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Strategies for Video Poker
by Jeffrey Lotspiech

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

This is a strategy guide for connoisseurs of video poker; you know who you are. You want to get the absolute maximum out of every session. When faced with a hand that could be played more than one way, it bothers you if you do not know which way is best. You want to know what kind of return you are getting on your gambling dollar, and which types of machines are the best to play.

The good news is that you can have confidence that, in playing video poker, you are playing the best game in the casino. Sometimes it takes a little searching, but you can always find machines where your return is at least 99.5%. Sure, you can get that return from craps or blackjack, but those are games where the bet is essentially even money. There is no possibility of a single large score. Elsewhere in the casino, games that have large potential payout for a single bet compensate by increasing the average house cut. For example, the cut in Keno averages about 25%! Video poker has a jackpot possibility of at least 800:1 (4000 coins for 5 coins bet), yet has a house cut more in line with the 1:1 table games like craps. In fact, in some places in Nevada you can actually find machines that are in your favor when you play them optimally.

Before we start digging into the nuances of the various games, it is important to stress the two basic rules. First, ALWAYS PLAY FIVE COINS. Second, ONLY PLAY MACHINES WITH THE GOOD PAYOFFS. Five coins are necessary to enable the full royal flush jackpot; even though you only hit the jackpot on average once every 30,000 or 40,000 hands, it still pays enough to make this about 2.5% of your total return. Straight flushes, in contrast, account for only about 0.5% of your total return.

The second principle, only paying machines with the correct pay table, cannot be stressed too strongly. Some casinos will set the payoffs on certain hands lower than the standard pay; this can increase their total take by up to ten times what it would normally average for the same amount of play. Of course, there is the rub: they risk the amount of play falling off if players refuse to play the lower-paying machines. Video poker payouts are shown on the front of the machine. Better-paying machines usually pay equal or better in every single category than the lower-paying machines. Players that ignore the payout tables are the greedy casino's legitimate prey. Do not be one of them!

One final rule is less significant than the first two but still worth observing: ALWAYS JOIN A SLOT CLUB if the casino offers it. These clubs are marketing tools that the casinos use to build loyalty and to identify their best customers. In return, they offer prizes which generally amount to about 1/5th of a per cent of the amount you gamble (more if you place a high value on tee shirts and coffee mugs). If you are willing to spend an entire trip gambling at a single casino, you may find you have triggered their often secret threshold that makes you eligible for much more significant freebies, like free rooms and/or meals, on that trip or the next. However, never stick with a slot club if it leaves you gambling on an inferior machine--the percentages do not justify it.

Do the Machines Deal Fairly?

All the recommendations in this article and in its accompanying strategy sheets are based on the assumption that the machines deal fairly, but rumors and hearsay abound in this area. One undisputed fact is that the Gaming Regulations of the State of Nevada, section 14.020, require fair deals. (Specifically, they require a machine that simulates a known manual gambling device like a deck of cards to have the same odds as one would expect from the manual device.) Most other jurisdictions, in the United States anyway, follow the lead of Nevada in this respect.

One author (Dan Paymar) reports that the machines can be jumpered to deal unfairly, presumably for use in those jurisdictions that do not have Nevada's scruples. He reports he has observed machines that apparently cheat even in Nevada, specifically in the case of drawing one card to a four-card straight. He reports finding machines that are much more likely to return a card of the same rank as he discarded than mere chance alone would suggest. In other words, if he discarded a single four, he found he would draw another four about 50% of the time. This is wildly more than the true odds, which are 3 out of 47.

"That happens to me all the time," I can hear you say. I know; it seems like it happens to me all the time, too. But when I actually measure it carefully, the results are always consistent with the true odds. I think the explanation is that when you play video poker, especially when you play fast, you enter a zone where you simply do not notice the normal events. Only the unusual things catch your attention. So when I measure it, I never write down a result either way unless I have picked up the pencil before I drew the card. Thus, I am not unconsciously biasing the results to the event I am more likely to notice--receiving a card of the same rank--rather than to the normal event that may escape my notice. I figure that if I had not noticed that I was drawing to a straight ahead of time and picked up the pencil, I may not have noticed the normal result afterward. But if you have measured it carefully, and still found a cheating machine, I would be interested, send me a note.

