Video poker is the umbrella used for dozens of different gambling machines that all feature almost identical game-play. The most basic version of both casino and online video poker today is Jacks or Better, so called because the lowest-paying hand in the game is a pair of jacks, queens, kings, or aces.
These games all work the same way, but the way to get good at any of them is to master Jacks or Better first. If you get the hang of Jacks or Better, you can play a casino game where the house edge is less than 0.5%.
And that’s something worth doing.
Here are some tips and strategies for Jacks or Better to get you started.
Understanding the Bets and the Sizing of Those Bets
If you’re completely new to the game, you might not understand the importance of betting 5 coins per hand.
That’s the first decision you’ll make at any Jacks or Better game, but it’s a no-brainer, because there’s only one correct decision:
Always play the max coin bet, which is 5 coins.
The reason you always make the max coin bet in Jacks or Better – or any other video poker game, for that matter – is because you trigger a bigger payoff by doing so.
You can bet 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 coins per hand in video poker. If you bet anything other than 5 coins, the best possible payout is 200 for 1. That’s for the jackpot hand – a royal flush.
If you bet 5 coins, that hand pays off at 800 for 1.
And even though that hand only comes up once in every 40,000 hands on average, it’s a big enough difference in the payout percentage that playing for fewer coins will lower the payback percentage by 2%.
Some More Specifics About the Jacks or Better Pay Table
It’s become customary to use an abbreviated pay table when discussing video poker games like Jacks or Better. Here’s an example of the so-called “full pay” Jacks or Better pay table:
These are the payouts that correspond to the hands in this order:
- A pair of jacks or better
- 2 pairs
- 3 of a kind
- A straight
- A flush
- A full house
- 4 of a kind
- Straight flush
- Royal flush
A pair of jacks or better pays off at even money, 1 for 1. 2 pairs pays off at 2 for 1. 3 of a kind pays off at 3 for 1. And so on.
The important numbers on a Jacks or Better table, though, are the payouts for the full house and the flush. On a full pay Jacks or Better game, the full house pays off at 9 for 1, and the flush pays off at 6 for 1.
These are the 2 hands where the casinos change the payouts if they want to offer a game with better odds for them.
If you play with the optimal strategy on a Jacks or Better game with the pay table above, the casino house edge is only 0.46%, and the payback percentage is 99.54%.
But if the casino only pays 8 for 1 for a full house and 5 for 1 for a flush, that payback percentage drops to 97.3%. The house edge skyrockets to 2.70%.
And that’s assuming you’re playing with perfect strategy.
If you’re making mistakes, you might be giving up another 1% or 2% to the casino.
The beginning of wisdom in Jacks or Better video poker is to recognize the best pay tables and play only the machines with those pay tables.
Where to Find the Best Jacks or Better Pay Tables
If you play Jacks or Better online, it’s relatively easy to find full pay Jacks or Better games. The best online casinos offer this as a matter of course.
Be careful of multi-hand games, though. Most online casinos do NOT offer 9/6 Jacks or Better games in multi-hand format.
As my uncle used to say, that’s how they get you!
You can also find full pay Jacks or Better games in traditional casinos, but that often requires doing your own scouting. You’re more likely to find full pay Jacks or Better in smaller casinos that cater more to locals.
If you’re in Las Vegas, forget all about the video poker machines at the airport. You’re lucky to find 7/5 Jacks or Better there. Some of the games there are 6/5 Jacks or Better, which is awful. You might as well play roulette.
The big casinos on the Strip MIGHT offer full pay Jacks or Better in the high limit slots room. You can pretty much forget about finding those games on the regular casino floor, though.
If you’re not wanting to do your own scouting, one of the best things you can do is join a community of gamblers or video poker players on the internet and share information with them. You can find multiple such sites with little effort using Bing or Google.
Learning How to Play Your Hands
That 99.54% payback percentage assumes you know how to play each hand perfectly – in other words, you know which cards to hold and which ones to discard, and in which situations.
That’s probably an easier strategy to learn in Jacks or Better video poker than in any other video poker game.
I’ll provide some of the basics of Jacks or Better strategy here, but keep in mind that this isn’t a full strategy. You’re still giving up a couple of tenths of a percentage by following the strategy.
But it’s a good place to start to learn video poker strategy.
Start with the understanding that some pat hands should require no thought on your part. If you’re dealt any of these 3 hands, just keep ‘em and take your payout:
- Royal flush
- Straight flush
- 4 of a kind
The only tricky hand in that lot is the straight flush, because sometimes you’ll get a straight flush that’s also a draw to the royal flush.
Don’t break up your straight flush to try to hit the royal flush. It’s not worth it.
After those 3 hands, the best possible hand you can have is 4 cards to a royal flush. Any time you get 4 cards to a royal flush, it’s always appropriate to hold onto those cards and draw to the royal flush. This can mean discarding a hand that might be a sure thing.
With that in mind, you have a couple of other hands which you should always hold onto (unless you also have the 4-to-a-royal-flush.) These hands are:
- Full house
- 3 of a kind
The lesson you should be taking away from this discussion of Jacks or Better strategy is this:
You should try to let the machine deal you a winning hand or a royal flush draw.
Jacks or Better strategy starts getting slightly more complicated after this.
If you don’t have that, then you should hold onto 2 pairs or a pair of jacks or better
As you can see, there are only 2 hands worth breaking up a winning hand to draw to:
- 4 to a royal flush, which you should almost always draw to.
- 4 to a straight flush, which you should be willing to break up a pair to draw to.
That’s it. If you have a paying hand, those are the cards to keep.
After that, you start thinking about drawing hands. If you have 3 cards to a royal flush, you’ll keep that even if it means throwing away a small pair. You’ll also prefer 4 cards to a flush to a small pair.
But after that, you’ll want to draw to your small pairs in the hopes of getting 3 of a kind.
After that, focus on higher ranked cards that have straight flush or royal flush possibilities.
Mastering Jacks or Better video poker is the first step in mastering every other video poker variation. If you can play it well, you can usually adjust your strategy for the other games based on the changes in the pay tables.
In fact, that’s the main difference between Jacks or Better and other video poker variations – the pay table. Some games use wild cards, too, but it’s all about maximizing your expected value from each hand.