Video Poker

Last update: October 23, 2009

Introduction


Video Poker is an easy game to play, but a difficult game to play well. Done correctly, video poker players can enjoy a slight advantage over the casino. However, in any form of gambling, it takes a lot of work to get the odds in your favor. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.

Rules

Video poker is a fair video representation of a single-player draw poker game. The specific rules are as follows:

  1. A single 52-card deck is used, with the addition of jokers in some games.

  2. After making a bet, the game will deal the player five cards randomly.

  3. The player indicates which cards he wants to hold, discarding the rest.

  4. The game will give the player cards randomly from the remaining deck to replace the cards he discarded.

  5. The player will be paid according to the poker value of the cards he holds.

Strategy

There are five parts to video poker strategy:

  1. Bet max coins.
  2. Use a player card.
  3. Know the casino incentive program.
  4. Find a liberal pay table to play.
  5. Hold the right cards during your play.

Bet Max Coins

The first part is easy. Let's look at the "full pay" 9/6 Jacks or Better pay table as an example:

9/6 Jacks or Better Pay Table
Hand 1 Coin 2 Coins 3 Coins 4 Coins 5 Coins
Royal flush25050075010004000
Straight flush50100150200250
Four of a kind255075100125
Full house918273645
Flush612182430
Straight 48121620
Three of a kind3691215
Two pair246810
Jacks or better12345

Obviously, the more you bet, the more you will win for any given hand. With one exception, the win for any given hand and bet is proportional to the amount bet. However, notice that for a royal flush the win is 1000 for a bet of four coins and 4000 for a bet of 5 coins. The disproportionately high payoff of 800 per coin bet for a royal flush, with a five coins bet, is what economists would call an economy of scale. You will see this in almost every video poker game. If you don't bet the maximum number of coins, the cost of being short-changed on a royal amounts to about 2% of money bet, which is a lot. The wise video poker player will always bet max coins per hand.

Use a Player Card

The title pretty much says it all. Just about every casino gives a certain percentage of money bet back in the form of free play or comps. Not to mention offers to get you to return.

Know the Casino Incentive Program

Use a player card, and know the benefits of doing so. Casinos reward points for every penny bet in any machine, and those points can be redeemed for free play or comps. Free play rebates usually run from 0.1% to 0.33%. There are lots of other benefits for using a player card, like discretionary comps, free play mailers, drawings, and tournaments. If you don't use a card, there will be no evidence trail that you played, so you'll never get any of the freebies. This advice goes for any form of gambling. Finally, contrary to popular myth, the machines don't pay worse if you put in a card. The odds are the same whether you use a player card or not.

Find a Liberal Pay Table to Play

The fourth part, finding a liberal pay table, requires some combination of online research and good old walking. A great site for identifying the loose video poker at every casino in Las Vegas, and most of the country, is vpfree2.com. However, any video poker player worth his weight in quarters can identify a loose pay table on sight. Let's take Jacks or Better, for example. All the pays except the flush and full house are usually the same. In any video poker game, it is usually the middle hands that vary. The following table shows what the expected return of the game is for common Jacks or Better pay tables, assuming optimal player strategy.

Return for Jacks or Better
Full House Flush Return
9699.54%
9598.45%
8698.39%
8597.30%
7596.15%
6595.00%

Here is the same kind of table for Deuces Wild, where a lot more of the pays can vary from one machine to another.

Return for Deuces Wild
Wild Royal Five of a kind Straight flush Four of a kind Full house Flush Return
2515 9532100.76%
25161044399.73%
25151044399.42%
2012 953298.94%
2515 944398.91%
2015 944397.97%
20121044397.58%
2012 944397.06%
25161343296.77%
2512 944296.01%
2010 844395.96%
2512 844295.59%
2512 744295.19%
2510 844294.97%

It is not a typo that the top line pays well over 100%. It is also not some hypothetical game, or one long gone. It can be found at some of the neighborhood casinos in Las Vegas, notably the Station Casinos, although at no higher than the 25-cent denomination. So, the old saying that the odds are always in the casinos favor is just not true.

