Video Poker Strategy

No one could cover everything there is to know about video poker strategy on a single page. Even if you just wanted to cover the most popular games, you’d need multiple pages. This page is meant to serve as an introduction to video poker strategy; subsequent pages on this site will cover specific strategies for specific games.

Video poker is a fascinating game. It certainly offers more mental stimulation than slot machines. If you don’t mind thinking about what you’re doing when you’re gambling, then video poker is superior to slots in almost every way, especially in the most important way—monetarily. Learn how to be a smart video poker player, and you’ll lose less money and win more money than any of your “slot machine zombie” friends.


Pay Tables and Payout Schedules

Playing video poker is no more difficult than playing slot machines, but minimizing the house edge (which also maximizes your chances of winning) requires a little bit of knowledge and effort. The first aspect of your gambling strategy involves learning why the pay tables and payout schedules are important.

Video poker games can be divided roughly into two categories:

  1. Non-wild games. These include games like Jacks or Better, Bonus Poker, and Double Bonus Poker.
  2. Wild games. These games include Deuces Wild and Joker Wild, among others.

Both games generally offer excellent payback percentages, but depending on the pay table, the payback percentage might be as low as 88% (or even lower) or they might be has high as 100% (or even higher). If you can find a machine with a payout of over 100%, then you can expect to make a profit over the long run—if you play with perfect strategy.

The pay table is a list of possible hands and how much they pay out if you get that hand. The amount paid out per hand determines how low or how high the house edge is. Since all legitimate video poker games mimic an actual deck of cards, determining the payout percentage is relatively simple, mathematically. (This is a big advantage over slot machines altogether, since it’s impossible to determine the payout percentages on slot machine games.)

All the payoffs are based on how many coins you’ve wagered. So if you wager two coins, your payout is twice as much for a hand than if you wagered a single coin. The same is true for three coins and four coins. In Jacks or Better, which is the standard video poker game, the payout (on a royal flush) when playing five coins is significantly higher than all the others.

When you wager a single coin, a royal flush pays out at 250 to 1. When you wager two coins, it pays out at twice that, or 500 coins. But when you wager five coins, a royal flush pays out at 4000 coins, which is 16 times the amount of a single coin. The importance of this can’t be understated:

The first strategy decision is to be sure to always play for the max coins.

The best video poker game to start with is Jacks or Better. Once you understand the fundamentals of Jacks or Better, all the other games become variations. The best pay table available on a Jacks or Better game offers a payback percentage of 99.5%, which makes it one of the best gambles in any casino.

Your initial strategy goal in Jacks or Better is to find a full pay game, which is the variant offering that big 99.5% payout. Luckily, it’s easy to determine the payout percentage on Jacks or Better by looking at the pay table, because the only payouts that vary from one machine to another are the amounts for the full house and the flush. All of the payouts for all the other hands are the same from game to game.

On a full pay Jacks or Better machine, a full house pays off at 9 to 1, and a flush pays off at 6 to 1. Other machines have lower payouts for these hands. Some pay off at 8 to 1 and 5 to 1 respectively, while others pay off at 7 to 1 and 5 to 1. The lower payouts, of course, result in lower payback percentages on the machines, as follows:

  • 9/6 Jacks or Better pays out at 99.5%.
  • 8/5 Jacks or Better pays out at 97.3%.
  • 7/5 Jacks or Better pays out at 96.2%.
  • 6/5 Jacks or Better pays out at 95.0%.

Why is this so important? The payout percentage determines (mathematically) how much you can expect to lose over the long run on a game. The house edge is 100% minus the payout percentage, so the house edge for each game is as follows:

  • 9/6 Jacks or Better has a house edge of 0.5%.
  • 8/5 Jacks or Better has a house edge of 2.7%.
  • 7/5 Jacks or Better has a house edge of 3.8%.
  • 6/5 Jacks or Better has a house edge of 5%.

The house edge is the percentage that the casino expects to win of every bet you make over the long term. So if you make a $100 wager on a game with a house edge of 0.5%, the casino expects you to lose on average $0.50 of each wager.

So if you’re playing a typical Jacks or Better game for a dollar, then you’re looking at wagering $5 each hand. If you play 500 hands per hour, then you’re putting $2500 per hour into action. The house edge determines how much you’re expected to lose per hour, so your expected loss per hour for each variation is as follows:

  • 9/6 Jacks or Better has an expected hourly loss of $12.50.
  • 8/5 Jacks or Better has a house edge of $67.50.
  • 7/5 Jacks or Better has a house edge of $95.
  • 6/5 Jacks or Better has a house edge of $125.

It should be clear why finding a good pay table matters so much. The difference between losing $12.50 per hour and losing $125 per hour is significant.


Tactics and How to Play Each Hand

The next big consideration in video poker is learning the mathematically correct way to play every hand. This is similar to learning basic strategy in blackjack.

All of the house edge and payout information listed earlier is based on the assumption that you’re using expert strategy when you play. Casinos and gambling machine manufacturers assume that you won’t use correct strategy, and that lack of skill equates to an additional 2%-4% in the casino’s favor.

The tactics and strategies vary according to which game you’re playing. Video poker strategy for Jacks or Better is dramatically different than video poker strategy for Deuces Wild. But all of the strategies have some things in common.


How Are the Tactics Determined?

You have 32 different ways you can play each 5 card hand. You have 2 options for each card—hold it or discard it. The correct play in every situation is the one with the highest expected return. Computers are able to determine mathematically which play has the highest expected return. Intuition and skill at playing real poker aren’t enough; you need to do what’s mathematically best in almost every situation.

A video poker strategy for a game takes into account the expected return for every hand. These strategies and tactics are not mathematically perfect—they have to be practical enough to actually be used in a casino, which means that accuracy is sometimes sacrificed to make the decisions easier.

Specific strategy tables are available for each variation on the appropriate pages. Here are some general tips that apply to most video poker games in most situations:

  • Don’t hold a kicker. A kicker is a high card (like an ace or a king) in addition to a pair. Holding a kicker sometimes makes sense in real poker, but seldom makes sense in video poker.
  • Don’t draw to inside straights. An inside straight consists of four cards that could potentially make a straight, but only one possible draw can complete the sequence. (An outside straight draw can be filled by two possible cards.)
  • Don’t hold on to a three card flush or a three card straight. The odds are too slim that you’ll complete your hand in both of those situations.
  • If you’re playing Deuces Wild, never discard a deuce. Never, ever, ever.

These tips only make up the bare beginning of video poker wisdom, but everyone has to start somewhere.