To the uninitiated, slot machines and video poker machines might look like the same thing. This is one case where appearances are deceiving–slot machines and video poker machines only LOOK similar. In every way that matters, the two games are completely different.
When you play slots, you have no decisions to make other than how much you bet and how long you play. You put your money in, you cross your fingers, and you spin the wheels. The amount of money you win or lose is determined by a random number generator, which is a computer program that’s set to return a certain percentage of money over time.
When you play video poker games, you get to decide which cards to keep and which cards to throw away. You also know how much each hand pays out at, so the mathematics can help you figure out what the right decision to make is. A slot machine’s random number generator is a complete mystery to everyone but the casino and the game’s designer, but a video poker game simulates a 52 card deck. Anyone who can do high school level math can calculate the probabilities related to a deck of 52 cards.
Slot machines generally make more money for the casinos. A payback percentage of 90% or 91% is common for a slot machine game, which means that over time, for everyone $100 you put through a slot machine, you’ll only get $90 or $91 back. That’s how the casino makes its money.
On the other hand, video poker machines make less money for the casinos. Even some of the less advantageous video poker games offer payback percentages of over 97%, which means that the casino only keeps $3 out of every $100 you put through the machine.
You should understand that those numbers are all based on long-term averages. In other words, those payout percentages apply to hundreds of thousands or millions of bets. In the short term, anything can happen. That’s called luck, or, if you’re a mathematician, standard deviation. For example, if you hit a MegaJackpot on a progressive slot machine, where you win a lottery-like jackpot of over a million dollars, you’d have to literally play for decades before the house edge started returning to the statistical mean. Casinos deal with large numbers all the time; individual gamblers don’t generally play enough to get too concerned about the long term numbers.
Of course, video poker and slots have a lot in common, too. For example, both games commonly offer cash back via the slots club at the casino. Video poker games are treated almost exactly like slots most of the time, although I think some casinos might provide a smaller percentage rebate to video poker players.
I think there are a lot of reasons to play video poker instead of slot machines, but that’s a decision you’ll need to make for yourself. Everyone has different goals and temperaments, and one person’s cup of tea doesn’t necessarily work for someone else.