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How to Get the Most out of Video Poker (Even If You’re New to the Game)

| June 7, 2019 12:00 am PDT
How to Get the Most out of Video Poker

If you’ve spent any time at all reading about casino gambling, you’re probably already aware that video poker is far superior to slot machines in almost every respect.

But video poker, like blackjack, requires more work on the part of the player to get these great odds that everyone is always raving about.

This post contains advice about how to get the most out of your video poker experience.

You can use the information here to become a professional video poker player if you want to, although I don’t think that’s a realistic goal for most gamblers.

Even advantage gamblers usually don’t make a living from their video poker pursuits, although they often have a good time without losing money.

How and Why Video Poker Is Better Than Slots

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of how to ramp up your video poker experience, I want to explain why and how video poker is superior to a slot machine game.

Slot machines are games with spinning reels, paylines, and symbols. The symbols appear on the reels and land randomly on paylines. Line up three symbols on a payline, and you get a payoff.

You have no way of knowing what the probability of getting a specific symbol is. In fact, on most modern slot machines, the probability for one symbol is usually different from the probability of another symbol. These different probabilities are based on how the symbols are weighted.

Here’s an example.

You might be playing a slot machine game with 12 symbols. You’d expect each symbol to come up 1/12 of the time, which means any given combination would come up with a probability of 1/12 x 1/12 x 1/12, or 1/1728.

If you knew the payoff for each of the 12 possible three-symbol combinations, you could calculate the expected return (or payback percentage) for the game.

But you might be playing a game where one symbol has a reduced probability of coming up, say 1/24. One of the other symbols might come up 1/6 of the time. You have no way of knowing this, although you might be able to estimate it if you clocked a large enough set of spins. Even then, your results might not correlate very closely with the programmed averages.

Most slot machine games have a payback percentage of 94% or lower. In fact, the games where you have a payback percentage of 94% or 95% are located in competitive areas like the casinos on the Las Vegas Strip. In other casinos in other locations, the payback percentages might be dramatically lower — as low as 75% or less.

This just means that over time, you’ll get back less from the machine than you put in. With a payback percentage of 75%, for example, if you play long enough, you’ll win back 75 cents every time you wager a dollar — on average. You’ll lose 25 cents every time you wager a dollar.

With 600 spins an hour, you can see how that can add up to make gambling on slot machines an extremely expensive game for the player.

Video poker games, on the other hand, have set probabilities that you already know. That’s because the game uses playing card probabilities as well as symbols. Everyone knows how a deck of cards works. You have 52 cards total, so the probability of getting a specific card is 1/52. You have 13 ranks — ace through king — so you have a 1/13 probability of getting a card of a specific rank. You have four suits, so you have a 1/4 probability of getting a card of a specific suit.

Since you also know what the payouts are for specific combinations of cards — “hands,” as card players call them — you can calculate the payback percentage for the game. I don’t mean that you’re going to sit down with a legal pad and a pencil and do the calculations. The math is too hard for that.

But plenty of computer programmers are willing to do the math for you, and any reasonably good video poker site lists the payback percentages for any video poker game and any video poker pay table you can imagine.

Video poker is superior to slot machines because you can calculate the odds. This makes video poker more like a table game than a gambling machine.

The payback percentages for video poker games are almost always higher than the payback percentages for slot machines. Remember how I said that slot machines top out at 94% or 95% for their payback percentages?

That’s the floor for most video poker games. The WORST video poker pay tables offer a payback percentage of 93% or 94%, and most games are far superior to that.

The other area where video poker is better than slot machines is the amount of agency you have. “Agency” is a term I borrowed from philosophy and psychology that describes how much of an effect you have on the outcomes in a situation.

On a slot machine, you have almost no agency. You decide whether or not to make the next bet, but the results are entirely random.

On a video poker machine, though, you must decide how to play your hand. You must decide which cards to keep and which cards to discard. Making the right decisions in these situations improves the payback percentage (up to its theoretical max). Making the wrong decisions makes the payback percentage worse.

Don’t believe me? Think video poker is entirely random?

Consider this.

What if you’re such a dolt that you don’t recognize a royal flush when you see it? That’s the highest-paying hand in video poker, and you’ll see a royal flush on average once every 40,000 hands.

What if you discarded one or more cards when you got a royal flush?

Would that change the mathematically expected return?

You bet it would.

That being the case, you can take some specific steps to get the most out of your video poker experience. Here are three things you can do.

