John Grochowski, Gaming Guru

For video poker players, every royal flush is a thrill, and that first royal is the thrill of a lifetime. Greg, a Chicago reader, remembers his as being an unequaled shock.

"It was back in the late 1980s," he told me. "At the time, Trump was running cheap day trips to Atlantic City, and not just for high rollers. I found it in the travel section of the newspaper. It was just $50, if I remember right, and you'd get your flight, shuttle to the casino and some extras. No hotel room. You'd fly back that night.

"A couple of buddies and I decided to do it for a lark. We'd all been to Las Vegas once, and decided to give Atlantic City a go. There were no casinos around Chicago yet, so gambling in a casino was still a little bit of an out-there experience.

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"I'd played some video poker in Vegas, so when we got to the casino I told my guys I wanted to find the poker machines. Some guy overheard me and said, "Pick'em's the good game here. It's right over there."

"So I sat down to play Pick'em, and it wasn't like the games I'd played before. But I stuck it out for 15 minutes or so, and finally got a hand where I had a 10 and queen of spades, and I had to pick whether to hold an ace of spades or an ace of hearts. I held the spade, of course.

"When the other two cards showed, I went into shock. King and jack of spades, and I had a royal flush. Seriously, I thought I was having some kind of attack. My stomach flipped and I went all light in the head. I just couldn't believe it. I guess when it all got real is when a guy in a suit brought over a tax form for me to sign."

There had to be a tax form because on Pick'em, a royal flush with five coins wagered pays 6,000 coins instead of the 4,000 on most video poker games. On a quarter machine, which is what Greg said he was playing, that's $1,500, topping the $1,200 threshold at which the IRS requires players to sign form W-2G before the casino can make the payout.

The bigger payout is because the odds are different in Pick'em. You don't see a full five-card hand at the start. You see two cards to start your hand, plus the top cards in two three-card virtual stacks. You choose which stack of three cards to hold to complete a five-card poker hand.

With that gameplay, royals pop up an average of once per 351,818 hands, less than one-eighth as often as royals in most draw poker games.

I play Pick'em as an occasional change-of-pace game, and my dad and I once split a straight flush worth 1,199 quarters. I drew the straight flush, and a little while later my dad drew four of a kind for 600 more quarters. It wound up being quite the session for a father and son doing a little budget-stretching. But I've never had a Pick'em royal.

"That's the only one I've ever had," Greg said when I asked if he'd ever repeated the feat. "I've had royals on other games. Lots of 'em. But I still play Pick'em when I get a chance and have actually done pretty well. I've had straight flushes, four-of-a-kinds, and every one makes my day. But the rush of that first royal, that's something I don't ever expect to match."

Gambling author and columnist John Grochowski's weekly newspaper column began at the Chicago Sun-Times and is now syndicated nationally. He also regularly makes TV and radio appearances about gambling. His column appears weekly.

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