Video Poker Strategy

Video Poker is one of the most popular games at online casinos, as well as at brick and mortar casinos worldwide. Simply said, it’s a cross between games of luck like slot machines and games where skill is more important than luck, like Texas Hold’em Poker.

As poker players know, luck is in charge in the short term, but it’s skill that determines the long term results.

But how exactly can you increase your chances to win in Video Poker

The balance between luck and skill in Video Poker is very tricky. Of course, when you are a total Video Poker sucker (or had too many drinks) and cannot tell the difference between Royal flush and and a pair of cocktail waitresses’ boobs, you will hardly be in the best position to hit a Royal flush.

Example #1: Go for Royal flush or hold the pair of aces?

Let's look at this example to see what kind of difficult decisions a player has to make when playing Video Poker. Once you know the strategy, these decisions are no longer difficult, because you know the maths that lies underneath.

4 Cards to Royal Flush
A tricky situation in Video Poker

Unless you hold the correct cards which give you the highest theoretical return, you will never get close to the theoretical payout of the Video Poker game you’re playing. In this example, we have a pair and a possible three of a kind and four of a kind draw. And we have a Royal flush draw (as well as flush draw). Based on the probability and payout of each possible hand, it is possible to calculate the expected return of each hand. Each Video Poker strategy is based on the expected return.

How can we calculate this expected return?

It’s quite complicated, and there are not many Video Poker players that are able to calculate the expected return just by looking at the cards dealt by a Video Poker machine. The easiest way is to let computer do all the computations and calculations, and based on those results, we can compile a set of rules which will help us easily evaluate each hand in Video Poker.

Let’s use our example above to see how the computer calculates the expected return for the two most obvious choices we have:

  1. Hold the pair – two aces
  2. Hold the Royal flush draw

Then we calculate the expected value based on the probability of drawing a winning hand and its payout.

Skip the following two paragraphs if you are not into math.

When we hold the pair of Aces, there are actually 16215 possible combinations we can draw when we consider all the possible cards that can be dealt to us. All of these combinations are winners, as we already hold a pair of Aces. There are 11559 ways to end up with a pair, 2592 ways to hit 2 pairs, 1854 ways to hit three of a kind, 165 ways to hit a full house and 45 ways to hit four of a kind.

When we hold the Royal flush draw there are actually only 47 possible outcomes. 27 times we won’t hit anything. 8 times we will hit Jacks or Better, 3 times a straight, 8 times a flush and one time a Royal flush.

So, when we take the probability of drawing a Royal flush (1 in 47) and multiply it by the payout for Royal flush, we get a partial expected value for our hand of 85.11. Then we calculate the expected value for each possible winning combination we can draw – jacks or better, straight and flush - and add all the partial expected values together, to get a 92.34 total expected value for our hand if we hold the Royal flush draw. When we do the same calculation for holding the two aces, we find out that the expected value is 7.68. Therefore, it would be huge mistake if we held the pair.

There is only one way to draw a Royal flush in the example above, but the huge possible win makes it worth to go for it.

Royal Flush
Royal flush - a hand every Video Poker player wants to see

Determination of Video Poker strategy

Basic Video Poker strategy will help us make the correct decision in various tricky situations that can sometimes occur when playing Video Poker. We will let the computer do the math, and based on the expected values of various held cards and probabilities of various outcomes and payouts, we can compile a priority list of which cards to hold.

Example #2: Go for a straight or hold a small pair?

We will use another example to show you how Video Poker strategy is compiled.

Tricky Situation in Video Poker
Another tricky situation in Video Poker

Here we have another rather tricky situation. There are two obvious plays:

  1. We can either hold the pair of fives and at best hope for three or four of a kind or full house,
  2. or we can hold the open ended straight draw and hope for a straight.

Based on the expected return of both options, in the case of holding the pair of fives we’re looking at 4.118, and in the case of going for the open ended straight draw, 3.404.

We can see that when playing Jacks or Better Video Poker with the full pay paytable, a small pair has a better expected return than an open ended straight draw. Of course this may not, and most probably won’t, be the case when playing different paytables or different Video Poker games. It depends on the differences between the games. When there is only a small difference in paytables and games, a Video Poker strategy can be universally applied. But in case of bigger differences in paytables and game rules (e.g. games with wild cards), the strategy may be completely different.

As you probably already noticed, I am talking specifically about the game Jacks or Better in this article. If you want to find out how to optimally play other Video Poker games, read our Video Poker games article with strategies for other types of games.

Jacks or Better Paytable
Jacks or Better Video Poker paytable

Simple vs Optimal Strategy

There are two types of Video Poker strategies used by players. Simple (or basic) Video Poker strategy groups some combinations with similar expected returns. As a result, this strategy is much shorter and much easier to learn. The difference in expected payout when using this strategy is really small when comparing the maximum payout which can be reached only when using the optimal strategy.

The difference between theoretical payout for full pay Jacks or Better, simple and optimal (or perfect) strategy, is 0.08%. The difference is the result of mistakes that players will make based on the simplification.

Jacks or Better Full Pay Video Poker Strategy Chart

You can find a chart that will help you make correct decisions in Jacks or Better below. We’ve listed the hands from those with the highest priority to those with the lowest probability. Find the combination with the highest priority out of the ones you can hold and you can be sure you are making the right decision.

So, when you look up the cards in our previous example, you will see that a low pair has a higher priority (and thus, expected return) than an open ended straight draw.

The Pitfalls of Video Poker Strategy

As you can see, Video Poker is a pretty complex game, and you can seriously hurt your chances of winning, especially in long term, when you’re not using the appropriate strategy.

So even that some Jacks or Better games state a payout as high as 99.54% unless you follow the perfect strategy (without any mistakes), your theoretical payout will be much lower than that, based on the number of errors you make and the number of hands you play. Therefore, you have to set your priorities.

Do you want some control over the game's outcome? Of course, many times this comes at the cost of bad decision making, or at least the possibility to make bad decisions.

Or do you just prefer having fun and relying on luck when playing at a casino? If this is the case, you will be more happy with slot machines, where no skill is needed and no mistakes can be made. If a slot machine has a 95% theoretical payout, that’s what you will get, regardless of how strongly you push the button.

Video Poker vs Slot Machines
Video poker is a better choice for some players, while others will be better off playing slots.

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