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Video Poker Basics and Basic Strategy

Video Poker Basics and Basic Strategy

This page is meant to cover the basics of video poker. Like blackjack, video poker games have a basic strategy where you can cut the house edge to the point where it’s one of the best games in the casino. Learning how to do this is what the rest of this page is about.

But unlike blackjack, where you learn a single basic strategy and then make adjustments to that strategy based on the variations in the rules, video poker has a separate strategy based on which game you’re playing. Yes, blackjack is a “family” of games, but for the most part, the payouts are the same.

Here’s what we mean:

In blackjack, you basically have 2 possible payouts:

  • Even money, if you win
  • 3 to 2, if you’re dealt a natural

But in video poker, your payouts vary based on the poker hand you wind up with. Sure, in most games you win even money with a pair of jacks or better, but you might also win 800 to 1 if you’re dealt a royal flush. This means you have some distinct strategy decisions to make.

Also, in video poker games, you sometimes have wild cards—cards which can stand in for other cards you need in order to make your hand. You never have wild cards in blackjack games.

The rest of this page goes into detail about the basics of the games and their strategies:

The House Edge in Video Poker

Here’s the most fundament aspect of video poker in a nutshell:

You’re playing a game where you know all the information you need in order to determine the payback percentage of the game. In fact, you only need 2 pieces of information:

  • How much each combination pays off
  • How likely it is to achieve each combination

You can think of video poker as a slot machine of sorts, and a combination of symbols in video poker is called “a hand”. But unlike slot machines, the odds of getting each symbol are known—the game imitates the probabilities found in a deck of standard playing cards. The odds of getting any particular card are 1 in 52, although that changes based on which other cards are in your hand.

To calculate the payback percentage for a game, you take the probability of winding up with a particular hand and multiply that by the hand’s payoff. You add all those up, and you wind up with the overall payback percentage for the game.

The payback percentage is just 100% minus the house edge. It’s a long term mathematical expectation that describes how much of each bet you can expect to win bet.

Here’s an example of how the payback percentage is calculated:

You continue to do this with each hand on the pay table, then you add all those percentages up. You wind up with 100.76%, which means that you actually have an edge against the casino. (This is what’s called a “full pay” Deuces Wild game, which is rare, but not unheard of.)

Here’s how a “payback percentage” works:

Over the long run, hundreds of thousands of hands, your actual results should start to resemble the mathematically expected results. Since certain hands are going to show up a certain percentage of the time, you’ll eventually see that for every $100 you put into a game, you’ll get a certain amount back.

If you’re playing with the mathematically correct strategy, you’ll see the optimal payback percentage—the one we showed you how to calculate in the previous example. If you’re making occasional mistakes, which most players make about 15%–maybe 20% of the time, you’ll see the house gain an additional 2% or so.

When the casino decides how much to pay you back in rebates and rewards with your players club card, they do so based on your expected loss per hour—not your actual loss per hour. You can be a winner in the short run and still see rebates and comps from the casino.

In fact, the most basic strategy for video poker is to always play with your players club card inserted. It does nothing to change the actual odds of the game, but it does earn you rebates and comps, which adds to your expected return in the long run.

Basic Strategy

The basic strategy for any video poker game is determined by comparing the expected value of each decision and choosing the one with the highest expected mathematical return for the player.

You see, in any video poker game, you’re dealt an initial 5 card hand. Once you’ve looked at the hand, you decide which cards you’re going to hold on to and which ones you’re going to discard. There’s always one decision of the 5 possible decisions you could make which has the highest expected mathematical return.

Example:

You’re playing Jacks or Better. You’re dealt a hand that has a pair in it, but it’s also a draw to a royal flush—you only need one card to fill the royal flush. You have to decide between the sure win and the longshot.

How do you know which decision is the correct one?

If you keep the pair, you have a 100% chance of getting at least an even money payout. That’s an expected return of 100% X 1. (It’s actually a little higher than that, because you could still improve the hand by holding the pair—you might improve to a 3 of a kind, 2 pairs, 4 of a kind, or full house.)

On the other hand, if you break the pair and shoot for the royal flush, you’re breaking up a sure thing in exchange for a shot at a larger win. A royal flush usually pays 800 to 1. So the payoff is huge if you make your hand.

But it’s only huge if you compare it with the likelihood that you’ll get the hand.

If you have 4 cards to a royal flush, there’s only one card left in the deck which can fill your hand. You have a 1 in 47 chance of being dealt that card. (5 of the cards are already accounted for.) That’s about 2%. (It’s actually a little better than 2%.)

2% multiplied by 800 is 16, which is the expected value of that choice.

Since 16 is way better than 1, you should break up the pair in order to draw to the royal flush.

But what if you have a pair and only 3 cards to a royal flush? Do you still go for the royal flush in this situation?

The expected value for keeping the pair is still 1.

But now you have to be dealt 2 cards to complete your royal flush. The probability of getting both of the cards you need is 2% X 2%, or 0.04%. 800 X 0.04% is 0.32, which is less than 1, which means you should keep the pair.