1. Look for Games With a High Payback Percentage (Or Expected Return)

I know I keep talking about payback percentage, but I haven’t done a great job of explaining it. A gambling machine’s payback percentage is the same thing as its expected return. That’s a statistical average of how much money you expect to win back on every wager you make on a gambling machine.

You can calculate the expected return of a bet by looking at the possible outcomes, the payout for each of them, and the probability of achieving them. When you multiply the probability of achieving the payout by the amount of the payout, you get the expected return for that outcome. Add up all the possible expected returns for all the expected outcomes, and you have the overall expected return or payback percentage for the game.

Let’s look at a Jacks or Better pay table as an example. Jacks or Better is the most basic video poker game you can play, and you get paid off for any hand consisting of a pair of jacks or higher. The better your final poker hand, the more the hand pays out. Also, the better the hand is, the lower the probability is of winding up with that hand.

A 9/6 Jacks or Better game is the best possible Jacks or Better game at most casinos. The payback percentage — with perfect play — is 99.54%.

But how do we come up with that number?

It’s just a matter of multiplication and addition.

The most common hand during a round of Jacks or Better is nothing — a hand with no payout. That happens a little more than half the time — about 54% of the time.

The next most common hand is a pair of jacks, queens, kings, or aces. This hand pays off at 1 for 1. That happens about 21% or 22% of the time.

Now it’s time for another sidebar. Usually, when you talk about payoffs for bets, they’re described in odds format using the word “to.” For example, a blackjack pays off at 3 to 2.

This means that you get winnings of 3 units, plus you get your original 2 units back.

Not so with gambling machines. Those payoffs are described using the word “for” because you don’t get your original wager back.

This means that an even money payout on a gambling machine results in a net win of 0. Sure, you won a unit, but you lost that unit for good when you gambled it to begin with. It’s an important distinction you should be aware of.

Also, observe another phenomenon here.

75% of the time at video poker, you’ll either lose a unit or push. A payoff of 1 for 1 is the same thing as a push in a table game, but you don’t call it that with a gambling machine because of the way payouts are handled.

So the most important part of the payback percentage comes from 25% of the hands.

And the next highest possible hand in Jacks or Better is two pairs, which comes up almost 13% of the time. This one pays off at 2 for 1, which means you actually get to show a profit here.

The expected return so far is 1 x 21.5% and 2 x 13%, or 21.5 + 26, which is the same thing as 47.5%.

If you had no other paying hands on a video poker game, that would be the expected return for the game. You’d probably still find rubes willing to play such a game, too, because they’d be seeing a payout of some kind on about 1/3 of their hands.

But there are more payouts to be had. A three of a kind happens 7% of the time, and it pays off at 3 for 1. That makes it worth another 21% (3 x 7%).

Now your game has a payback percentage of 68.5%.

The full house, the flush, and the straight have much lower probabilities. In fact, they all come up roughly the same — 1% of the time. The payoffs for these hands are better, though. The full house pays 9 for 1, the flush 6 for 1, and the straight 4 for 1.

The 9 and the 6 here are important, by the way, because they’re the reason this pay table is called a 9/6 Jacks or Better pay table. When video poker game designers want to tweak the payback percentage for a Jacks or Better game, they just reduce the payout for one or both of those hands.

You can continue this analysis all the way up to the four of a kind, straight flush, and royal flush. They all come up far less than 1% of the time, but the payoffs are much bigger, too — 25 for 1, 50 for 1, and 800 for 1, respectively.

Once you’ve finished all the multiplication and addition, you come up with an overall payback percentage of 99.54%.

And the payoff for the royal flush is so big that even though it only happens on average once every 40,000 hands, it makes up for almost 20% of that payback percentage.

You’ll find casinos which offer different Jacks or Better games with different pay tables right there in the same casino.

What’s the difference?

The 9/6 Jacks or Better game is actually one of the least common pay tables. A much more common pay table for Jacks or Better is the 8/5 pay table. A full house on such a game pays off at 8 for 1 instead of 9 for 1, and a flush pays off at 5 for 1 instead of 6 for 1.

The payback percentage on that game is 97.3% instead of 99.54%.

97.3% doesn’t sound bad when you compare it to a slot machine with an average payback percentage of 94%. In fact, relative to that, it’s a good deal.

But there’s a huge difference between a game with a 97.3% payback percentage and a 99.54% payback percentage.

You can calculate your expected loss on a video poker game by multiplying the house edge by the amount of money you’re putting into action per hour.

The house edge is just the payback percentage subtracted from 100%. In other words, a game with a 99.54% payback percentage has a house edge of 0.46%, and a game with a 97.3% payback percentage has a house edge of 2.7%.

