Video poker offers the best opportunity to face a low house edge in the casino. Blackjack and craps are comparable, but video poker provides unique opportunities for discussion that aren’t available with either of those other games.
The other exciting thing about video poker is that, even though it’s a game where real strategy can make a difference, the game gets misplayed and bad strategy gets used constantly.
In this post, I’ll share some thoughts about which strategies for video poker are likelier to help you win. I’ll also explain why some other strategies are so bad.
Understanding the Difference between Video Poker and Slot Machines Is Your Starting Point
There are good and bad strategies for winning at slots, but it’s almost impossible to determine the house edge for a slot machine. That makes slot machines unique in the world of casino games.
But video poker is different.
Video poker games use imagery from decks of cards, and legit video poker games use the same probabilities you’d find in a deck of cards, too.
Computers can calculate the probability of winding up with a pair of jacks or better as opposed to a royal flush, for example.
So, you can analyze a video poker paytable and determine the payback percentage and house edge for the game. This enables you to choose the better games with better odds and forgo the games with lousy odds.
But You Also Need to Make the Right Playing Decisions
It’s not enough to find real money video poker games with the best paytables. You also need to be able to play the game with something close to the optimal video poker strategy. In this respect, video poker couldn’t be more different from slot machines.
You get five cards, but you can choose to keep or discard any, all, or none of these cards.
This means that you have 32 different ways you can play every possible hand in video poker.
The payback percentages that the computer analyses comes up with assume that you’re playing with the optimal strategy on each hand, making the mathematically best decision on every hand.
This makes video poker a game of skill in the same way that blackjack is a game of skill.
The First Video Poker Strategy Is to Learn How to Recognize the Best Paytables
The payback percentage for a video poker game is based on its paytable and how well you play.
But even if you play correctly, you can’t make a lousy paytable into a great game.
Let’s use Jacks or Better as an example. That’s the most basic form of video poker. You get five cards from a 52-card deck, and you get to decide which cards to discard and which cards to keep. There are no wild cards, and the payouts start with any poker hand consisting of a pair of jacks or higher. The better the poker hand you wind up with, the bigger the payout.
The top payout is 800 for 1 for a royal flush, but to achieve that payout, you must wager five coins per hand. If you wager fewer coins per hand, the payout for a royal flush drops to 200 for 1 or 250 for 1.
The lowest payout is an even money payout for a pair of jacks or better, then goes up to a 2 for 1 payout for two pairs, a 3 for 1 payout for three of a kind, and a 4 for 1 payout for a straight.
These payouts are consistent from one Jacks or Better game to another.
But the next two hands up from there are the flush and the full house. These payouts vary from machine to machine, but the best-paying machines offer a 6 for 1 payout for a flush and a 9 for 1 payout for a full house.
If you lower the payout on those two hands, the payback percentage for the game drops dramatically.
The so-called 9/6 Jacks or Better games, or “full pay” Jacks or Better games, have a payback percentage of 99.54% when played optimally.
Lower the payout for the full house to 8 for 1 and the payout for the flush to 5 for 1, and the payback percentage drops to 97.3%.
That’s the difference between a house edge of 0.46% and 2.7%.
Every video poker variation comes with multiple paytables. Your job is to learn which ones are best, and then…
Once You Identify the Best Paytables, Your Job Is to Find Them
It does you know good to be able to recognize the best possible video poker games unless you can also find them. This means spending a considerable amount of time scouting through the casinos for optimal paytables.
This is where the internet becomes your best friend.
Multiple websites publish video poker players’ scouting reports about where to find the best paytables. These publications aren’t always accurate because casinos change machines and locations all the time.
But lacking a better resource, sites like vpFree2 are excellent resources for video poker players who want to find the best games.
Now that You’ve Found a Video Poker Game with a Great Paytable, You Have to Make Optimal Decisions
Video poker strategy tables resemble basic strategy tables for blackjack.
But they’re actually more straightforward and easier to use.
A video poker strategy table is really just a prioritized list of potential hands. You start at the top of the list and look for a hand that matches what’s on your screen. The highest-listed hand on your strategy table is the hand you should hold on to and draw to.
For example, you’ll obviously keep all five cards if you have a royal flush in any video poker game. In most video poker games without wild cards, you’ll also always keep a straight flush or a four of a kind. Those are “made hands.” They automatically payout.
But the next best hand on the list is four cards to a royal flush. This means you’ll discard the card that doesn’t match your four cards to a royal flush, even if it means breaking up a winning combination.
What are some examples of winning combinations you might discard in your quest for a royal flush?
You might have a high pair where you need to discard the offsuit card. You might also have a straight with one card that’s not of the same suit.
In either of those cases, the correct strategy is to go for the bigger win rather than settling for the made hand.
After that, the prioritized list goes back to made hands in the following order, from best to worst:
- Full house
- 3 of a kind
It’s beyond the scope of this post to publish a full Jacks or Better video poker paytable, but you should get the idea at this point for how it works.
Video Poker Books and Training Software
You can find any number of video poker books and training software packages for sale online. I’m partial to Bob Dancer’s series of books about how to master various video poker games. I have friends who swear by Jean Scott’s books, too.
These providers also sell laminated video poker strategy cards that you can take to the casino and consult while you play.
The casinos don’t mind you using these strategy cards, either.
Any Other Video Poker Strategies Are Bad
What other video poker strategies might there be?
One example is a player who thinks she can get by just by playing her hunches. Maybe she thinks she’s psychic or something. I don’t believe in psychic phenomena, but I feel like if such events existed, the casinos would be in trouble.
Other mistakes video poker players make include playing for fewer than max coins. The payoff for the royal flush is so high that denying it to yourself by not wagering enough coins can reduce the payback percentage for the game by 2% or more.
That’s never a good idea. In fact, if you can’t afford to play for max coins, consider stepping down to a lower-stakes machine. Switching from a $5 per hand game to a game that costs $1.25 per hand is just good sense.
Video poker represents one of your best opportunities to beat the casino. By combining a knowledge of the best paytables with knowledge of the best way to play each hand, you can get the house edge for some games down to less than 1%.
If you combine that strategy with the rewards you get by joining the players club, you might even have the edge over the casino.