17 Facts about Video Poker You Should Know but Probably Don’t
Published on August 23, 2016
Next to blackjack, video poker is my favorite game in the casino. And I can understand why some people might prefer video poker to blackjack, too—after all, not everyone enjoys interacting with other players. And video poker is available at lower stakes.
But not all of these games are the same, even though most of them look alike. There’s a lot going on under the hood in a VP machine. This post looks at some of the facts related to the game and how to play.
You don’t have to deal with pit bosses at all. You don’t have to deal with dealers. In fact, the only people you have to deal with when you’re playing are the cocktail waitresses, and that’s strictly optional.
You also don’t have to worry about a lot of etiquette or rules about where to put your hands, like you do at the table games. You won’t run into other players who try to make you feel bad by putting down how you play. (That one is really common at the blackjack table, believe me.)
Of course, all of these advantages also apply to slot machines. The big difference is that video poker games offer much better odds.
In most gambling games, the only decision you make is whether or not to bet, and if so, how much to bet.
But the intellectual stimulation that these kinds of decision-making games offer make them far superior to games like slots or roulette, where you just place your money and wait for the outcome.
Most people who play VP games have at least a little experience with a deck of cards. Even if they don’t have a lot of knowledge in expert play, they still are able to make correct decisions at least some of the time—if not most of the time.
And even if you’re only right some of the time on a Jacks or Better game, the payback percentage is way better than you’ll find on any slot machine in the same casino.
The payback percentage is just a mathematical expression of how the game’s probability predicts your average winning per bet. If you say that a game has a 95% payback percentage, that means, over a near-infinite number of trials, you’ll win 95 cents for every dollar you wager.
Payback percentages vary widely from casino to casino and from destination to destination. But VP games are invariably better than slots when it comes to payouts.
The average slot machine pays out less than 95%. The average video poker game pays out more than 95%.
When you’re playing a slot machine, you have a pay table. It’s just a list of the possible symbol combinations along with how much you get paid if you hit one of those combinations.
But you have no way of knowing what the odds of getting any of those individual symbols or combinations of symbols are.
A lemon might show up once every 15 spins, while a cherry might show up once every 5 spins.
But on a video poker game, you know what the odds of getting a particular card are—1 in 52. You also know the odds of getting a card of a particular suit—1 in 4.
The random number generator on a VP machine is programmed to use the same probabilities as a deck of playing cards.
Since you can calculate the odds of getting each particular hand, you can determine the expected return for each hand and for every decision on the machine. You can choose which machines are better than the others.
And you can make the right decisions about which cards to keep and which ones to discard.
Some video poker games aren’t really video poker games—they’re actually slot machines that LOOK LIKE VP machines. If you’re playing in a private club or some kind of underground casino, this can often be the case. Be cautious if that’s the case.
But fake video poker games aren’t only found in illegal underground gambling halls. You can also find them in legal, regulated casinos throughout the United States. Often you’ll see them at Native American casinos.
There are 2 types of gambling machines:
The Class III machines are strictly regulated and have detailed restrictions on the kinds of random number generators they can use and what kind of odds they can offer. These are the kinds of games you’ll see in cities like Las Vegas in states like Nevada.
Class II machines, though, vary from state to state. Sometimes these games are legally required to simulate a bingo or lottery game. If you’re playing in a casino in a state that only allows these kinds of games, the video poker games are random, sure—they just don’t offer the same kinds of odds you’d expect from a deck of cards.
In that case, you have no way of knowing what the payback percentage on such a game is. In fact, you can’t expect the odds in this game to be at all better than the odds in any slot machine in such a casino.
Sure, a lot of folks just want to win money.
After all, most people don’t win most of the time. In fact, most gamblers walk away from the casino as net losers at least 4 out of 5 times.
What are your priorities when you’re playing games at a casino?
Are you there just to have fun, zone out, and forget your troubles for a while?
Video poker is good for this, but slot machines are just as good.
Are you there to have the most fun for your money, and would you also like to earn some comp meals and maybe get some free entertainment, too?
Video poker is probably an ideal way to achieve those goals. Be sure to join the players club and play with your card inserted into the machine if those are your goals. The casino decides how and when to pay out those kinds of perks based on what kind of action you bring to their gaming machines.
And they track that via your players club card.
If you’re not good at math, you can skill enjoy video poker, but it’s undeniably more rewarding if you’re able to understand some of the probability aspects of the game. You’ll also be better able to choose which games to play and how to play them.
