How Long Can It Last?

I was leaving the South Point one morning in early June and “Sam,” a man who has attended many of my classes over the years, approached me and said, “Bob, I have to ask you. How long can a losing streak last? I haven’t hit a royal flush since November.” For occasional players, a six- or seven-month royal-free streak would not be that unusual. But I’ve seen Sam in casinos dozens of times, so I assume it’s been several 40,000-hand cycles. Always painful. Always expensive.

And the answer is: There is no mechanism to guarantee the streak will end after so many hands. Assuming appropriate play, you’re just as likely to go royal-free over the next 40,000 hands (or any other number) if you haven’t hit one in year as you are if you’ve hit three royals in the past week. The machines do not know how long it’s been for you. The machines are just dealing cards and the results are what they are.

In round numbers, you have about one chance in three of hitting zero royals in the next 40,000 hands; one chance in three in hitting exactly one royal in that time period; and one chance in three in hitting two or more royals. The exact numbers depend on what game you’re playing. Jacks or Better and Double Double Bonus, for example, get royals more often on average than Double Bonus and Deuces Wild.

I wish I could tell Sam that there was a really good chance that he’ll hit a royal by next Tuesday, but that’s just not the case. Nobody knows when Sam’s next royal is coming.

When I get this question, and I’ve gotten versions of it more than one hundreds times over the years, my answer usually includes, “When it happens to me, this is what I do . . .” Because it does happen to me periodically. I’ve had tons of dry spells and tons of “wet” spells. There is no such thing as being such a good player that you’re immune from losing streaks. It happens to all of us.

Completing the “this is what I do” thought started in the past paragraph, when I go through a losing streak, I go back to basics. I review my strategies. I try to 100% memorize the games. I re-evaluate whether I’m playing with an advantage. I slow down so as to not introduce any errors through carelessness.

Does this help? I’m not sure. But psychologically I then feel I’m doing the best I can.

I don’t know Sam’s financial situation. Possibly he has the bankroll to ride out this streak without unduly affecting things. Possibly he doesn’t. If he’s okay with, say, losing $10,000 a year, but not more, then quite possibly he’s exceeded this loss limit during this streak. This can lead to an uncomfortable conversation with his wife as to what to do next.

In Sam’s case, I know his wife is also a video poker player, so presumably she has a basic understanding of losing streaks, because undoubtedly, she’s been through them before. But not all spouses are players. Not all spouses are understanding of these things.

Sometimes it comes down to, “We’re going to need to cash in your 401K or you’re going to need to stop gambling until we build up another bankroll.” These are never comfortable decisions.

 Sam told me the game he is playing most is 8/5 Bonus Poker. While this is a much looser game than many of my readers find in their local casinos, this is not a winning game. You begin with a 99.2% game (probably multiplied by 99% because of less than perfect play, but I don’t actually know how accurately he plays) and add in the 0.3% slot club, but even with the South Point’s promotions and mailers, the house probably has a small advantage. Sam will eventually end his royal-free streak, but overall, he’ll still be losing.

If Sam can learn NSU Deuces Wild, which returns more than a half-percent more, he has a much better chance of being a winning player. The royal cycle is longer at this game (closer to 43,500 hands than the 40,000-hand Bonus Poker cycle), but over time his score will be better. At the South Point, he’ll definitely be playing with an advantage if he masters this game.

I didn’t check to see if Sam has introduced any bad habits into his game try to end this losing streak. Like, perhaps, playing less than maximum coins, or taking extra chances because “he’s due.” Over time these things exacerbate the problem rather than solve it.

Remember, whether or not you’re winning over a particular period of time, like a year or less, is largely considered by the number of royal flushes you hit. So that’s what people tend to focus on. Whether or not you’re winning over a longer period of time is more dependent on what games you’re playing, at what accuracy, with what casino benefits, during what promotions. Over several years, most of us will hit close to the normal number of royals. (It doesn’t have to be true for any one person during something as short as a lifetime. But it is true for all of us as a group.)

Focusing on royals isn’t where our problems lie. Focusing on the other things I listed in the previous paragraph is far more important to playing a winning game.