Unless you’ve done formal research on video poker, you should probably take a moment, right now, to forget everything you think you know about the subject. If you’re anything like me, you have probably spent your life making three faulty assumptions about video poker.
Faulty assumption #1: Video poker machines are just a specialized version of slot machines.
This is like saying that diamonds are a subcategory of coal just because they are both made of the same substance (carbon).
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Although slot machines and video poker machines are both metal boxes with buttons, lights, buzzers, and payout trays, the inner workings of a video poker machine are mathematically unrelated to the inner workings of a slot machine.
In the U.S.A., video poker is regulated so that the random number generator really does have to deal cards to players as if they are coming from a freshly shuffled 52-card deck (or occasionally 53- or 54-card decks in games with jokers). Video poker is a completely different kind of game than slots; it is a game of skill rather than luck; it is, in many ways, the blackjack of electronic gaming options because skilled players of video poker can often reduce the house edge to 1% or less.
Faulty assumption #2: Strategy is irrelevant because the random number generator will simply decide whether you win or lose according to a predetermined payout formula.
This is a corollary of the first faulty assumption. I can remember foolishly chuckling when I first saw video poker players in Las Vegas who consulted cheat sheets in their laps to decide which cards to hold and which to discard. For years, I genuinely believed that out of any given set of plays, the machines were programmed to give players a preset number of straights or pairs or royal flushes–regardless of what the players did.
I thought that the discard step in video poker was simply included in the game for entertainment value and that it did not give players any real power over the outcome of their hands. I was wrong. When you decide which cards in your hand to hold and which ones to replace, you are, as it turns out, really making a decision that affects the outcome of your hand. With many video poker machines, if you play perfect strategy every time, you will win more often than not.
CAUTION: This is only true for the machines on “full-pay” settings, which is why many casinos reconfigure their video poker machines according to a “short-pay” formula. We’ll discuss full-pay vs. short-pay machines in greater detail below.
Faulty assumption #3: Since poker is in the title, poker strategy must be the right strategy for video poker.
A traditional poker game is far more dynamic than video poker. You don’t win poker games simply by trying to make your hand the best it can be every time. Very often, in a poker game, the best your hand can possibly be is the second best hand at the table, which may cause you to lose more money than would have been the case if you had simply folded at the outset. Traditional poker rewards you for thinking not only about your own hand, but about what the competing hands at the table are likely to be (based on your own inferences about what it means for the person to your right to have drawn only one card or the tendency of the person on your left to smile when she bluffs). Video poker can be incredibly liberating in this regard. You don’t ever have to wonder whether three of a kind will be enough to beat the other people at the table. Three of a kind is a winner, plain and simple.
The good news: You only need to know two things to start playing video poker like a champ.
The bad news: Both of those things are complicated.
1) Full-pay vs. short-pay
First, it is critical for you to be able to distinguish full-pay from short-pay machines. Unfortunately, given the number of video poker machines on the market (with new models being released all the time), it is impossible for any single website or book to serve as a comprehensive source of information. Unless you stick to the older and more common versions of video poker (“Jacks or Better” is the most thoroughly studied option), you may have to do some research on the machine you want to play.
However, once you know that the “Joker Wild” video poker machine (for example) is supposed to pay players seven tokens back for every token inserted on a full house, then you will be able to consult the machine, which has to display the pay table (either on an electronic screen that appears when the machine is not in use or on a sticker or etched into the glass). You may find a “Joker Wild” machine that pays some weird extra bonus on five queens, but only gives players back 6 coins for each coin inserted on a full house. That’s a short-pay machine, and you probably don’t want anything to do with it.
On full-pay settings, the most popular video poker game (“Jacks or Better”) pays 9 tokens for each token inserted on a full house and 5 tokens for each token inserted on a flush. Machines that retain these factory settings are called 9/6 machines, as distinct from the 8/5 machines that reduce the payouts on full houses and flushes by one token each. The 8/5 machines may be linked to a progressive pot that justifies the strain they put on a player’s bankroll, but unless you know for a fact that you want access to the bonus or promotion the machines offer to offset the reduction from 9/6 to 8/5, stick to the 9/6 versions.
2) Know the expert strategy appropriate for the machine you are playing
Strategy in video poker is not guesswork. Correct strategy is derived mathematically from the pay table of the game in question in conjunction with the laws of probability. Each card in your initial hand presents you with a binary choice: you can either hold it or discard it for a replacement. Since you have only two options for each card, that gives you 32 possible ways of responding to the cards you are dealt (2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 32). Of those 32 possibilities, one will be the best choice every single time, and the proper calculations will tell you what that choice is. If you are mathematically inclined, you can do those calculations yourself–though you will probably want to work them out before going to the casino!
