A Complete Guide to Video Poker
Welcome to the video poker section of our site. This game, along with blackjack, is one of our two favorite games in the casino. Not only does video poker provide some of the best odds in the casino, but it’s also one of the most fun gambling machines on the floor.
Video poker looks like a slot machine and indeed has a lot of similarities with the slots. The biggest difference between the two games is the payback percentage. The amount of money that a gambling machine is programmed to pay back per $100 is considered its payback percentage.
Here’s an example:
You’re playing a slot machine for $1 per spin. You make 100 spins, so you’ve wagered $100. The machine is programmed with a 92% payback percentage, so you lose $8 total, and you still have $92 left in your bankroll.
In that example, that’s an expected return. Your actual results will vary because of standard deviation. You might finish your short slots session by winning $8, or $16, or even $24. Or you might lose a greater amount.
The payback percentage is a long-term expected result based on probability. The more bets you make, the more likely it is that you’ll see results which mirror the expected return. Casinos count on this in order to make a profit.
The payback percentage of most video poker games starts at 96%, but many of them offer payback percentages of 99%+.
Another way to look at this number is as the house edge. That’s just the payback percentage subtracted from 100%. This is the way we look at the casino’s advantage for most table games.
Here’s an example:
You’re playing a “full pay” Jacks or Better game. The payback percentage is 99.54%. Subtract that from 100%, and you’re left with 0.46%. That’s the house edge.
The house edge is the amount of each bet that the casino expects to win over the long run. For the player, the lower the house edge is, the better.
0.46% is exceptional, by the way. The only other game in the casino that even comes close is blackjack, and the house edge for that game varies based on the conditions at the table.
The rest of this page focuses on what you need to know about how video poker works, how to play, and what kinds of strategies can help you improve your odds. We’ve included links to the main sections of this part of our site, along with descriptions of what you’ll find in each section.
How Video Poker Works
Just because it looks like a slot machine doesn’t make it a slot machine. Even though a video poker game looks like a slot machine, the mechanics of what’s actually happening on the screen are quite different from what you’d expect. The most important change in the mechanics is the amount of information available to the player.
With a slot machine, you get paid certain prize amounts based on what combination of symbols come up on the screen in front of you. You might win $1000 on a $1 bet if you get three red cherries in a row, for example.
That probability is controlled by the slot machine’s random number generator, which has settings that are determined by the manufacturer in order to meet a certain expected payback percentage.
Getting a cherry on any given reel after a spin might be programmed to happen one in every ten spins, or it might be one in every twenty spins, or it might be one in every one hundred spins, or any other number.
By manipulating the probabilities of getting certain results, then comparing that with the payout amount of these combinations, a slot machine manufacturer can predict within a few tenths of a percentage point how much that machine is going to pay out in winnings over time.
In fact, if you had that information, you could calculate the machine’s payout percentage, too.
Instead of symbols on spinning reels, the action in video poker takes place over five “stops,” and the result in each one of those is from a deck of standard playing cards. In most video poker games, a virtual fifty-two card deck is used, although some games use a fifty-three card deck with a joker thrown in as a wild card.
Since the probability of getting any particular card or any particular combinations of cards is known, you can compare the payouts for certain hands with the probability of getting that hand and get an expected payback percentage.
In video poker, instead of getting paid off by some arbitrary combination like three cherries, you get paid off based on the poker hand ranking of your final result. A royal flush is the top-paying hand, a straight flush is usually the second-highest-paying hand, and so on.
How to Play Video Poker
Learning how to play video poker is easy and doesn’t take long. The first thing you do is insert your money. The computer inside the machine converts your money into credits (or “coins”).
The most common denominations for video poker machines are quarter and dollar machines. So if you insert $100 into a dollar machine, you’ll have 100 credits. Insert that same $100 into a quarter machine, and you’ll have 400 credits.
All of the payoffs for the various hands are based on credits.
Once you’ve inserted your money, you decide how many coins you want to wager on each hand. You should always wager max coins, which on most video poker machines is five coins.
The top hand in almost every video poker game is the royal flush. That hand usually pays out at 250 to 1 if you’re playing fewer than five coins, but if you’re playing five coins, it pays off at 800 to 1. That’s a huge difference.
In fact, if you’re uncomfortable playing for five coins, you should lower your stakes. It’s cool if you don’t want to play for $5 per hand. Just scale it down to a quarter machine and play for $1.25 per hand. But don’t cheat yourself out of that bonus payout for the highest possible hand by betting only $1 per hand on a dollar video poker machine.
Once you’ve decided how much you want to bet per hand, you can press the deal button. When you do, your account on the machine is debited by your bet amount, and you get five cards dealt to you. You have the option of keeping any combination of cards and of discarding any combination of cards.
Once you’ve decided which cards to keep and which ones to throw away, the machine deals you replacement cards. Then you get paid off based on the strength of your hand.
You’ll notice something else about this setup if you’re paying attention. Since the probabilities of getting certain hands is a known factor, you can make intelligent decisions about how to play each hand in order to get the best possible expected outcome every time.