How exactly do the machines shuffle the deck? Many sources report that the machine is "shuffling continuously" (spinning a random number generator?) while you are dropping coins in it. When you press "deal" or when you drop the fifth coin (I hope it is the latter if you are playing by my first principle above), the entire deck's shuffle is fixed. There is general agreement that the shuffle remains fixed no matter how much time you take to figure out your discard. This does not necessarily mean that you would have received the same cards regardless of your discard, however. The rumor is that some brands of machines have fixed a different "draw" card under each card in the hand. You get that card "underneath" when you discard, rather than picking your discard from the "top of the deck".

One author, "Keno Lil", reports that in International Gaming Technology (IGT) machines a chip is used to "shuffle the cards" rather than the microprocessor. She reports that chip performs 1000 shuffles per second. This seems very slow; even a software-based random number spin would run tens to hundreds of times faster. Yet, she is adamant about the "once per millisecond" figure.

Poker Intuition

If you have even a passing interest in gambling, you have undoubtedly played normal table poker. You know the names of the hands and their ranks. You have developed a certain intuition about what to draw and what to hold in draw poker. You will be happy to hear that, for the most part, this intuition will serve you well in video poker. There are a few exceptions, however, and we will cover them here.

The first thing you need to know is the best card in the deck is not the ace. (I am assuming a game without wild cards now.) The best card is the lowest card that will make a winning pair--a jack in the jacks-or-better game or a ten in the tens-or-better game. The reason is simply that the lower cards have more possible straights they can participate in. And, of course, a pair of aces pays no more than a pair of jacks. Failure to realize this leads to a very common error: many players know (or guess) that if they have an ace-high hand with two other high cards all of different suits, the best play is to save only two of the three cards. However, they then wrongly save the two highest cards. The best play is to save the two lowest cards. There is a greater chance of drawing a straight that way.

The old saying, "never draw to an inside straight," can also mislead the video poker player. In deuces wild, you always draw to an inside straight in preference to drawing five cards. And in jacks-or-better, there are certain inside straight hands (three or more high cards) where drawing to an inside straight is often the best play.

One other big difference from the table game is the importance of two- and three-card royal flushes, and three-card straight flushes. These hands are of no consequence in regular poker, but learning to recognize them and play them correctly is the key to expert video poker play. Unfortunately, the rules for playing them correctly cannot be summed up in a single sentence; the different hands differ significantly in value based on a lot of factors. I will explain my "gap method" for evaluating three-card straight flushes later, but value of the two-card royal flushes can be pretty much understood by just remembering the principle that aces are not particularly good cards. Thus, the ace-king is actually a pretty bad two-card royal flush. The lowly jack-ten is has many more straights (and, of course, straight flushes) it can be part of. However, unless you are playing one of those rare machines that pay on a pair of tens, the ten is a liability; you are better off with the queen-jack, where either card can pair up to make a winner. In jacks-or-better, the absolute worst two-card royal flush is an ace-ten. In fact, you never save it, except in those few machines with the 4700 (rather than 4000) coin royal flush jackpot, and then only when there is absolutely nothing else to save in your hand.

How important is it to play correctly? Most hands have only one obvious correct play. My calculations suggest that any person with a normal ability to recognize poker hands and normal table-poker intuition would not suffer by more than 1% over a person playing perfectly. Yet, if you read annual reports from the larger casinos and game manufacturers, you gain the impression that the machines return about 2% more than what they would if everyone played perfectly. It is certainly true that people play the machines with wild cards more poorly than those without. This is the only reason that wild card machines can be found that are actually in the player's favor when played optimally.

Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

 

Jeff Lotspiech is a Research Staff Member in the computer science department at the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California. You can visit his site for a great listing of the whereabouts of Good Video Poker Machines.


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