You can lump most casino gamblers into two categories — those who are satisfied with frequent small wins and those who prefer bigger wins even though they don’t happen as often.
For example, baccarat and blackjack players win close to half the time, but they usually win even money or close to it. If they’re betting $5 or $25 per hand, their winnings will usually be $5 or $25 when they win.
But slot machine and video poker players prefer to go for the big score. They’ll usually see wins less often — maybe 30% of the time or so, but they’ll occasionally hit big wins. The biggest of these are jackpots, and video poker jackpots are the name of the game (at least for this post).
Another difference between table games and gambling machines is the way payouts are calculated. It’s a subtle but important difference.
Payouts on a table game like blackjack are made on an “x to y” basis. If you get even money, that’s a payout of 1 to 1, which means that you keep the unit you bet and get winnings of one unit on top of that.
On a gambling machine, though, payouts are made on an “x FOR y” basis. You’re exchanging the amount you wagered for the win — you don’t get your original wager back.
If you win even money on a video poker hand, for example, you don’t profit. You just break even. You exchanged the one unit you bet for the one unit you won.
That’s an important point to remember.
With that distinction in mind, let’s think about jackpots. On slot machines, the jackpot can be any arbitrary amount, although they’re usually in the vicinity of a 1000 for 1 payout.
Video poker, on the other hand, has a more standardized jackpot system. The jackpot hand in video poker is almost always a royal flush, and the amount it pays off is the same from machine to machine.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of how to win video poker jackpots, I’d like to take a closer look at the concept of a video poker jackpot.
How Video Poker Jackpots Work
The best possible hand in a game of video poker is a royal flush. That’s a hand consisting of five cards, all of the same suit, that are also in consecutive order, starting with the 10 and going up to the ace.
In other words, the 10, jack, queen, king, and ace of any specific suit is a royal flush. (If the cards are of different suits, you just have a straight. And if the cards aren’t connected, rank-wise, you just have a flush. And if the cards are lower than 10, you just have a straight flush.)
I said that the payout for a royal flush is the same from machine to machine, but it’s not ALWAYS the same. It varies based on how much you bet.
If you bet fewer than the maximum number of coins, the payout is reduced.
You can bet between 1 and 5 coins on a hand of video poker. If you bet 5 coins, you get an 800 for 1 payout for a royal flush. (That’s a jackpot of 4000 coins — 800 for 1 on each coin.)
But if you bet 1, 2, 3, or 4 coins, you only get a payout of 200 for 1 or 250 for 1 for the same hand. That amount varies by machine, but it’s always significantly lower than the payout if you bet 5 coins.
The probability of getting that royal flush doesn’t change, though.
The payout is the only thing that changes.
So, obviously, you should always bet 5 coins per hand on a video poker game — even if you have to go down in stakes to do so.
If you’re playing a dollar machine but aren’t comfortable betting $5 per hand, you should move down in stakes to a quarter machine and play for $1.25 per hand instead of playing for a dollar per hand on the dollar machine.
One of the beautiful things about video poker is that your goal is clear — to get a royal flush. In fact, you’ll often break up a winning hand to try to draw to the royal flush.
Drawing to the Royal Flush
Video poker is based on five-card draw poker. That’s a game where you have a round of betting, then get to discard some of the cards in your hand to get replacement cards.
In video poker, you get an initial five-card hand, and then you get to discard as many of those five cards as you like. You can discard all five cards and start over if you want to.
In a game where the payouts are known and the probabilities are based on a 52-card deck, it becomes obvious that there’s a mathematically “best” way to play each hand. This is why video poker is a game of strategy as well as chance.
If you play your cards optimally — discarding the right cards in the right situations — you get a higher payback percentage than if you discard the wrong cards or keep the wrong cards.
And one of the most common situations you’ll find is related to drawing to a royal flush.
Your strategy — most of the time — is to let the machine deal you a winner. If you get a pair of jacks on your initial hand, for example, it’s usually the right play to keep the pair and discard the other cards.
But what if you’re dealt the jack of hearts, the jack of diamonds, and the other three cards are the queen, king, and ace of diamonds?
