How to Make Good Decisions in Video Poker

Two Way Street Sign With Video Poker Machine Background

If you want to make good decisions during a video poker session, you’re thinking the way I hope all my readers would think. You should be trying to get the most value for your money when it comes to gambling.

In this post, I look specifically at what kind of thought process goes into decision-making on specific video poker hands.

Getting Started with Expert Video Poker Strategy

I think the best way to think about expert video poker strategy is to consider where these strategies come from. It seems like it would be easy to choose which cards to keep and which ones to throw away, but there’s a lot of math behind making such decisions optimally.

The first thing to realize is that you have more potential ways to play each hand than you probably think. You get 5 cards. You have 2 options for each card – hold it or throw it away.

This means you have 32 possible decisions: 2 X 2 X 2 X 2 X 2 = 32

You could hold all 5 cards, for example. Or you could discard all 5 cards.

Or you could hold 1 card and discard 4 cards, and you have 5 different ways to do that.

Each of these possible ways of playing a video poker hand has an expected return – the amount you can expect to win multiplied by the probability of winning it.

The best decision is always the decision with the highest expected return.

And, you’re not precognitive. You don’t know what the next 5 cards in the “deck” are. If you did, the right decision would always be obvious.

Mathematically, though, you do still have an optimal way to play each hand, regardless of being unable to see the future. You just need to make the choice that’s going to result in the biggest wins in the long run and the smallest losses.

And, sometimes, you’ll make the right decision and get a disappointing result. This doesn’t mean you played the hand wrong. This is just the nature of playing a game with a random element.

Assortment of Three Types of Video Poker Machines

And the decisions you make in video poker are not ambiguous in the least. The deck of cards has the same probabilities as a standard deck of cards, and you know which cards you have. Probability tells you the rest of what you need to know.

Does it make a big difference if you use less than optimal strategy?

The answer is yes.

In fact, the casinos anticipate that you WON’T use optimal video poker strategy. Their assumption is that you’ll lose 2% to 4% more than you should by just making mistakes.

This means that the average Jacks or Better player on a full pay machine is expected to lose 2.5% to 4.5% of each bet on average in the long run, even though the house edge on the game is 0.5%.

The difference is the result of playing mistakes. Some decisions are obvious, but not all of them are.

Here’s an example of an obvious decision:

You’re dealt a full house. It’s obvious that you don’t hold on to the 3 of a kind and discard the pair in hopes of getting a 4 of a kind. That just doesn’t make sense mathematically, and the reason is obvious – you already have a hand which pays off well.

And the probability of improving that hand is terrible – there’s only one card in the deck that will make your 4 of a kind.

Expert Decisions Are Optimal Decisions

The strategy charts you’ll find for video poker aren’t designed by a human mind. People use video poker software to look at the potential ways to play each hand and choose the one with the highest expected return.

Your intuition or psychic powers won’t compare to these calculations. Neither will your experience at the Texas holdem tables.

Common sense works some of the time, but you should set your sights higher than just being right some of the time. You want to be right almost all the time.

The Expected Return Difference from One Situation to Another

I’ve discussed expected return in various posts on this blog before, but here’s a simple definition that’s easy to apply to video poker:

Expected return is the long-term amount of money you can expect to win or lose for each possible decision.

It’s how we put a number on each play – a score for how good a potential decision is. And unless you know the payoffs for the hands, you can’t determine the expected value.

Here’s a simple example from Jacks or Better:

You get the following cards:

3 of hearts, 7 of hearts, 8 of clubs, 9 of hearts, and 10 of hearts. You have 4 cards to a straight, and you also have 4 cards to a flush.

Which combination should you hold onto, and which card should you discard?

The payoff on a full pay machine is 6 for 1 for the flush, and the payoff for the straight is 4 for 1. If you decide to hold the suited cards in hopes of getting the flush, you can calculate the probability of making your hand.

You have 47 cards in the deck, and 9 of them are of the right suit to complete your flush. This makes your probability of getting the flush 9/47.

Since the payoff is 6 for 1, you multiply 6 by 9/47, and you get 54/47, which is about 1.15. That’s a positive expected return, but is it a better return than you’d see if you drew to the straight?

You can make the same calculations. If you draw to the straight, you have 8 cards which can complete your hand, which 8/47. And the payoff is 4, so you multiply again, this time getting 32/47, which is 0.68.

1.15 is clearly much better than 0.68, so the obvious decision here is to draw to the flush.

The Short Term versus the Long-Term Implications of Such Decisions

If you look at this decision in terms of real money, it highlights the difference between good and bad decisions in video poker.

The difference between 1.15 and 0.68 is about 0.47. If you’re playing for quarters and betting 5 coins per hand, then you’re looking at a difference of $1.25 X 0.47 per hand, or 59 cents.

If you make that decision 1000 times, you’re looking at losing $590 compared to making the right decision. And sure, in the short term, you might see some numbers different from the expectation. If you play long enough, though, the numbers will start to look like their expected value would have you think they’d look.

You could make even worse decisions, though. In the example hand above, you could decide to hold all 5 cards. The expected value for that decision would be to lose all your money every time – you have a 0% probability of winning anything if you hold a losing hand.

Video Poker Machine With Royal Flush Displayed

Not all video poker decisions are as easy as this one. If that example hand had included a jack or queen as the high card, you’d have more probabilities to consider. After all, you might miss your straight or your flush and still hit a pair that would pay off. And enough of these situations can potentially happen that the calculations soon become more than you can easily do in your head – or even with paper, a pen, and a calculator.

That’s why I’m so bullish on the use of video poker software. For example, you might throw that entire hand away. You’d still have a chance of winning something, which makes throwing away all 5 cards a superior play to holding all 5 cards.

Finally, never forget this:

On many hands, your expected return for a hand is negative – even if you play it optimally. Your goal with such hands is to choose the play that loses the least amount of money in the long run.

What’s the best way to make optimal decisions in video poker?

Follow the strategy advice provided by the software programs. Don’t try to think your way into appropriate video poker decisions when you can just memorize an effective strategy.

Conclusion

Making good decisions when playing video poker is the key to winning in the long run – or at least to getting the most for your money. Understanding that the decisions always involve expected return is the first step toward video poker decision wisdom, but it’s not the final step.

For most people, that final step involves memorizing a strategy provided by a software program.