Your hourly action is easy to estimate, too. You just multiply the average number of video poker hands you play per hour by the amount you’re wagering per hand.

Let’s say you’re playing quarter machines. You’re making the maximum 5-coin bet on every hand, so you’re wagering $1.25 per hand.

At 600 hands per hour, you’re looking at $750 per hour in action.

On the 9/6 game, with the house edge of 0.54%, your average hourly loss is expected to be 0.54% x $750, or $4.05.

On the 8/5 game, with the house edge of 2.7%, your average hourly loss is expected to be 2.7% x $750, or $20.25.

You’re playing the same game, but on one machine, you’re going to lose an average of $20 per hour instead of an average of $4 per hour.

This is why I suggest finding the video poker games with the best possible expected return is the first step in getting the most bang for your video poker buck. It’s foolish to think that the casino is going to give you a game where you’re mathematically expected to win per hour, but you can comparison shop and find the games where you’re expected to lose the least amount per hour.

My suggestion is to stick with video poker games where the payback percentage is at least 98%.

2. Learn to Play With the Correct Strategy for That Game

It’s not enough just to find the best video poker games with the best pay tables, though. If you don’t play well, you won’t be able to achieve the payback percentages for those games.

Remember, those payback percentages are based on the assumption that you’re playing every hand with perfect computer-life playing strategy. Any deviation from that strategy will lower your expected return accordingly. Luckily, though, video poker isn’t that hard.

Even if you’re new to the game, if you have some card sense, you can probably keep the payback percentage within 1% or 2% of the expected payback. If you’re not so great at this kind of mathematical, card-game-based thinking, you might give back as much as 4% or 5% to the casino.

But this post isn’t about giving the casino back 1% to 5%.

It’s about getting the most for your money at the video poker machines.

This means you must learn to play with the best possible strategy.

Luckily, you don’t have to calculate the correct strategy using a legal pad and a pencil, either. The hard work has already been done for you via computer programmers and strategic thinkers who are far smarter than I am.

You can buy video poker strategy cards that are similar to basic strategy charts in blackjack to help you play your hands correctly. You can also buy books that explain the appropriate strategy for the most common games with the best pay tables. You can even buy software that will train you on how to make the right decisions.

All of these strategy tables must make certain concessions to the mathematically correct strategy to make their strategy actually playable and useful. Fitting the correct strategy on a laminated card you can carry in your pocket means simplifying it.

But most of the time, these simplifications only give up 0.1% or 0.2% — not the 1% or 2% you’d be giving up if you’re just flying blind in the game.

My recommendation is that you look into the Frugal Video Poker products from Jean Scott or the Winners’ Guides to Video Poker from Bob Dancer.

They all present video poker strategy in the same way, though — they present a hierarchical list of possible hands. You start at the top, with the best possible hand, and you read down through the list until you get to a hand that matches the cards you’re holding. Those are the cards you keep.

If you’re familiar with the basic strategy charts for blackjack, you have a rough idea of the concept, although the difference in practical terms is bigger than you might think.

Learning the correct basic strategy for the video poker game you want to play is essential to getting the most entertainment value for your money, though. I also suggest starting with one game and one pay table. It’s easier to specialize at first and branch out into other games later.

3. Always Join the Players Club and Use the Card

Finally, you’ve heard this advice ad nauseam, I’m sure, but I’ll say it again.

Always join the players’ club at the casino and play with the card inserted into the machine.

The players’ club credits you with points based on how much money you’re putting into action. The casino then gives you back rewards and rebates based on a percentage of that money.

This is usually 0.2% or so, but many casinos have happy hours where you get double or triple points for your play during that period. This means getting back 0.4% or 0.6% instead of 0.2%.

When you add that to the payback percentage for the game, you can often wind up in a positive expectation situation, which means you’re mathematically expected to win instead of mathematically expected to lose.

Conclusion

Video poker is so much better than slot machines that there’s no question which game you should play. In fact, at many casinos, the payback percentage for video poker games is so high that it’s better than any of the table games, too.

In terms of the odds for the player, video poker only has a single peer in the casino — blackjack.

But, as with blackjack, video poker requires more from you as a player than other casino games. You must be able to recognize the better pay tables and commit to only playing the games with the good pay tables. You must also learn the optimal strategy for the game and be disciplined enough to follow it even when your gut tells you to do something else.

Finally, any video poker strategy worth its salt includes being a member of the slots club and playing with your card inserted.

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