Hold the Right Cards

Holding the right cards is the hardest part of video poker. There are 2.6 million ways the game can give you 5 cards out of 52 on the deal. While you don't need to memorize the right play for all 2.6 million, memorizing perfect strategy can be a very difficult task. Fortunately, you can get close to perfect strategy with simplified strategies.

The way video poker strategies are usually expressed is a list of hands you might get on the deal, in order from best to worst. For any given hand, look up all viable ways to play it on the list and go with the one that is listed first. If you don't see a play listed, like suited 10/A, then never play it. Here is such a strategy for Jacks or Better.

  1. Four of a kind, straight flush, royal flush
  2. 4 to a royal flush
  3. Three of a kind, straight, flush, full house
  4. 4 to a straight flush
  5. Two pair
  6. High pair
  7. 3 to a royal flush
  8. 4 to a flush
  9. Low pair
  10. 4 to an outside straight
  11. 2 suited high cards
  12. 3 to a straight flush
  13. 2 unsuited high cards (if more than 2 then pick the lowest 2)
  14. Suited 10/J, 10/Q, or 10/K
  15. One high card
  16. Discard everything

For example, suppose you have the following hand:   A♥ Q♥ 5♥ 5♣ 10♥

There are three viable ways to play this hand: keep the low pair, keep the three to the royal, or keep the four to the flush. Some beginners might also suggest keeping the low pair with the ace kicker. In real draw poker, you sometimes should keep a kicker, but NEVER in video poker. In this case, we can see the low pair is listed 9th, the three to the royal is listed 7th, and 4 to a flush comes in at 8th. The three to the royal is listed highest of the three, making it the best play.

Following this strategy in 9/6 Jacks or Better will result in an expected return of 99.46%, which is 0.08% less than the 99.54% from optimal strategy.

Following is a strategy for Deuces Wild. It works best for the "full pay" pay table, listed at the top of the return table. This strategy is categorized by the number of deuces on the deal.

4 Deuces

  1. 4 deuces

3 Deuces

  1. Pat royal flush
  2. 3 deuces only

2 Deuces

  1. Any pat four of a kind or higher
  2. 4 to a royal flush
  3. 4 to a straight flush with 2 consecutive singletons, 6-7 or higher
  4. 2 deuces only

1 Deuce

  1. Any pat four of a kind or higher
  2. 4 to a royal flush
  3. Full house
  4. 4 to a straight flush with 3 consecutive singletons, 5-7 or higher
  5. 3 of a kind, straight, or flush
  6. All other 4 to a straight flush
  7. 3 to a royal flush
  8. 3 to a straight flush with 2 consecutive singletons, 6-7 or higher
  9. deuce only

0 Deuces

  1. 4,5 to a royal flush
  2. Made three of a kind to straight flush
  3. 4 to a straight flush
  4. 3 to a royal flush
  5. Pair
  6. 4 to a flush
  7. 4 to an outside straight
  8. 3 to a straight flush
  9. 4 to an inside straight, except missing deuce
  10. 2 to a royal flush, J,Q high

Following the above strategy in full pay Deuces Wild will result in an expected return of 100.71%, just 0.05% less than the optimal strategy return.

A Word about Volatility

Video poker is a very volatile game, about four times as much as blackjack. In any form of gambling, short-term results mostly depend on normal mathematical randomness (what some might call luck). However, in the long run, results mostly depend on skill. If you play a game with a return of 100.76% perfectly, that does not mean that you will have a 0.76% profit every time you play. The 100.76% is an EXPECTED return. Much in the same way, if you flip a coin ten million times, the expected number of tails will be five million, but it is unlikely you will hit five million on the nose. Actual results will vary significantly from expectations, but the more you play, the closer your actual return percentage will get to the expected return.

Further Reading

For lots more material about video poker, please see my companion site WizardOfOdds.com.

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