If you study video poker or hang around where it’s played, you may come across players talking about the “cycle” and how it’s possible to figure out its pattern. If you understand the cycle, they say, you’ll be able to divine when the game will start giving you big winning hands, and therefore know when to maximize your bets to get the best payouts.
What Is the Cycle?
There are two types of cycle that people talk about in relation to video poker. Both, however, are based on the idea that there are identifiable patterns in video poker hands.
One is the “pump and dump cycle,” which claims that the games are designed to give you a streak of losing hands to keep you pumping coins in, and then dump out some big wins to keep you hooked and attract others. The trick, obviously, is to be able to identify when a game is going into its dump phase and bet big to take advantage.
More sophisticated sites will also talk about the “royal flush cycle,” which is the average number of hands you have to go through before you hit a royal flush. This number differs for different games, ranging from about 40,000 hands from jacks-or-better through 46,000 hands for joker-wild-kings-or-better. The idea there is that it’s more sensible to chase a royal flush if you’re playing a game with a tighter cycle, because the odds of your getting the cards you need are better.
Don’t Fall for the Cycle Myth
Regardless of which version you mean, the cycle represents just another type of the old Gambler’s Fallacy — the idea that what happens in one hand somehow has an influence on future hands. You can see it in roulette, when black comes up repeatedly and people rush to bet on red because they think red is “due.” Or the old joke about betting on the horse who has come in last in every race because he must be overdue for a win.
In reality, of course, the horse is just a loser, one spin of the roulette wheel does not influence the next, and there is no cycle. Mathematical averages only go so far — they should never be taken as a guarantee that the game will break your way at a certain point.
As for the “pump and dump” cycle, casinos and video poker game designers have no need to manipulate the results that crudely. The games are profitable enough for them with completely random hands. Having predefined winning and losing periods would be illegal, not to mention way too easy for those in the know to take advantage of.
Our brains are designed to find patterns even in completely random sequences, and we have a natural expectation that games will be “fair” in terms of how big wins and bad beats are distributed. But that’s not how things work — a fair game is one that gives equal probabilities, not necessarily equal results. There are ways to bet intelligently and play skillfully to maximize your wins and minimize losses at video poker, but believing in the cycle isn’t one of them.