Video Poker

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 who decides in the long term.


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.

4 Cards to Royal Flush

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. Let’s take an 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 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


(Skip the following two paragraphs if you are not into math)

When we HOLD THE PAIR OF ACES there are actually 16215 possible combinations which we can draw, when we consider all the possible cards that can be dealt to us. All these combinations are winners, as we hold a pair. 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 full house and 45 ways to hit four of a kind.

When we HOLD THE ROYAL FLUSH DRAW there are actually 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 with 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.


Royal Flush

Determination of Video Poker Strategy

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

We will use another example to show you how video poker strategy is compiled

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 the 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 difference. When there is 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.

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

We’ve listed the hands from those with the highest priority to those with the lowest probability. So when you look up the cards in our previous example, you will see that a low pair (9s) has higher priority (and thus, expected return) than an open ended straight draw.

Rank Combination
1 Royal Flush, Straight Flush, 4 of a Kind
2 4 cards to Royal Flus
3 Full house, Flush, Straight, 3 of a Kind
4 4 cards to Straight Flush
5 Two pair
6 High Pair (Jacks or Better)
7 3 cards to Royal Flush
8 4 cards to Flush
9 Low pair
10 Open ended straight draw
11 2 high cards with the same suit
12 3 cards to Straight Flush
13 2 high cards different suit
14 10 K, 10 G, 10 J suited
15 High card

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 payout as high as 99.54% unless you play perfect (without mistakes) strategy 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 outcome?

Of course, many times this comes at the cost of bad decision making. 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

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