You have a pair, which means you’re guaranteed at least a 1 for 1 payout on the hand.
But if you discard the jack of hearts, you’re turning down the sure thing in exchange for what is (admittedly) a longshot.
You have 47 cards left in the deck, and only one of those cards will fill your royal flush — the 10 of diamonds
The probability is 1/47, or 46 to 1
But the payoff if you win is 800 for 1, which makes it a profitable bet
The expected value is 1/47 x 800, or about 17 units
The expected value for keeping the pair is also positive, by the way. It’s 100% multiplied by 1 unit, or 1 unit.
An expected value of 17 units is better than 1 unit every time.
In fact, the correct strategy for all video poker games is to always draw to the royal flush when you have four cards toward the royal flush already. This means that you’ll sometimes need to break up a winning hand.
I should also point out that my calculations above don’t account for the other possibilities of improving the hand. A pair can improve to three of a kind, two pairs, four of a kind, or a full house.
Four cards to a royal flush can also improve to a pair, though — it can also result in a straight or a flush.
But the difference in expected value is still huge.
What About the Overall Payback Percentage in Video Poker?
When you’re talking about table games, you’re usually looking at a number called the house edge when you talk about how good the game is for the casino and how bad it is for the player.
The house edge is the amount of each bet that the casino expects to keep as winnings on average over the long run. It’s based on the difference between the odds of winning and the odds that the bet pays out when it wins.
With gambling machines like slot machines and video poker, which have that x for y payout structure, you talk about payback percentage instead. It’s also sometimes called return to player.
That’s the percentage of each bet that gets paid out in winnings on average over the long run.
In a game of blackjack where you have a house edge of 1%, the casino expects to win $1 on average for every $100 you bet.
In a video poker game where the payback percentage is 99%, the casino expects to pay back $99 for every $100 you bet.
The payback percentage for any gambling machine is just the payout for each possible outcome multiplied by its probability. Add all those expected values up, and you get the overall payback percentage for the machine.
Obviously, the jackpot is a big part of that overall equation.
Here’s a specific example for a game of Jacks or Better with the best possible pay table.
You have a roughly 55% probability of winding up with nothing. 55% x $0 is 0%
You have a roughly 21% probability of winding up with a pair of jacks, queens, kings, or aces, which pays off at one unit. That’s 21% x $1, or 21%
You have a roughly 13% probability of winding up with two pairs, which pays off at two units. That’s 13% x $2, or 26%
You have a roughly 7% probability of winding up with three of a kind, which pays off at three units. That’s 7% x $3, or 21%
You have a roughly 1% probability of winding up with a straight, which pays off at four units. That’s 1% x $4, or 4%
You also have a roughly 1% probability of winding up with a flush, which pays off at six units. That’s 1% x $6, or 6%
You also have a roughly 1% probability of winding up with a full house, which pays off at 9 for 1. That’s 1% x $9, or 9%
You have a roughly 0.2% probability of winding up with a four of a kind, which pays off at 25 for 1. That’s 0.2% x $25, or 5%
You also have a roughly 0.01% probability of winding up with a straight flush, which pays off at 50 for 1. That’s 0.01% x $50, or 0.5%
Finally, you have a roughly 0.002% probability of hitting the jackpot — the royal flush. This pays off at 800 for 1, which amounts to 800 x 0.002%, or 2%
Add all those together, and you get an overall payback percentage for that pay table of 99.54%.
But what if you’re playing for fewer than five coins?
That 800 for 1 becomes 200 for 1.
And 200 x 0.002% is only 0.4%.
The overall payback percentage for the game drops by about 1.6%, from 99.54% to a little less than 98%.
What does this mean for you as a player?
One of the things you can do is calculate your predicted hourly loss based on a game’s house edge and the amount you’re wagering per hour.
For example, if you’re playing five coins on a quarter machine, you’re betting $1.25 per hand. If you’re playing 600 hands per hour, which is common, you’re putting 600 x $1.25 into action per hour — or $750.
99.54% of $750 is $746.55 that you’ll get back, which means you’ll lose an average of $3.45 per hour on this game.
