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Video Poker Expert Strategy

Video Poker Expert Strategy

What’s the difference between beginner strategy and intermediate and/or expert strategy in video poker?

As it turns out, not much.

This page explores how video poker strategy works in general, but then it also compares examples of strategies that are appropriate for beginners as compared to strategies that are more suited for experts.

Why Is There a Strategy to Video Poker?

We’re going to gloss over this part of the page quickly, as most people interested in expert video poker strategy probably already understand most of the basics already.

A strategy is an overall approach to an activity. As such, some aspects of strategy are overlooked, especially when you’re talking about a strategy chart or table.

Example:

The reasons for always wagering 5 coins are simple enough. You get a better payout on a royal flush when you do (800 to 1 instead of 250 to 1). That has a huge effect on your bottom line.

Always playing for 5 coins is part of a video poker strategy. But it’s not something that’s ever reflected on a video poker strategy chart.

This is an example of a beginner strategy tip.

But in most casino games, the house has the edge, and it doesn’t matter what you do. Roulette is a good example of this. In most roulette games, almost every bet on the table has a house edge of 5.26%. Choosing a bet is the only decision you make, and since they’re all mathematically the same, there is no strategy to the game.

But in video poker, you get to make decisions which have consequences. The decisions with the best expected value in each situation are the correct decisions, regardless of any hunches or guesswork you might have.

This, too, is a beginner strategy—don’t play your hunches. Always choose the mathematically correct decision.

A more advanced strategy tip—we’d consider it more of an “intermediate” tip—is to always play with the slots club card inserted, but ALSO pay close attention to when you get 2X and 3X rewards.

Most casinos have certain hours during certain days where you get double or triple credit for your gambling. If you play during those hours, you can increase your expected return to a point where you actually have an edge against the casino.

Example:

You play Jacks or Better with perfect tactical precision. The payback percentage for the full pay version of the game is 99.54%.

You’re a member of the slots club at the casino, and they pay you back 0.3% of your play in the form of rebates and comps (free stuff). But on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 8am until noon, you get double points. On Mondays and Tuesdays from 8am until noon, you get triple points.

So instead of getting 0.3% back, you get 0.6% back or 0.9% back.

You can add that to 99.54% and get 100.14% or 100.34%.

At this point, you have an edge (albeit a small one) over the house. And some of that edge comes in the form of free meals and entertainment instead of cash, but isn’t that why you’re gambling in the first place?

We don’t know of many professional gamblers who make a living playing video poker, although we do know plenty of gamblers who enjoy a lot of more-or-less free vacations because of their use of correct tactics.

The Math Behind the Game

The real reason that video poker has a strategy because of the math behind the way the game is set up. Everyone reading this already knows the basics of how to play. You’re dealt 5 cards. You choose between 0 and 5 of those cards to keep. The machine deals you replacement cards for the ones you discarded.

You have potential decisions on every hand, but only one of those decisions has the highest expected return. Making the best possible decision on every hand is what video poker strategy is really all about.

This is also how the overall expected return for the game is calculated. You multiply the probability of getting each hand by its payoff. That’s the expected return for that hand.

You add all of those expected return figures together in order to get the overall expected return for the game.

But this return is based on making the correct decisions on every hand. If you make mistakes, even small ones, that expected value gets lower.

The Difference between Beginner and Advanced Strategy

If you have a good beginner strategy chart, you only lose about 0.1% of expected return when compared to using the more granular expert strategy.

Here’s what that means to you in terms of hourly expectation:

When you calculate your hourly expected loss (or win, if you have an edge against the casino), you take 3 factors into account:

  • Your rate of play
  • The stakes
  • The house edge

Most video poker players play at a rate of 600 hands per hour. Let’s assume you’re playing for $1 per hand, and you’re making the 5 coin bet, which means you’re really playing for $5 per hand.

That’s $3000 per hour you’re putting into action.

If you’re playing Jacks or Better with perfect (or “expert”) strategy, you face a house edge of 0.46%.

Your expected loss per hour is $13.80.

If you’re using a more simplified strategy for the game, you’re going to lose an additional 0.1% per hour on average. On $3000 in action per hour, that’s an extra $3, so your hourly loss increases from $13.80 to $16.80.

We don’t normally concern ourselves with $3 per hour, because learning strategy for video poker at an expert level is HARD. But we know plenty of gamblers who are willing to go to the extra length to make that happen.

Beginner Jacks or Better Strategy versus Expert Jacks or Better Strategy

A video poker strategy chart is just a list of hands. You start at the top, looking for a hand that matches what you’ve been dealt. Once you get to that hand, you stop and keep the cards indicated.

These possibilities are listed in order of which ones have the greatest expected return. But there are subtle differences that make an expert strategy chart far more detailed than a beginner chart.

