Optimal Video Poker Strategy
This video poker strategy page and the accompanying section have a single goal—to help you get the best odds when gambling at a casino. Video poker, unlike many casino games, offers you at least some degree of control over the odds. Games like roulette and slot machines have no strategy. The decisions you make are essentially meaningless.
Video poker, on the other hand, resembles blackjack. You can use strategic thinking to improve your chances of winning and decrease the house edge. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, as both games use a deck of cards to play. Of course, in the case of blackjack, you’re usually looking at a real deck of cards. In video poker, you’re using a virtual deck that’s actually being simulated using a random number generator.
But legitimate video poker games duplicate the odds you’d see if you were using a real deck of cards.
And that’s why you can use a strategy to improve your odds. We talk more about that in the next section.
Why Does Video Poker Have a Strategy?
When you’re playing a slot machine, you have no idea what the probability of a particular symbol coming up on a particular reel is. That probability is determined by the random number generator.
A random number generator is a computer program that constantly cycles through numbers at the rate of thousands of numbers per second. Each number corresponds to a different stop on the reel in a slot machine game. Or in the case of a video poker game, each number corresponds to a playing card.
But since you don’t know anything about the probability of getting a particular symbol on a slot machine game, it’s impossible to make any kind of strategic decision.
In fact, even if you DID know the probabilities of getting each symbol on the reel, you still wouldn’t be able to make a decision that would affect your outcome.
There are no decisions to be made. You put your money in, your spin the reels, and you accept the outcome.
Several, if not most, casino games are like this. You have no way of affecting the odds no matter how smart you are. The odds of winning a single number bet in roulette are 37 to 1, no matter what kind of strategy you use.
That’s why video poker (and blackjack) are different. You DO have the opportunity to make decisions which affect your outcome.
Understanding why requires looking into the math behind the game a little bit.
Expected Return, Payback Percentages & the House Edge
The expected return of a bet, video poker or otherwise, can be calculated if you know the probability of winning and losing. You also need to know how much you stand to win and how much you stand to lose.
You multiply the probability of winning by the amount you’re going to win. You multiply the probability of losing by the amount you’re going to lose. You add those two numbers together to get your overall expectation.
Suppose we set up a really simple gambling game where you’re going to flip a coin. If you guess the correct outcome, you win 25 cents. But if you’re wrong, you lose 50 cents.
In this example you have a 50% chance of winning and a 50% chance of losing. 50% of 25 cents is 12.5 cents, which is the first part of your equation. 50% of 50 cents is -25 cents. (It’s negative because that’s the amount you lose.)
Your expected loss on that bet is 12.5 cents.
You won’t lose 12.5 cents every time. That would be impossible.
But if you tallied all your net wins and losses over time, and if you played for a long time, your results would eventually start to conform to the mathematical expectation.
Return is usually measured as a percentage. In this case, 12.5 cents is 50% of the original bet, so your expected return is -50%.
That’s an awful bet. Most experienced gamblers wouldn’t take it.
But it’s an example of how the casino gets its edge in every game in the casino.
This same kind of math can be applied to video poker games and to slot machine games to determine a payback percentage. The payback percentage is just the amount of money you expect to win back from the casino for every $100 you wager over a long period of time.
Keep in mind that in the short run, anything can and often will happen. You can win a big jackpot early in your session, and your results won’t look anything like the mathematically expected payback percentage.
But the longer you play, the closer your results will get to the mathematically predicted results. Over an infinite number of trials, you would certainly have results which mirror the mathematical prediction.
The house edge, on the other hand, is the amount of each bet that the house mathematically expects to keep. It’s the opposite of the payback percentage.
In the case of a full pay Jacks or Better game, the payback percentage is 99.54%. So the house edge is 0.46%.
That means for every $100 you bet, the casino expects you to win $99.54. They expect to win 46 cents.
Those are long term expectations, though. In the short run, anything can happen.
All of that background is necessary for understanding why video poker strategy matters.
Since you know the odds of being dealt a particular hand, and you know the odds of improving a hand, you can compare your choices in a video poker game to go with the choice that has the better expected return.
You’re playing Jacks or Better, and you have 4 cards to a royal flush, but you also have a pair. You could play this hand in a number of ways.
