Making the Switch From Slot Machines to Video Poker

Every time I write an advice or tips post aimed at casino gamblers, I always suggest switching from slot machines to video poker.

I have several reasons for thinking that video poker is always a better choice than slot machines, but here are the biggest two reasons:

1. Slot machines keep their payback percentage secret.
2. Slot machines invariably have a much lower payback percentage.

In this post, I go into some detail about why that is and explain what you need to know to switch from slot machines to video poker.

Understanding the Casino Term “Payback Percentage”

When you’re talking about casino games, you usually refer to the “house edge” for table games and the “payback percentage” when talking about gambling machines.

What do those terms mean, practically?

The house edge is the statistically predicted amount you’ll lose on average for every bet you place. It’s expressed as a percentage. For example, if I say that the house edge for a game is 6%, that means that on average – over hundreds and thousands of bets – you’ll lose \$6 for every \$100 you wager.

The payback percentage is just the predicted amount of each bet that you’ll get back. A game with a 6% house edge has a payback percentage of 94%. If you’re playing a slot machine game with a 94% payback percentage, you’re trading a dollar bill for 94 cents on every spin.

It doesn’t seem like that, though, because in the short run, you’ll sometimes win a multiple of your bet, while other times, you’ll lose your entire bet.

These numbers are long-term averages.

The Payback Percentage on a Slot Machine Is a Cipher

The payback percentage is based on the amount you get paid off for a winning combination combined with the probability of getting that combination. Add all those together, and you get the overall payback percentage for the gambling machine.

For example, if you had a weird slot machine game that had 100 possible combinations of symbols, and only one of those symbols resulted in a win, you could calculate the payback percentage for that game easily. You just need to know the amount the machine pays out for the winning combination.

Let’s say that it pays off at 90 for 1.

The payback percentage on that slot machine game would be 90%.

Now let’s take a slightly more complicated (but still weird) slot machine. It has two winning combinations. One of those winning combinations pays off at 50 for 1, and the other pays off at 40 for 1.

The payback percentage is still 90% — assuming each of those winning combinations has an equaly probability of coming up.

Here’s the problem with slot machines, though:

You have no idea what the probability is of getting a specific symbol is, much less what the probability of getting a combination of symbols is.

You have the payouts for the various combinations. They’re in the pay table.

But without the probabilities, it’s hard to find the highest paying slots.

And you can’t just assume that each symbol has the same probability of coming up as every other symbol. That’s just not how the game works.

Slot machines give their symbols “weightings.”

For example, a cherry might be weighted to come up once every 10 spins, but a plum might be weighted to only come up once every 20 spins.

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The only way to estimate how often a specific symbol comes up on a slot machine would be to keep records and make an estimate based on your results over hundreds of spins.

Who wants to do that?

And – even if you do that – what have you accomplished?

A game with a 12% house edge is a sucker bet, but so is a game with a 6% house edge. One bet is worse than the other, but they’re still both sucker bets.

Video Poker Machines Aren’t Ciphers; They’re Math Problems

The symbols on real money video poker machines are all based on a deck of cards, though, and we know the probabilities of getting cards from a deck of cards. A specific card has a 1/52 probability of showing up. A card of a specific rank has a 1/13 probability of coming up. And a card of a specific suit has a probability of 1/4 of coming up.

With that data, you can calculate the probabilities of getting specific combinations, too. You know that getting a pair is more likely than getting two pairs, which, in turn, is more likely than getting three of a kind.

Once you know the probabilities of winding up with specific combinations, you can multiply those probabilities by the payouts for those combinations and get the overall payback percentage for the game.

The preceding sentence made it sound like that’s an easy calculation anyone could make with a pencil and a piece of paper, but it’s actually far more complex. One of the reasons for this complexity is that video poker is a draw poker game.

Let’s talk about how that works.

How to Play Video Poker

Video poker plays much like a slot machine, but the differences are significant. You start by inserting money in the machine. That money is converted into credits based on the denomination of the machine.

Let’s say you’re sitting down at a quarter machine – this means that a credit on that video poker machine game is worth 25 cents. Insert \$100, and you’ll have 400 credits to play with.

Your first move is to decide how many credits to risk on each hand. On most video poker games, you can choose any number between one and five credits.

But you should always bet five credits. Always bet the maximum amount on a video poker game.

Why?

The top jackpot for all video poker games is the royal flush. It pays off at a higher multiple if you’re playing for five credits per hand.

And the difference is significant.

The royal flush pays off at 200 for 1 or 250 for 1 (depending on the machine), UNLESS you’re playing for five credits per hand. In that case, the royal flush pays off at 800 for 1.

Your next move is to hit the “DEAL” button. This is the equivalent of pulling the lever or pressing the “SPIN” button on a slot machine.

When you press the “DEAL” button, the machine debits your credit counter, and it gives you a 5-card poker hand on your computer monitor. At this point, you can keep all five cards, discard all five cards, or keep and discard any number of cards in between.

You use the button corresponding to each card to signify that you want to hold that card. It’s a toggle system, too, so if you accidentally hit hold, you can change your mind – just so long as you haven’t hit the “DEAL” button again before then.

Once you hit the “DEAL” button, the game replaces the cards you chose to discard, and you get paid off based on the poker ranking of your final hand.

This decision-making aspect of the game is what makes the calculation of the payback percentage such a chore.

Luckily, we have computers to do those calculations, and we have experts to program those computers and give us the results.

More About the Video Poker Pay Table

You have multiple varieties of video poker with various names – these might include Jacks or Better, Deuces Wild, Double Double Bonus Poker, etc.

The differences in these games is based on the presence of wild cards and the different payouts for various hands.

The most basic form of video poker is called Jacks or Better, and, as you might guess, it gets its name from the lowest-paying hand – a pair of jacks or higher. (This includes jacks, queens, kings, or aces.)

There are no wild cards in Jacks or Better, either.

The lowest-paying hand, a pair of jacks or better, pays off at 1 for 1, which is basically a wash. You’ll get this hand about one out of every five hands, but, since you’re going to have nothing slightly more than half the time, is pretty good.

The next paying hand is two pairs, which pays off at 2 for 1. It comes up about once every 13 hands or so.

You can compare the payout with the probability of getting the hand for each of the possible combinations and add them all together to get the overall payback percentage for the game.

Depending on the specific pay table, this might be as high as 99.54%, or it might be as low as 95%.

Even at its worst, Jacks or Better video poker usually offers a better payback percentage than a slot machine, though.

Conclusion

That’s basically what you need to know if you want to switch from slot machine to video poker. You’re trading a game with a usually-high and unknowable house edge for a game with a usually-low and knowable house edge game.

You also get to make some meaningful decisions in video poker. Knowing which cards to keep and which cards to discard during play is what makes video poker so much fun. It has a big effect on your actual payback percentage, too.

Should you switch from slot machines to video poker?

Almost certainly.