You should keep in mind, too, that these are overly simplified examples. We’re not taking into account the probability of improving to a winning hand other than what we’re hoping for. But it’s close enough to make the idea of how video poker strategy is determined make sense.

Some Fundamentals of Video Poker Strategy

The actual strategies for each variation are going to be different, but some rules of thumb tend to hold true for most games. We’ve included some of these strategy fundamentals below:

Play the game with the best pay table

The most important decision you can make is which game to play. Some games offer better overall payouts than others. You don’t have to learn how to recognize these on site, though. You can buy apps for your phone where you input the pay table and find out what the expected return for that particular game is.

Always place the max coin bet

On every video poker game, the payoff for a royal flush is disproportionately large when you place the 5 coin bet. The hand pays off at 250 to 1 if you bet 1, 2, 3, or 4 coins, but if you bet 5 coins, it pays off at 800 to 1. This adds almost 2% to your payback percentage, so it’s crazy to not place the max bet.

Always join the players club and insert your card

Only the superstitious and irrational believe that playing with your slots club card inserted hurts your odds in some way. Playing with the card inserted does nothing but add to your overall expected return. In fact, if the game is close enough to 100%, the rewards from the slots club card might tip the scales so that you’re playing a positive expectation game. Suppose you’re playing Pick’em Poker with perfect strategy and the best possible pay table. The payback percentage is 99.95%. Then suppose you’re getting 0.3% back in the form of rebates from the players club. Your overall payback percentage is now 99.95% + 0.3%, or 100.25%, which means you have the edge—not the casino.

Be careful about how much you drink

It makes little sense to play a game with the lowest house edge in the casino if you’re so drunk that you make bad decisions repeatedly. So yes, you should enjoy the free drinks, but slow it down. It’s up to you how much of your expected value you’re willing to give up in exchange for some free booze.

Learn how to play correctly

There is a correct strategy for each game variation and each pay table. You can usually find this online. When you do, memorize that strategy. Or bring a card with the correct strategy written on it, then follow the instructions on that card. Usually a video poker strategy card consists of a list of possible hands. You start at the top and go down until you find a hand that matches yours. Those are the cards you hold on to.

A Video Poker Strategy Card Example

Here’s an example of a Jacks or Better strategy. This is a simplified strategy that gives up about 0.1% to the house, but if you’re playing a full pay game, you’re still playing one of the best games in the house. The payback percentage using this strategy is about 99.4%:

CARD
EXPLAINATION
Full house or higher
This includes the following hands: royal flush, straight flush, 4 of a kind, or full house.
4 cards to a royal flush
Yes, this means if you have any other paying hand BESIDES the ones listed above, you’ll break it in order to go for the better paying hand.
Straight, 3 of a kind, or flush
This is the 2nd big group of hands you’re hoping to see on your initial deal.
4 cards to a straight flush
Your odds of completing this hand are about 2%.
2 pair
You’ll see this hand more often than you expect.
A pair of jacks, queens, kings, or aces
This is the hand which gives the game its name—jacks or better.
3 cards to a royal flush
You only have a 0.04% chance of hitting this hand, but it’s still nice when you do.
4 cards to a flush
You have a roughly 1 in 4 chance of filling this hand.
A pair of 10s or less
You’re hoping to hit 2 pair or 3 of a kind or better when holding this hand.
4 cards to an outside straight
This is a straight draw where you have 8 cards which can possibly fill the straight—either a high card on one end or a low card on the other.
2 suited cards of jacks, queens, kings, or aces
You have an outside shot at a royal flush, but you’re really a lot more likely to see a pair of jacks or better.
3 to a straight flush
You’re really getting into the longshots at this point.
2 unsuited high cards
Now you’re just shooting for a pair of jacks or better. Since the cards aren’t suited, you don’t have a shot at a straight flush or a royal flush.
Suited 10/J, 10/Q, or 10/K
You’re still looking for that royal flush, but you’ll settle for the high pair if you draw to it.
One high card
You’re hoping to hit a high pair.
Discard everything and start over

You should keep in mind that this strategy ONLY applies to one game—Jacks or Better. Use it for Deuces Wild, for example, and your payback percentage will suffer in a big way.

You can find the basic strategy for almost any variation on our site on the detailed overview for each game that we provide.

Conclusion

The basics of video poker and the correct strategy for the games are easy enough to learn. Once you understand a little bit about how the math behind the game works, you’ll be unlikely to play slot machines ever again. In fact, unless you have a large enough bankroll to play blackjack at an expert level, you won’t find a game with better odds anywhere in the casino.

But video poker has this in common with blackjack, too—you need to be able to make mathematically correct decisions on a consistent basis in order to enjoy these kinds of better payouts and odds. Luckily, learning the correct basic strategy for each game isn’t that hard. We provided a basic strategy table for Jacks or Better, but you can find the correct basic strategy for any video poker game on our site. Just look for it on the page dedicated to each game.