Here’s an example beginner chart for Jacks or Better video poker. You’ll notice that it only has 16 hands listed:

CHART HANDS
1
Full house or higher
9
A pair of 10s or less
2
4 cards to a royal flush
10
4 cards to an outside straight
3
Straight, 3 of a kind, or flush
11
2 suited cards of jacks, queens, kings, or aces
4
4 cards to a straight flush
12
3 to a straight flush
5
2 pair
13
2 unsuited high cards
6
A pair of jacks, queens, kings, or aces
14
Suited 10/J, 10/Q, or 10/K
7
3 cards to a royal flush
15
One high card
8
4 cards to a flush
16
Discard everything and start over

Let’s compare that to a more robust expert strategy:

CHART HANDS
1
4 of a kind or better
17
4 cards to an inside straight draw with 3 high cards
2
4 cards to a royal flush draw
18
3 cards to a straight flush draw with one gap and no high cards, 2 gaps and one high card, an ace low, or 2-3-4
3
Straight or better
19
Unsuited JQK
4
4 cards to a straight flush draw
20
Unsuited JQ
5
2 pair
21
Suited TJ
6
Pair of jacks or higher
22
2 unsuited high cards with the king as the highest card
7
3 cards to a royal flush draw
23
Suited TQ
8
4 cards to a flush draw
24
2 unsuited high cards with the ace as the highest card
9
Unsuited 10JQK
25
J only
10
Low pair
26
Suited TK
11
4 cards to an outside straight draw with 0, 1, or 2 high cards
27
Q only
12
3 cards to a straight flush draw with more high cards than gaps
28
K only
13
Suited QJ
29
A only
14
4 cards to an inside straight draw with 4 high cards
30
3 cards to a straight flush draw with 2 gaps and no high cards
15
Suited KQ or KJ
31
Discard everything and start over
16
Suited AK, AQ, or AJ

You’ll notice the increased granularity with this expert strategy chart. For $3/hour, you’re expected to learn twice as many decisions here.

Is it worth it?

We leave that for you to decide. We’re recreational players, so we’re not interested in milking every tenth of a percentage point out of the machines. But you might have higher aspirations.

But we do have an observation about expectation below that might help you make a decision.

Positive versus Negative Expectation

Your eventual outcome any time you’re playing a game with a negative expectation is that you’ll lose all your money.

This is true whether you face a house edge of 0.5%, 5%, or 50%.

The only difference is how long you can expect to play for your money.

And before you suggest that those examples are too far apart to be realistic, let’s point out some things. These are real examples:

  • The house edge for a good blackjack game or a good video poker game is around 0.5%.
  • The house edge for an American roulette game is 5.26%.
  • The house edge for most state lotteries is about 50%.

So those numbers are all realistic.

What’s different about all those games is your rate of play. 600 bets per hour is the average for a video poker player, but a roulette player puts considerably less money into action per hour. We’re talking about between 35 and 112 bets per hour, depending on how many other players are at the table.

With the lottery, the concept of bets per hour goes out the window, because we’re talking about a game where you place bets per day or per week instead of per hour.

But in all of those cases, if you play long enough, you’ll eventually go broke.

So is it worth the extra effort to learn a strategy chart that’s twice as long just so you can save $3 per hour in expected losses?

We don’t feel like it is.

  • But we have an exception:
  • If you’re an advantage gambler, you’ve found a way to get an edge—no matter how slight—against the casino. You might be combining your expert play at Jacks or Better with the bonus rewards to get extra comps and rebates.

If that’s the case, then getting every tenth of a percentage point in expectation that you can might make a lot of sense.

In fact, it’s not too different from the amount of effort an expert blackjack player might put into learning both basic strategy and a card counting system. Basic strategy in blackjack is what it is, but card counting techniques can vary widely in terms of difficulty and granularity.

The same holds true for most video poker variations.

But some games do offer simpler expert strategies than others. The simplest video poker game we know of is Pick’Em Poker, and if you learn the correct expert strategy for that game, you’re truly playing one of the best games in the house. The payback percentage for that game is 99.95% with the right pay table.

And since it’s essentially just a simplified version of video poker, the strategy for the game is also just a simplified version of video poker strategy.

Conclusion

The differences between beginner and expert video strategy might or might be worth it. If you’re a recreational gambler, you’ll probably decide (as we have) that it’s fine to stick with the simpler but easier to remember beginner strategies.

In the example strategy charts we presented, you’re looking at the difference between a strategy matrix with 16 possible decisions versus almost twice that many. That might be a fun challenge if you’re into memorization, but we think it’s too much of a hassle.

Advantage gamblers have a different opinion.

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