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Best of John Grochowski

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Is There a Penalty for Ignoring Penalty Cards?

5 November 2002

When it comes to refining video poker strategies, there's a definite pattern of diminishing return. Certainly it's worthwhile for the average player to learn that in Jacks or Better-based games, a low pair is quite a bit more valuable than a single high card, or that barring something odd like the enhanced return on straights in Double Bonus Poker, we draw to inside straights only if we have at least three high cards.

Following a basic strategy table instead of just winging it--trying to use poker common sense in games that aren't entirely intuitive--can make a difference of a couple of percent in our long-run return. That's certainly worth the while of anyone who is going to play much video poker.

But what about strategy exceptions, special cases that might gain us only a few hundredths of a percent? Is it worth the time and effort to learn strategies that take into account penalty cards--cards that, if discarded, reduce your chances of drawing flushes or straights?

Is it worth the time and effort required to learn the special moves that will take us all the way to the potential 99.54 percent return on 9-6 Jacks or Better-the "9-6" representing paybacks of 9-for-1 on full houses and 6-for-1 on flushes? Is it worth expanding an already lengthy strategy table to get all the way to 100.17 percent on Double Bonus Poker?

There's no agreement on that point among some of the most serious video poker devotees. In fact, penalty cards recently were the topic of a lengthy discussion on a video poker e-mail list to which I belong. The list is distributed through vphomepage.com, a pay Web site operated by Skip Hughes. I find the site a terrific source of information, and the discussions on the e-mail list are often fascinating.

At issue is what to do with hands such as King, Queen, 5 of hearts, 9 of clubs, 2 of spades. The 9 is a straight penalty card, because if we hold just King-Queen and discard the 9, there is one less card available to complete a straight. Likewise, the 5 is a flush penalty card.

In a game such as full-pay Double Bonus Poker, which has higher flush and straight paybacks than most Jacks or Better-based games, penalty cards create all kinds of special-case strategies. In the above example, the mathematically best play is to hold King-Queen-5, which has an average return of 2.817 coins per five wagered, while the average return on holding just King-Queen is 2.805 coins.

But what if we're dealt a 7 of clubs instead of the 9? A King-high straight doesn't reach all the way down to the 7, so there is no straight penalty. Now the best play is to hold just King-Queen, with an average return of 2.825 coins, with the average return on King-Queen-5 remains 2.817.

Consider those numbers. In the first case, the best play gains us just over a penny per occurrence on a dollar machine. In the second case, we gain just under a penny. With such a small difference, wouldn't we be better off to follow a single strategy for all hands with King-Queen and a small card of the same suit, and ignore the penalty cards?

Many posters on the Hughes group think so, including Hughes himself. His strategy cards, currently out of print but due back soon, ignore penalty cards. Hughes notes that the strategy on his cards for 9-6 Jacks or Better produces an average return of 99.543 percent, compared with 99.544 percent for perfect play, including penalty cards. Even in full-pay Double Bonus, with a pay table that creates lots of room for special cases, a penalty card-free strategy produces a return of 100.1615 percent, not far off the 100.1725 percent with perfect strategy.

With differences so narrow, why would anyone but a pro trying to milk every last fraction of a penny from a game bother with penalty cards?

Over the course of the discussion, one answer came from Bob Dancer, a video poker pro and author whose strategy cards do include special plays for hands with penalty cards. Dancer is not a member of the group, but he relayed a response through Hughes. Playing video poker well takes a lot of time practicing on the computer, he says, and the best video poker software available, Bob Dancer Presents WinPoker by Dean Zamzow, does take penalty cards into account when it warns players that they are misplaying a hand. It is easier, he says, for players to learn the penalty card rules as they practice than to learn when NOT to take the computer's advice.

What to do? It depends. If you're trying to learn by rote off strategy sheets, it's easier to learn a strategy without penalty cards. In jurisdictions that allow you to use strategy cards while you play, most players will be quicker and more accurate with a streamlined strategy. But if you're learning by practicing on WinPoker, you may be just as well off to learn the penalty card rules, small though the gain may be.


For more information about slots and video poker, we recommend:

The Video Poker Answer Book by John Grochowski
The Slot Machine Answer Book by John Grochowski
The Casino Answer Book by John Grochowski
Break the One-Armed Bandits! by Frank Scoblete
Victory at Video Poker and Video Craps, Keno and Blackjack! by Frank Scoblete
Slot Conquest Audio Cassette Tape (60 minutes) with Frank Scoblete
Winning Strategies at Slots & Video Poker! Video tape hosted by Academy Award Winner James Coburn, Written by Frank Scoblete
The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots by John Robison
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:

> More Books By John Grochowski