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Best of John Grochowski

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Expert Play in Video Poker

12 April 2005

Whenever I write about video poker payback percentages, I add the cautionary phrase "with expert play." Jacks or Better with a 9-6 pay table, meaning full houses pay 9-for-1 and flushes 6-for-1, will return an average of 99.5 percent of coins wagered to players, with expert play.

Most players don't play at expert level, so their returns will be a few percent lower.

But just what is "expert play?" The question pops up from time to time, as it did recently in an e-mail I received from a reader. Well, determining what play is "expert" for a given hand means weighing all possible holds, all possible results, and picking the one that will bring the highest average return.

There is no one "expert play" method that covers all video poker games. Each change in the pay table changes the odds of the game. Expert play is different for Jacks or Better than for Double Bonus Poker or Deuces Wild. Even within the same game, expert strategy changes with pay tables --- 9-7 Double Bonus Poker has some key strategy differences from 9-6 Double Bonus.

I can't detail all the nuances of expert strategy in one column --- I spent 270 pages picking apart strategy differences in my Video Poker Answer Book. But what we can do is try a few sample hands to show how expert play works.

Let's start with a hand that we play one way in Jacks or Better, but differently in Double Bonus Poker. Say we're dealt 5-5-6-7-8 of mixed suits. We have two reasonable draws --- either we hold the pair of 5s, or we hold 5-6-7-8 and hope for a straight. In either game, holding the four-card straight leaves 47 potential draws, with 39 losers and eight straights with any of the four 4s or four 9s. Holding the pair of 5s leaves 16,125 possible draws, with 11,559 losers, 2,592 that will leave us with two pair, 1,854 that give us three of a kind, 165 full houses and 45 four of a kind draws.

So if the potential outcomes are the same, why do we change strategies from game to game?

Because the rewards are different. In Jacks of Better, two pair pays 2-for-1, while in Double Bonus two pair pays only 1-for-1. That makes holding a low pair, with loads of two-pair potential, more valuable in Jacks or Better. On the other hand, Jacks or Better pays only 4-for-1 on straights, while most Double Bonus games pay 5-for-1. (If you find a Double Bonus machine that pays only 4-for-1 on straights, don't play it.)

If we're playing 9-6 Jacks or Better, holding the pair earns us an average return of 4.12 coins per five wagered, while holding the four-card straight brings us 3.40 coins. But in 9-7 Double Bonus, holding the four-card straight brings an average return of 4.26 coins, while holding the low pair brings only 3.67. Expert play is to hold the pair in Jacks or Better, but to hold the small straight in Double Bonus as long as the straight pays 5-for-1.

Without going into quite so much detail, let's look at a couple more examples.

In Jacks or Better or Bonus Poker, where two pair pays 2-for-1, we wouldn't think of breaking up two pair to chase something bigger. But in Double Double Bonus Poker, where two pair drops to 1-for-1 and we have a chance at a 2,000-coin bonanza if we draw four Aces with a 2, 3, or 4 as the fifth card, we'll keep a pair of Aces while discarding a second pair. It's not a close call in either case. In 9-6 Jacks or Better, dealt Ace-Ace-8-8-4, we'll average a return of 12.98 coins per five wagered by holding both pairs, but only 7.70 for holding the Aces alone. In 9-6 Double Double Bonus, we get back an average of 9.58 coins by holding just the Aces, and 8.40 for keeping both pairs.

One more. In full-pay Deuces Wild, available mainly in Nevada with occasional sightings on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, four of a kind pays 5-for-1 and full houses 3-for-1. In that game, we break up two pair, keeping just one twosome, and hope for four of a kind. Average return is 2.81 coins if we hold just one pair, and 2.55 if we hold both. But in most of the country, the best Deuces versions we can hope for are the "Not So Ugly" and "Illinois" Deuces games that pay 4-for-1 on either four of a kind or full houses. (Truth told, those games are now more common even in Nevada than the full-pay version.) That makes holding both pairs for a better chance at a full house more valuable. Our average return becomes 3.4 coins for holding both pairs, or 2.74 for holding just one pair.

Expert strategy is not something to master overnight, or something one person can master for all games and all pay tables. If you want to play like an expert, pick a favorite game or games, then put in your bookwork and practice on the computer before you play.

Recent Articles
Best of John Grochowski
John Grochowski

John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

Winning Tips for Casino Games

> More Books By John Grochowski

John Grochowski
John Grochowski is the best-selling author of The Craps Answer Book, The Slot Machine Answer Book and The Video Poker Answer Book. His weekly column is syndicated to newspapers and Web sites, and he contributes to many of the major magazines and newspapers in the gaming field, including Midwest Gaming and Travel, Slot Manager, Casino Journal, Strictly Slots and Casino Player.

Listen to John Grochowski's "Casino Answer Man" tips Tuesday through Friday at 5:18 p.m. on WLS-AM (890) in Chicago. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook and Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

The Craps Answer Book

> More Books By John Grochowski