That’s cheap entertainment, for sure.
But what if you change that 99.54% to 98% and only bet $1 per hand?
Now you’re putting $600 into action per hour instead of $750.
But you’re going to lose 2% of that $600, which means your average loss per hour is now $12 instead of $3.55.
You’re betting less per hand, but you’re losing more per hour — a lot more per hour.
That brings me back to my main point.
Always bet max coins when you’re playing video poker.
Also, here’s something else for you to keep in mind.
These numbers always assume that you’re making optimal decisions on every hand. If you’re making strategy mistakes, the house edge goes up, and the payback percentage goes down.
What About Video Poker Games With a Progressive Jackpot?
A progressive jackpot is a top prize that grows over time as people play a particular game. A tiny percentage of each bet is applied toward growing that jackpot.
On a slot machine game, if the progressive jackpot gets high enough, the payback percentage can increase to over 100%. After all, the payback percentage is a function of the payouts and the probabilities of getting those payouts, right?
The problem is that you have no way of knowing what the probability of winning the jackpot on a slot machine is. It’s impossible to come up with the break-even point.
But with video poker, we know the probability of winning the jackpot.
Armed with that information, we can calculate when the payback percentage for the game hits 100%, and as the jackpot grows, the payback percentage goes up, too.
And that means you have a mathematical edge over the casino, which is a nice change of pace.
What’s the break-even point for a common progressive video poker game like Jacks or Better, though?
First, understand that progressive versions of Jacks or Better don’t have that 9/6, full pay structure that I used as my example above. Such a game is called 9/6 because the full house pays off at 9 for 1 and the flush pays off at 6 for 1.
A progressive Jacks or Better game is probably an 8/5 or 7/5 game. In other words, such a game pays off at 8 for 1 or 7 for 1 for a full house. It pays off at 5 for 1 for a flush.
This reduces the payback percentage for such games to 97.3% or 96.1%, respectively.
How big does the payout for a royal flush have to get before making up for that lower payback percentage?
Let’s start with the 97.3% game. You need an additional 2.7% in payback.
Since the royal flush still comes up roughly 0.002% of the time, you just need to divide the 2.7 by 0.002 to get the amount.
That’s 1350 coins.
So the break-even point — the point at which the payback percentage becomes 100% — is 800 coins plus 1350 coins, or 2150 coins.
For the 7/5 game, with its 3.9% edge, the jackpot must grow even larger. You need another 1950 coins in that jackpot, or a jackpot of 2750, before such a game becomes break-even.
Of course, these are just rough estimates, not exact numbers.
You might wonder, too, how it would be possible for the jackpot to get that high without getting hit. You’re making a mistaken assumption when you do.
These hands don’t come around in cycles like you might think. You don’t see a royal flush every 40,000 hands like you’d expect. That’s the average based on the probability, but it’s entirely possible to go 80,000 or even 120,000 hands without hitting a royal flush.
This is what’s known as a cold streak.
And since the progressive jackpot grows every hand, you can see how it could eventually hit an astronomical number.
So how do you win video poker jackpots?
Winning video poker jackpots isn’t that hard. Heck, even if you don’t play anything remotely close to optimal strategy, you’ll eventually get dealt a royal flush on your initial five cards.
As long as you have enough sense to not discard any of those cards, you’ll win the jackpot.
A better question to ask is what kind of strategy works best for video poker.
And keep in mind that a strategy isn’t the same thing as a set of tactics. A strategy is an overall approach to something, rather than how to play an individual hand.
Your strategy might be to only play progressive video poker games when the payback percentage has gotten to a certain amount. You might have trouble getting a seat in front of a game where the progressive jackpot is high enough to result in a positive expectation, though.
Or your strategy might be to get enough back in comps that you’re making a profit even though you’re losing a little money overall on video poker.
You might have a goal of winning a million dollars playing video poker. It’s been done before, although the games aren’t the same as they were when Bob Dancer pulled off this feat several years ago.
Regardless, the only way to win video poker jackpots is to play.
And the only way to win the big jackpots is to bet max coin on every hand. ALWAYS bet five coins.