Most average players rely on expert authors and software programmers who have already done all the math and given us what we need to know about payback percentages and playing strategies.
A lot of the math is easier than you think, too. If you know why you shouldn’t draw to an inside straight but should draw to an outside straight, you have some idea of how the math works already.
Here’s how probability works:
Any time you’re dealing with something random, the probabilities involved don’t start to come to fruition until you reach a large number of trials.
You’ll see a royal flush in video poker only once in every 40,000 hands or so.
But you can easily play 80,000 hands and still not see a royal flush.
That’s because in the short term, anything can happen. You might also see 3 royal flushes in 40,000 hands.
The long run doesn’t start coming into play until you start getting into hundreds of thousands of trials. The casinos are doing that kind of volume. Even small casinos have hundreds of machines and hundreds of customers making hundreds of bets per hour.
They can predict with some degree of accuracy what kind of profits they’ll generate from that kind of action.
But as an individual gambler, you might get lucky in the short run and win a lot of money early. On the other hand, you might see results that are worse than you’d expect. In that case, you’d think you’re unlucky.
But there’s nothing you can do to predict such “luck”. What you’re calling luck is really just standard deviation. Without standard deviation, the casinos couldn’t stay in business.
It would be too obvious that they’re always winning. Players have to win some of the time or they wouldn’t continue to play.
You can find multiple training programs that will teach you how to play the most common video poker games with perfect strategy. Most of this software has a cost, but it’s generally inexpensive (less than $100).
These kinds of programs simulate VP games on your computer, but with a couple of major differences:
You can learn to play well without software. Bob Dancer’s books are excellent guides to correct strategy and how to learn it.
But most of us learn a lot faster if we get some hands-on experience.
And as far as I know, there are no casinos which offer VP games with a tutorial functionality.
Finally, even if you study hard, you’ll never really know how well you’re playing until you play a game that can grade you consistently over a large number of hands. If you’re playing correctly only 80% of the time, you might not even know it unless you tried using a training software of some kind.
Jacks or Better is the most plain-vanilla VP game you can find, and it’s the one you should start with. Once you understand how it works, picking up the intricacies of other VP games is a cinch.
The first thing to understand is how the pay table works. I have extensive information elsewhere on this site regarding how various pay tables work for individual games. Suffice it to say here that the best Jacks or Better games offer a 9 to 1 payout for a full house and a 6 to 1 payout for a flush.
Such a game is called a “full pay” Jacks or Better. Sometimes it might also be called a 9/6 JoB game.
If you can play such a game with perfect strategy, the payback percentage is 99.54%, which means that the house edge is only 0.46%. This makes it a better game than almost any other game in the casino—it’s comparable to a good blackjack game, in fact.
It’s also a reasonably easy game to find—that’s one of the reasons I recommend starting with it.
And the strategy for this game is easier than the strategy for almost any other video poker game in the casino.
Finally, it’s one of the least volatile VP games you’ll find. Volatility is just a fancy word for how likely it is that you’ll have long losing streaks before the odds catch up with the long run. In games like Bonus Poker, a lot of your payback percentage is derived from hands that don’t turn up very often.
When you’re waiting for those hands to come up, you’re either winning small amounts of money or losing more often. Jacks or Better has a relatively smooth progression of payouts compared to how often you get those payouts.
If you’re untrained but reasonably smart, you can still play a 9/6 Jacks or Better game and only give up 2% to the casino. This means you’ playing a game with a 97.5% payback percentage instead of 99.5%.
But compared to a standard slot machine, it’s still a way better deal.
Here’s how to calculate that:
You can estimate your hourly expected losses by multiplying your average bet by the number of bets per hour and multiplying that by the house edge.
With a video poker game or a slot machine, the average player makes 600 bets per hour.
Let’s assume that you’re playing for $5 per spin or per hand.
That means you’re putting $3000 per hour into action.
The unskilled video poker player getting the 97.5% payback percentage is dealing with a 2.5% house edge. He expects to lose $75 per hour.
But a slot machine player is probably facing a house edge of closer to 6% or 7%. That player expects to lose between $180 and $210 per hour.
And the slots player doesn’t even really have a clue what the house edge is. Depending on the casino, it might be even higher than the numbers quoted in the examples.
