games also act as training grounds for the Las Vegas-style coin eaters, and careful attention to the PC tactics can mean a payoff in real casino play. Many claim that with solid practice, 100-percent payback rates are possible,
Here is a selection of major la ers in the video poker game.
Video Poker for Windows. Masque Video Poker for Windows is as much a tutorial as a game. The first 48 pages of the manual take you through the ins and outs of the main video poker machines in the casinos, teaching you which machines to look for and what sort of payback you can anticipate. Full of stats, the manual teaches you what to expect from any given hand (there are roughly 2 1/2 million possible hands in video poker).
The game itself is extremely intuitive, keeping all of the statistics in the background until you really need them. The look of the game is similar to the look of the casino games, complete with payback tables and the large square buttons.
Masque Video Poker provides a comprehensive array of statistical tools. At any moment, the player can pull up a chart showing the results of play, including payback rate, the percent of expert plays, and the number of hands dealt. You can also run computer simulations (in which the computer plays the hands) to quickly evaluate a certain game's characteristics. For example, using this tool will give you an idea of how many coins you will need to have in your bankroll to sit down at a particular casino machine and have a chance at winning.
The tutor will recommend expert plays on each hand, However, if you remove the tutor window from view, the tutor will only alert you when you're making a play which it considers wrong.
The basic strategy inherent in Masque Video Poker is to get your payback level as close to 100 percent as possible. If you can play expertly, you can keep your losses and gains nearly equal and hope that luck will send a jackpot your way.
Stanford Wong Video Poker. Villa Crespo's video poker is a DOS product based on the statistical work of Stanford Wong. Wong is a mathematician who has spent countless hours working through the myriad of permutations of video poker. Villa Crespo's video poker is a slick front end for Wong's original BASIC language program (the program has been completely rewritten in C), which allows on-the-fly computation so you can adjust the various payback levels to make the program play like any machine you find in a casino.
Like Masque's Video Poker, Villa Crespo's game can run simulations that will give the long-term payback of any machine. There is also a tutor that can be set either to recommend the correct play for every hand or to warn of a bad play. Each hand can be analyzed according to value and possible payback. Gaming sessions can be saved to disk and resumed at any time.
Stanford Wong Video Poker differs in strategy from Masque's Video Poker in that it targets its advice at the higher payoffs, favoring the potential for a straight rather than merely holding any high cards.
The manual is clear and concise, but it offers very little in the way of a tutorial. The game assumes a player will know video poker games.
Strategic Video Poker. If you're looking for a very fast and flexible package, Strategic Video Poker is for you. While you can't completely custom-configure a game, all of the games I've encountered are supported in this product, and payoff schedules can be easily modified.
Like the other two, Strategic Video Poker attempts to teach expert strategy for playing the video poker slot machines, and it offers many options, from a tutor to a simulator. It can even generate printed reports.
While the game doesn't have quite the look of a casino poker machine, the mouse-based left- and right-button commands make playing and spending artificial cash as fast and as intuitive as possible.
The manual provides a solid tutorial, mixing the statistics with examples from the program and providing a well-rounded experience that is fun and educational.
One of the fastest and most popular casino games is blackjack, or twentyone. The tables are small, the rules are simple, and there are no convoluted codes of etiquette to follow. Another feature of blackjack that makes it so popular is that an educated player stands a good chance of having a winning edge over the house. Forget breaking even. If you know how, you can make money at the blackjack table.
But blackjack can be just as arcane as the other casino games if you want; from elaborate hand signals to scraping your cards on the felt, you can indicate your plays to the dealer in many ways. Also, making a small bet for the dealer, known as tipping, can possibly convince the dealer to hold off on a reshuffle if you tip at just the right time.
Here are two of the best computer blackjack games.
Blackjack for Windows. Masque Blackjack for Windows is an elaborate blackjack game that allows the player the options of recreational play, strategy training, or a by-thehand tutorial.
Like the manual that comes with Masque Video Poker, the Masque Blackjack for Windows manual goes to great lengths to explain the game of blackjack before it addresses the program itself. Nearly 40 pages cover basic strategies, as well as an overview of counting strategies, including an exploration of Dr. Edward Thorp's ten-count system.
Masque Blackjack for Windows plays very well. The game allows you to point and click your hit and stand options, or you can use the handshaped cursor to practice the standard hand signals to indicate your choices.
The program keeps extensive statistics to help you keep track of your progress, and you can even run computer simulations, in which the computer plays the hands at expert levels, allowing you to explore various house rules and betting strategies.
Dr. Thorp's Mini Blackjack. In Villa Crespo's blackjack simulator, Dr. Thorp's Mini Blackjack, play is emphasized over computer simulation. It offers the interesting option of playing as many as six hands at once, allowing the player to simulate an entire table and try out different strategies in different simulations on the fly.
Dr. Thorp's also provides a tutor based on the counting tables created by Dr. Edward Thorp in the 1960s. You can even access the actual counting tables during play, to study the probabilities without the intervention of a tutor.
The game plays very well, and the speed of play is user-selectable. Even a six-player-plus-dealer game can move along at quite a clip. Of course, you can access a statistics table at any time to gauge progress.
Dr. Thorp's Mini Blackjack is a complete but abridged version of Dr. Thorp's Blackjack; it's a part of Villa Crespo's Coffee Break series.