You have a number of options in this example:
- You could throw all 5 cards away and start over. That’s obviously the play with the lowest expected value.
- You could throw away all the cards except the pair. In this case, you’re hoping to improve your hand to 2 pairs, 3 of a kind, or a full house.
- Or you could throw away the card that makes the pair and try to draw the royal flush.
Since you have a pair, you have a 100% chance of winning at least 1 unit. That’s an expected value of $1. But it’s actually a little better than that, because you also have the chance to improve the hand. Let’s just call it an expected value move of $1.50.
But a royal flush has a payout of 800 to 1. The odds of drawing the card you need for that hand are 1 in 47, but any time you get a 46 to 1 shot at an 800 to 1 payout, you should take it. The expected value of that play is huge.
You have a roughly 2% chance of winning $800. That’s $16. You also have a roughly 98% chance of losing $1. That’s -98 cents.
$16 – 98 cents = $15.02, which is a heck of a lot more than $1.50.
The correct choice is clear, even though you’re going to lose this bet more often than not. On the occasions when you do win, your winnings are going to be so large that they’ll make up for all the times you lost the bet and then some.
Not all situations in video poker are that clear. In fact, a human can’t just sit there and work out the correct play in every situation using a pencil and paper.
Luckily, we have computers for that.
How Video Poker Strategies Work
You can find a video poker strategy chart for just about any variation available. In fact, you can even find websites which will generate the perfect strategy for you based on the game and the pay table that you input.
Here’s how such a strategy chart works:
- You get a list of hands.
- At the top of the list is the best possible hand.
- You work your way down the list until you find a hand that matches what you have.
- When you get to that hand, you stop and keep the cards that are listed.
Almost all video poker strategy charts start with a royal flush as the top listed hand. That makes sense. After all, you would never throw away the top paying hand in the game. That would just be silly.
In most games, 4 of a kind and a straight flush will also be at the top of the list—those are usually the top 3 hands with the best payouts.
But the next best hand after that?
You’ll always hold on to 4 cards to a royal flush.
That’s some strategy advice based on Jacks or Better, but the strategy for Deuces Wild is a little bit different.
For one thing, you’ll always look at lists of potential hands based on how many deuces you have. One of the fundamental tenets of Deuces Wild strategy is that you never discard a 2.
Then based on how many deuces you have in your hand, you have a list of potential hands to choose from. Start at the top and work your way down.
Another way of thinking about video poker strategy is to think about potentially conflicting hands.
You have 3 cards to a royal flush, but you also have a pair. Do you keep the pair, or do you go for the royal flush?
In this case, you keep the pair. Your odds of hitting the royal flush go down exponentially when you need 2 cards to complete your hand.
In probability, when you want to know the odds of event A happening AND event B happening at the same time, you multiple the probabilities by each other.
In the event of filling a royal flush, each card has a 1/47 chance of showing up. The odds of getting both cards are 1/47 X 1/47, which is about 1 in 2500. And 800 to 1 payout doesn’t warrant that kind of risk, especially if you’ve got a sure winning in your hand already.
How Strategy Varies from Game to Game
The strategy varies from game to game because the payouts vary from game to game. In Bonus Poker, which is basically just Jacks or Better with a bonus payout for a 4 of a kind, you might be more likely to draw to your 4 of a kind in certain instances.
In Deuces Wild, the presence of the wild card makes a huge difference to how you play your hands. You need much stronger hands to win, but those wild cards make it easier to get those hands. One of the fundamental tenets of Deuces Wild strategy is to never discard a deuce.
Jacks or Better
The basics of Jacks or Better strategy are pretty simple.
First check to see if you have one of the following 3 paying hands:
- Royal Flush
- Straight Flush
- 4 of a Kind
If you have any of those, keep what you’ve got and collect your winnings.
If you don’t have any of those, check to see if you have 4 cards to a royal flush. If you do, keep those 4 cards and try to hit the royal.
4 cards to a royal flush trumps everything except those 3 hands we mentioned above.
If you don’t have 4 cards to a royal flush, then look to see if you have any of these other “made hands”:
- Full House
- 3 of a Kind
If you have any of those, keep it and collect your winnings.