Take following scenario, for example:
If you keep the jacks, you have a 100% chance of getting an even money payout. So the expected value there starts at $1, but you also have a chance of improving your hand to three of a kind, and you have a chance at a full house or two pairs, too.
If you keep the three cards to a flush, you have a 1/25 chance of making your flush. Since that hand pays off at 6 to 1, the expected value of that bet is less than $1. The obvious choice is to keep the pair and throw away the flush draw.
On the other hand, suppose you have four cards to a royal flush, and you also have a pair. The odds of making your royal if you break the flush is about 1/47, but the payoff if you succeed is 800 coins. That’s far better than an expected value of $1, so you should break the pair and go for the royal flush. Even though the odds of hitting the hand are around 2%, the payoff is more than worth it.
The game continues like this, hand by hand, until you’re out of money or ready to quit.
Video Poker Pay Tables
The pay table is what determines how much you win based on the strength of a given hand. You’ll find pay tables on slot machines, too, but they’re relatively meaningless — again, you don’t have any way of knowing what the probability of getting a particular result is on a slot machine game.
Here’s an example pay table from a Jacks or Better video poker game:
You’ll notice a couple of things right away. One of the most important is that the hands all pay out the same regardless of how many coins you bet, except for one — the royal flush. You just multiply the payout by the number of coins wagered to get the payout on a particular hand.
But with a royal flush, you get a payout of 250 to 1 on every bet except for the five-coin bet. On that one, you get an 800 to 1 payout (or 4000 coins).
All video poker tables resemble this one to a greater or less degree. In Jacks or Better, which is the plain vanilla version of video poker that all other games are based on, the casinos and manufacturers focus on changing just two payouts in order to tweak their payback percentage for the games — the full house and the flush.
You can see that in the above pay table the full house pays off at 9 to 1 and the flush pays off at 6 to 1. This is what’s considered a “9/6 Jacks or Better” game, or a “full pay” game. The payback percentage for a Jacks or Better game with this pay table is 99.54%.
You’ll be more likely to find a Jacks or Better game that pays off 8 to 1 for a full house and 5 to 1 for a flush. This is an 8/5 machine, and the payback percentage for such a game is significantly lower than that of a full pay machine — 97.3%.
You’ll also find games with 7/5 payouts and 6/5 payouts.
The difference between a 99.54% payout and a 97.3% payout might not sound like much. After all, if you earned that grade in a college course, you’d have an A+ with either score.
But let’s look at how that difference might affect an average player’s bottom line.
You can calculate a player’s expected loss per hour by multiplying the number of bets she makes per hour by the average amount of each bet and then multiplying that result by the house edge.
The average video poker player plays 600 hands per hour. (We know that seems like a lot, but the game plays a lot faster than you would think when just reading about it.) Suppose you’re playing for $5 per hand. That’s $3000 per hour in action.
The house edge for the full pay machine is 0.46%, so that’s the amount you expect to lose per hour—0.46% times $3000. That’s $13.80 per hour.
But the house edge for that 8/5 machine is 2.7%. $3000 X 2.7% is $81.
There’s a huge difference between expecting to lose $13.80 per hour and $81 per hour.
But don’t get us wrong. Even 8/5 Jacks or Better is an improvement over the average payback percentage of a similar-denomination slot machine. Even at a good casino, you might only be looking at a 95% payout percentage on a slot machine of that denomination.
Worse yet, you don’t have any way of knowing what the payback percentage is for the slots game you’re playing. With video poker, you know what kind of gamble you’re getting for your money.
You can read all about pay tables for the different types of video poker games on our dedicated page:
Video Poker Games
We have an entire section of this site devoted to explaining the differences between video poker games.
You’ll find dozens of different video poker games available in any casino at any given time. These largely resemble Jacks or Better, but they usually offer different payouts for certain hands or some other wrinkles to mix up the gameplay a little bit.
Possibly the most common video poker game variation (besides Jacks or Better) is Deuces Wild. The game has two distinct differences from Jacks or Better:
- The 2s are wild and can substitute for any card you need to make your hand.
- The pay tables are different in order to reflect how much easier it is to make certain hands.
You can find a comprehensive list of video poker games and how they work in our video poker games section. We include strategy advice for each variation, too.
Another common video poker game is called Joker Poker. You can view it as a midway point between Jacks or Better and Deuces Wild, as it only has a single wild card — the joker. So you’ll see better hands in Joker Poker, on average, than you will in Jacks or Better. But you won’t see them as frequently as you would in a Deuces Wild game. There’s a big difference in having a single wild card in the deck and having four wild cards in the deck.
Bonus Poker is another variation. This one plays just like Jacks or Better, but it features bonus payouts for a four of a kind. You’ll find multiple versions of Bonus Poker available, most of which vary the payouts for a four of a kind based on the rankings of the cards in that hand.
Other variations offer you the option of paying an extra coin or two on each hand in order to get a multiplier applied to your wins. A dizzying array of these variations exists.