Played around a smoky table in a dark basement, poker is a mysterious game that has become entrenched in our culture. The game is a true social event, and the social nature of the game has evolved because of the systematic way wagers are made. Because of this, many a paycheck has been lost in friendly play.
Poker can be most easily learned when played with seven players, since a great majority of the cards are drawn and dealt, and the odds can then be calculated. But what if there aren't seven players around? A poker simulator can give the needed practice, as well as coaching.
Amarillo Slim Dealer's Choice. This game simulates play around a table. You can select from one to six opponents at three skill levels, and the games vary each hand as the computer players select the game, from seven-card stud to some of the more eclectic games.
The program is extraordinarily simple to set up and play, but the games are strong, and the expert players truly play at expert levels. I showed the software to a local poker expert. Against a table of expert players in Amarillo Slim, it didn't take long for his pot to empty. He was stunned at the skill of the computer players.
Daniel Sejzer, president of Villa Crespo, says that the players were programmed with a little bit of random play so that a player couldn't just find out their computer preferences and beat them consistently.
In Amarillo Slim, you can call up the tutor to ask for advice at any time. You can also see a selection of statistics and odds. The game is fast paced and enjoyable, and it can teach you to read the table, from the bets laid out by the other players to the cards on the table.
In the spirit of casino gambling, some programs give you a choice of games.
Beat the House. Spirit of Discovery offers Beat the House, a game package that includes an entire casino, from slot machines to roulette. The graphics in Beat the House set this package apart; crisp Super VGA screens filled with dark greens and rich colors contribute to the feel of casino play, and the main menu level is a bird's-eye view of the casino floor.
Beat the House simulates the whole casino experience. When you check in at the front desk, your name will be registered and you'll be issued chips (and a line of credit); the chips and winnings can then be taken from game to game. The attention to detail is impressive: When you're playing blackjack, the hands are dealt in three-dimensional views, and when you're playing craps, a digitized stickman calls the dice.
Beat the House doesn't offer the statistical depth of the games discussed in the preceding sections, but every game in this package offers some sort of tutor that will recommend an expert play. Calling up the tutor for a recommendation is an extra step which involves bringing up two levels of screens, but for the serious player, this infringement will seem negligible. Also available is a coaching option, which alerts you with a digitized voice when it detects a poor play decision.
Beat the House includes the most complete manual I've seen. It's more like an in-depth tutorial for casino play than a software manual. I think Spirit of Discovery knows this, because it offers the customer a chance to purchase an additional manual as well.
The manual takes you through each game, providing clear and accurate rules and offering counting tables and suggestions for expert plays. This package aims to bring you a complete casino experience.
You can't run simulations or massive computer projections with Beat the House, but this solid package would make a good addition to some of the more specialized packages discussed above. Use the statistic-intensive products to hone your game, and use Beat the House to test your skills in some of the most beautiful, playable renditions of casino games anywhere.
Beat the House offers blackjack, craps, slot machines, video poker, and roulette, with several rule variations for blackjack and a number of video poker and slot machines to choose from.
Trump Castle 3. Capstone's Trump Castle 3 is a multigame casino package based on Donald Trump's Atlantic City casino. Trump Castle 3 offers baccarat, blackjack, craps, poker, video poker, roulette, slots, and even a wandering keno girl. The graphics are Super VGA, and while not quite as slick and photorealistic as the graphics in Beat the House, they are far and above those of many of the other casino games.
You command an onscreen character to any of the gaming rooms. You initiate a game by stepping up to the table or machine you'd like to play. You can then customize your poker face (right down to facial hair and sunglasses) and save the attributes (and the cash) for later gaming sessions. Trump Castle 3 is unique in that it supports network and modem play, allowing several players to sit at a table together and play against the house dealer, while viewing the other players' faces and engaging in crosstable chatter.
The games play very well, and the graphics fill the screen. The play options pop up as small buttons near the bottom of the display. There is no tutor of any kind, and the game offers no statistics. The instruction manual is geared more toward the program than toward providing detailed rules for the many house games. Trump Castle 3 does offer online help with rules of the game, but you're on your own when it comes to making play decisions.
Like Beat the House, Trump Castle 3 allows you to carry a bankroll from table to table, and the Castle even offers an ATM for those necessary cash infusions.
While offering the least depth of all of the packages mentioned, Trump Castle 3 comes as close as possible to simulating a real casino on the PC screen. If you want to learn a game, I'd suggest looking into one of the more specialized packages mentioned above; but if you want to test your skills or merely play for fun (alone or with friends), then you'll find that Trump Castle 3 has the odds stacked in its favor.
Laying Your Cards on the Table
Advanced statistics and training options are available in nearly every product currently on the market; taking advantage of a computer's inherent number-crunching ability and giving the player the tools to plumb the mathematical depths of nearly any card game.
Casinos are becoming more and more popular, with states recognizing the advantage, in both tourism and tax dollars, that a casino can bring. By experimenting and practicing with gambling simulators, you can learn and explore the games being played in the casinos even before setting foot in those carpeted and mirrored meccas of cash flow. Having that experience will give even the novice casinogoer a more enjoyable (and possibly more prosperous) night at the slot machines and tables.
Now, all we have to do is to get these Pcs to pay out the money we rightly win. After all, our house rules are the ones that count.