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Video Poker Strategy

10 July 2002

By John Grochowski

In recent weeks, we've focused on strategies to narrow the house edge at table games. Let's turn now to video poker, another game in which our choices make a difference in our wins and losses.

Video poker is dealt from a randomly shuffled 52-card electronic deck in which each card has a equal chance of being dealt. Cards are "shuffled" by a computer program called a random number generator, but the effect is that the odds on the game are the same as if a dealer was shuffling a physical deck of cards.

Nearly all video poker is draw poker. There are a few stud-based and specialty games, but the vast majority of video poker games deal us five cards, and we then may discard any or all and draw replacements. There is no dealer to beat. Winning hands are paid according to a pay table, which usually starts with a pair of Jacks at the low end--anything less than a pair of Jacks and the hand loses. The better the hand, the more we win.

Because we know how much each winning hand pays as well as the relative frequency of poker hands, we can calculate strategies and optimal payback percentages on video poker games. If the game is 9-6 Jacks or Better, meaning full houses pay 9-for-1 and flushes pay 6-for-1, and all other payoffs are standard, we know that in the long run, the machines will return to players 99.5 percent of all money wagered.

Casinos and game manufacturers do not tinker with the relative frequency of winning hands in order to change payback percentages. Instead, they change the payoffs. A Jacks or Better machine that pays 8-for-1 on full houses and 5-for-1 on flushes-an 8-5 machine-returns only 97.3 percent with optimal play, and a 7-5 machine returns only 96.2 percent.

Knowing that, we can tell just by looking at the pay tables on machines which will return more to players in the long run. In any given session, we might get lucky and have a few big hands that will make us a winner on a low-paying machine, and we might have a cold streak that will make us a loser on a high-paying machine. But we have no way of knowing when those hot and cold streaks are coming, and we do know which are the higher-paying machines overall. Smart players stick with the better pay tables.

The basic video poker game is Jacks or Better, while most of the others are variations on its theme. The full pay table for 9-6 Jacks or Better is as follows: Royal flush 250-for-1 (jumps to 800-for-1 with five coins wagered); straight flush 50-for-1; four of a kind 25-for-1; full house 9-for-1; flush 6-for-1; straight 4-for-1; three of a kind 3-for-1; two pair 2-for-1; pair of Jacks or Better 1-for-1.

Let's go over strategy for 9-6 Jacks or Better. Then in coming weeks, we'll add a few variations to get a little extra out of some other popular games, such as Double Bonus and Double Double Bonus Poker.

In the following strategy, items higher on the list take precedence over those that follow. For example, under other hands, "Hold a low pair" is listed several steps above "Hold three high cards." So if we have both a low pair and three high cards, we'd hold the low pair.

WINNING HANDS

  • Always hold a royal flush, straight flush, four of a kind, full house, three of a kind or two pair.
  • Break up a flush or straight for a one-card draw to a royal.
  • Break up a pair of Jacks, Queens, Kings or Aces for a one-card draw to either a royal flush or straight flush.

OTHER HANDS

  • Hold a low pair, unless breaking it up will give you a one-card draw to a royal flush or straight flush, or a two-card draw to a royal. Also break up a pair of 10s to draw to King-Queen-Jack-10 of mixed suits.
  • Hold a four-card flush unless breaking it up will give you a draw to a three-card royal.
  • Hold a four-card open-ended straight unless breaking it up will give you a draw to a three-card royal or a four-card flush.
  • Break up three-card straight flushes if you have a winning hand, a pair, a four-card flush or a four-card open-ended straight. If both cards needed are on the inside--for example, if you hold 6-7-10 of diamonds and need the 8 and 9--also break up the hand if you hold one or two high cards (Jacks or better). Otherwise, draw to the inside straight flush.
  • Hold four-card inside straights with three or four high cards unless three of the high cards are of the same suit, or if the Queen and Jack are the same suit. Then go for the royal instead. Do not hold inside straights with fewer than three high cards.
  • Hold three high cards, with two exceptions. If two high cards are of the same suit, draw to the two-card royal. And if one of the three is an Ace, discard the Ace and draw to the other two.
  • Hold King-10, Queen-10 or Jack-10 of the same suit if you are not discarding any cards of that suit.
  • Hold one or two high cards, unless breaking them up would leave you with a one-card draw to a straight flush, flush or open-ended straight or a two-card draw to a straight flush.
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, with podcasts at www.wlsam.com/sectional.asp?id=38069. Look for John Grochowski on Facebook (tinyurl.com/7lzdt44) and Twitter (@GrochowskiJ).

John Grochowski Websites:

www.casinoanswerman.com

Books by John Grochowski:

Winning Tips for Casino Games

> More Books By John Grochowski