Video Poker Online
You’ll also find an online video poker section on this site. In that section, we look at the video poker games available at various online casinos in terms of which software is used to power that casino.
What many gamblers who are new to the online casino scene don’t realize is that there are only maybe three dozen kinds of online casino software out there. Most internet casinos lease their software from a software provider, and if you play at one casino using that software, the games are the same as at any other casino using that software.
Bovada and Slots.lv both use RealTime Gaming software. So regardless of which casino you sign up for, you’ll have the same video poker games with (usually) the same pay tables available at either casino.
This makes it easy for humble gambling writers like us to write about online video poker, though. With over 3000 online casinos out there, it would be a Herculean task to write about all of them if they each had unique games available.
Our online video poker section includes detailed information about how sign-up bonuses work for video poker players, and we offer recommendations for which online casinos are safe places to play, as opposed to some online casinos which are NOT safe places to play.
Free Video Poker
We have an entire section devoted to where and how to play free video poker games online. Your reasons for playing a free video poker game might vary, but a lot of players use such games to practice their skills. Since strategy matters, knowing how to play each hand before putting into real money into action is a good idea.
Almost all online casinos offer their games in a free or play money mode, and that includes their video poker games. Of course, their motivations for providing those free games is clear — they want you to have so much fun that you’ll want to try their real money versions of the games. But if you just want to play for free without risking any money, you’re welcome to do that.
You can also find video poker strategy trainers online where you play for free and even get advice back from the game as to which cards are correct to keep and/or throw away. The graphics on these trainers are usually less robust than the graphics you’ll see from an online casino, but there are perks to being able to play for free and get strategy advice.
You can also find plenty of sites which offer free video games of all kinds, and they often include video poker in the mix. Various apps and software downloads offer free video poker games, too.
You’ll find further information on everything discussed above within our free video poker section. We’ll give you all the advice you need if you’re interested in practicing your strategies before playing for real money.
Video Poker Strategy
We have an entire section devoted to video poker strategy, too.
In that respect, video poker is much like blackjack. Since we’re dealing with known probabilities based on a fifty-two card deck, we can determine with a great amount of accuracy what the correct play is on every single hand. When you make the correct play on every hand, you’re engaged in optimal strategy.
The payback percentages that have been calculated for the various games all assume that you’re playing with optimal strategy. If you’re making mistakes while you’re playing, your actual payback percentage is going to deviate significantly from the number quoted. But most players with a little bit of card sense aren’t giving up more than 1%.
On the other hand, new video poker players who have no idea what they’re doing might be giving up as much as 3% or 4% per hand.
And if you want to know how much of a difference that makes to your bankroll and how fast, take a look at the section of this page (above) in which we compare the difference between 9/6 Jacks or Better and 8/5 Jacks or Better.
The correct video poker strategy varies from game to game based on the game’s rules and the payouts for the various hands. The strategy for Deuces Wild is dramatically different from the strategy for Jacks or Better, as you might expect it to be.
Our comprehensive section on video poker strategy will teach you how play optimally. It features a variety of information and advice that will help you to get better results.
Real Money Video Poker
You probably noticed that we offer a section on free video poker. It’s only fair that we also offer a section on real money video poker.
The pages in that section focus on the implications of playing video poker for real money, both online and off. Not everyone is comfortable playing games online for money, but if you’re going to get started, you should educate yourself about what to expect.
That section also includes page about buying video poker
United States Video Poker
Since this site is written in English, a large percentage of our visitors come from the United States. And video poker is more popular in the United States than anywhere else in the world. So it made sense for us to create a section about the game as it’s played in the USA.
This section includes a rundown of which states offer casinos with real money video poker and which states don’t. We also look at what the various states have to say about the legalities of playing online for real money.
The United States is a big, diverse country with fifty different states. Almost every state has a different legal attitude toward gambling online or off. We cover how each state deals with our favorite game in this section.
We also break it down to certain major gambling cities and what they offer in terms of video poker. Two of the major cities that we specifically take a look at are Las Vegas and Atlantic City.
Video Poker Questions and Answers
One of our favorite sections to write in any major section of a site is the questions and answers category. For each game, we usually have a page that consists of random questions we’ve received from our site’s readers. Most of the time, a detailed answer to those questions can be an interesting mini-essay in itself.
Most of this section consists of a single page, but we might expand it to include multiple sub-pages if we get questions that are detailed enough to where we need an entire page to answer one or more of those questions.
Video poker is one of our favorite games in any casino. That’s because it offers us the opportunity to take some control over our destiny and affect the odds in our favor. Also, most of these games offer a low house edge compared to other games in the casino.
We enjoy the transparency of this game. Slot machines are too opaque. You don’t have any way of determining whether you’re playing a mathematically generous game or not. We think it’s much better to know exactly what kind of gambling a casino is offering.
We have a large number of pages devoted to video poker on this site. That’s because it’s a fascinating subject, and we want to cover it in as much detail as possible. Since discriminating gamblers almost always choose video poker over slots, we think it’s only fair to accommodate them.