Let’s assume you’re a regular player who plays 4 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. That might sound like a lot, but a lot of Las Vegas locals do get in that much action.
That’s the difference between losing $300 per week and $800 per week.
Every video poker software and book that I’ve read included a simplified strategy to start with. The goal was to master that simplified strategy and then get into a more complicated and more accurate strategy afterward.
These strategies are presented as charts or tables. Really they’re just lists of hands. You start at the top and work your way down until you find a hand that matches what’s on your screen.
These charts can have long lists of hands, but the simplified strategies might only be half or 2/3 as long as the actual correct strategy charts.
I’ve seen some gambling writers suggest that players can actually achieve a higher return using the simplified strategy even though it’s less accurate.
The reason for that isn’t readily apparent, but if you think about it for a minute, it makes perfect sense.
You’re more likely to execute perfectly when you’re using a simplified strategy than you are if you’re using a more complicated strategy.
It’s not enough to just have the right strategy. You have to be able to execute it with a certain amount of skill.
A “pat hand” is one you’re dealt that will pay out without improving. You’ll usually play to such a hand, but not always.
You can use a concept called “expected value” to help you understand which decision is better.
The expected value of a bet is the amount the bet pays off multiplied by the probability of winning that bet.
A 100% chance of winning 6 units is an expected value of 6.
A 2% chance of winning 800 units is an expected value of 16.
You always want to place the bet with the highest expected value.
That’s what a strategy chart does. It provides you a list of options in order of expected value.
Most experienced poker players are already familiar with these terms, but they’re important in VP games.
An open straight is one where you have 8 cards which can complete the straight. An example would be a hand with a 6789. You can get a 5 or 10 and still get your straight.
You still have a possible straight, but only one kind of card can complete the hand—an 8.
So the odds of getting the hand you want are twice as good with an open straight draw as they are with an inside straight draw.
You’ll also see an open-ended straight draw occasionally called an “outside” straight. That’s because the numbers needed to complete the sequence are on the “outside” rather than the “inside” of the sequence.
Some beginners might ignore the 3 of a kind and 4 of a kind potential offered by a small pair. The thinking is that since a small pair doesn’t have a payoff, you might as well just throw it away.
This is a huge mistake, because holding onto a pair of 10s or lower is often the mathematically correct play.
You have multiple ways in which such a hand can improve to a paying hand. You could wind up with any of the following:
Any of those hands are easier to wind up with if you’ve held onto a pair to begin with.
A Jacks or Better strategy chart is useless if you’re playing Deuces Wild. And a Bonus Poker strategy chart is useless if you’re playing Double Double Bonus.
In fact, variations in a pay table can change what the correct strategy is even if you’re playing the same game. There are significant strategy differences in the table for “full pay” Deuces Wild when compared to the table for “not so ugly” Deuces Wild.
When you’re starting out, you should carry printed strategy charts with you to the casino. But you need to have practiced using some software, too. Just having the strategy chart isn’t enough to get you the best payback percentage. You have to be able to recognize the different possibilities on the screen.
The only way to get good at that is deliberate practice.
You need to know how many dollars of play are equivalent to a player point.
You also need to know how many points are equivalent to a dollar of rewards (cash or comps).
Once you know those 2 factors, you can account for that when determining the overall payback percentage for the game.
A 9/6 Jacks or Better game has a 99.54% payback percentage. But if you’re getting the equivalent of 0.3% back in comps and rebates because of your players club membership, you’re getting really close to break-even.
It might be hard to get some of these details from the casino, but if you’re polite and persistent, you’ll eventually find someone who can give you the exact details. Start with the clerk who’s working at the desk where you sign up for the rewards program. If they can’t answer your questions about how to earn points, politely and firmly ask to speak with their supervisor.
You can find combinations of pay tables and rewards programs where the payback percentage for a game gets over 100%. In those cases, you’ve become an advantage gambler—a player who is actually playing with a mathematical edge over the house.
You probably won’t make a living playing video poker with an edge, because the stakes are too small.
But you sure can have a lot of fun for your money.
Video poker is my favorite game in the casino for many reasons, but the main ones involve the math and the transparency of the game. Slot machines are the only games in the casino where you can’t calculate the edge. Video poker games are like slots but with a more transparent set of odds.
The other factor that makes video poker such a great game is the element of skill and decision-making. I like to have something to think about when I gamble, and that’s not an itch I’m able to scratch at the roulette table.