Since I’m not a big fan of re-inventing the wheel, I let other people (and their computers) do the calculations for me. Then all I have to do is find a full-pay version of the machine I want to play and apply the principles of the cheatsheet that I have photocopied or downloaded (or, in certain cases, memorized) in advance.
Remember that the strategy for traditional poker is out the window when we play video poker. The only memory you need to hang on to from your poker playing days is probably the ranking of hands:
Hand Definition Example
Royal flush 5 cards of the same suit in sequential order from 10 to ace 10♠, J♠, Q♠, K♠, A♠
Straight flush 5 cards of the same suit in sequential order A♠, 2♠, 3♠, 4♠, 5♠
4 of a kind 4 cards of the same rank 9♠, 9♥, 9♦, 9♣
Full house 3 cards of the same rank + 1 pair 4♠, 4♥, 4♦, 7♠, 7♣
Flush 5 cards of the same suit 3♠, 6♠, 9♠, J♠, K♠
Straight 5 cards in sequential order 7♠, 8♥, 9♣, 10♦, J♠
Three of a kind 3 cards of the same rank 5♠, 5♥, 5♦
Two pair 2 sets of 2 cards of the same rank 8♥, 8♦, 3♠, 3♦
One pair 2 cards of the same rank Q♠, Q♥
Remember the difference between drawing to an inside straight and an outside straight? If you have 4 cards in sequential order (such as a 6, 7, 8, and 9 with a 2 in the fifth spot), then discarding the deuce gives you eight chances of finishing the straight (any of the four 5s or any of the four 10s will do the trick). This is called an outside straight because it can be finished at either end. An inside straight, by contrast, requires you to fill in a blank in the middle. Say you have a 6, 8, 9, 10, queen. Discarding the queen is NOT the same choice as discarding the deuce in the previous example, for there are only four cards in the deck (the sevens) that will fill out this inside straight.
The first lesson my mama ever taught me about poker was this: “Never draw to an inside straight. Only losers take that risk.”
In video poker, there will be times when your best option is to draw to an inside straight. There will also be times when a lower card is more valuable than a higher card.
I’ll pause here to address this counterintuitive point because it can be hard for the uninitiated to swallow. In traditional poker, let’s say I’m dealt a hand of complete junk: 5♣, 7♦, 9♥, 10♠, and K♣. If I’m allowed to dump four cards even without an ace, which four would I dump?
In a regular poker game, I’ll hold onto the king because it’s my highest card. Keeping the king gives me a much better chance of ending up with a pair of kings than a pair of tens, and a pair of kings will come in handy if the second best hand at the table is a pair of queens (whereas a pair of tens would lose).
However, if I am playing a version of video poker that treats ALL pairs as equal, then the king is actually a less useful card to me than any of the others I’ve been dealt. If I’m going to hold one card and draw four new ones, I will probably be better off hanging on to any card in my junk hand other than the king.
Because that king is so high in the pecking order of cards that it can only be included in two straights, whereas each of the other four cards in my hand could end up working in five different straights. Remember, I’m not playing against anyone else at the table. I’m playing against the pay table of the machine, and if this machine makes no distinction between a pair of fives and a pair of kings, then neither should I.
Of course, if you are playing the “Jacks or Better” machine, then a pair of kings really is better than a pair of fives. It’s the difference between getting your money back and losing it to the machine, so playing smart means playing according to the strategy appropriate to the machine you are using.
Most video poker machines are designed to offer the best return on investment on one specific hand (usually a royal flush), and they typically only make this payout on maximum bets. Playing anything less than the maximum bet, in such cases, means losing out on the chance to win the one true jackpot that the machine offers. Once you become serious about video poker, you should stick to maximum bets as much as possible.
However, the possibility of hitting that one jackpot is statistically remote enough for beginners to feel justified in betting less than the maximum while they are getting a feel for the game. Casino regulars will look at you funny if you put anything less than the maximum bet in a video poker machine because it is almost always a mistake to play a single token in a machine that allows you to play three or five. But if you’re just starting out, you can let them glare at you while you decide whether video poker is your kind of game or not. Don’t feel obliged to stress your bankroll on a game you are just learning.
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