If not, check to see if you have 4 cards to a straight flush. If you do, then draw to that straight flush.
Then check to see if you have one of the following 2 paying hands:
- 2 Pairs
- A Pair of Jacks or Better
You’ll keep those over the other options below.
Once you get to that point, you’re looking at speculative hands. Your best speculative hand at this point is 3 cards to a royal flush. It’s a long shot, but if you don’t already have one of the other hands listed above, that’s what you should go for.
Then if you have 4 to a flush, try to fill your flush.
If you have a low pair, try to draw to 3 of a kind or better.
A full strategy chart will have several more hands for you to go through, but you get the idea.
Jacks or Better strategy just isn’t that hard. Even though this isn’t a complete strategy chart, you’re probably only giving up a few tenths of a percent of payback percentage following these guidelines.
Our guide to Jacks or Better video poker covers the correct strategy in more detail.
If you have 4 deuces, you’ll keep them.
If you have 3 deuces, you’ll keep them. You’re hoping for a royal flush.
If you have 2 deuces, you’ll keep both of them. You’ll hope for a 4 of a kind or better, but if you don’t have that, try for a royal flush or a straight flush.
If you only have one deuce, strategy gets a little harder. But it’s still just a list to go down:
- 4 of a Kind or better
- 4 to a Royal Flush
- Full House
- 4 to a Straight Flush
- Flush, Straight, or 3 of a Kind
- 3 to a Royal Flush
And so on.
The payback percentages for Deuces Wild games are all over the place. Unlike Jacks or Better, which has an easy to understand system for adjusting the payback percentage, Deuces Wild pay tables can vary quite a bit from one another.
Your best bet, when choosing a Deuces Wild game, is to use some kind of online tool to determine the payback percentage for the game with the pay table you’re considering.
For a detailed discussion of Deuces Wild strategy, please see our page on Deuces Wild video poker.
The optimal strategy for Bonus Poker, which offers a bonus payout for 4 of a kind hands, is so similar to the optimal strategy for Jacks or Better as to be almost indistinguishable.
If you just used the same strategy, you’d probably be giving up less than 0.2%.
It is good to know how to play Bonus Poker, though, because in many of today’s casinos, it’s the video poker game with the highest payout percentage.
We have an entire page dedicated to Bonus Poker, and it includes detailed strategy advice.
Joker Poker has some similarities to Deuces Wild, but it’s not as complicated. You’ll only ever see a single joker in the deck, which changes the texture of the possible hands considerably.
You’ll basically be presented with 2 basic strategy charts—one to follow if your hand includes a joker, and one to follow if it doesn’t. The differences are subtle in some cases, but it’s not too complicated.
We offer a full page on Joker Poker, too, which also includes a detailed discussion of the correct strategy for playing that game.
Summary & More Video Poker Strategy
Video poker strategy resembles basic strategy in blackjack in many ways. They both represent the optimal way of playing every possible hand you could get.
Of course, the differences are obvious, too. Your goals in video poker are quite different from your goals in blackjack.
Most video poker strategy is just presented as a list. You start at the top, work your way down, and stop when you get to the hand that matches what you’re holding in your hand. Then you keep the appropriate cards and move on.
We offer detailed strategies for almost all of the video poker games on our site on the appropriate pages. Please visit this page for a complete list of all the games we cover.
You may also be interested the following pages. These cover a range of subjects related to video poker strategy.
Video Poker Strategy Articles
- Video Poker Trainers
- Video Poker for Winner
- Video Poker Bankroll
- Video Poker Books
- Video Poker Cheat Sheets
- Video Poker Calculators
- Video Poker Comps
- Video Poker Double Up Feature
- Video Poker EV (Expected Value)
- Video Poker Expert Strategy
- Video Poker Basic Strategy
- Video Poker Hands and Hand Analyzers
- Video Poker House Edge
- Video Poker Lessons
- Video Poker Odds and Probability
- Video Poker Pay Tables
- Video Poker Royal Flush Odds & Strategy
- Video Poker Risk of Ruin and Variance
- Video Poker Tips and Tricks
- Video Poker Tutorial
- Bob Dancer: Video Poker Expert
- Jean Scott: The Frugal Gambler