Variety is the Spice of Life: Video Poker Strategy

The 18th Century poet William Cowper said it best when he expressed that variety is what gives life all its flavor, and the same theme reverberates in the world of video poker or VP as it’s commonly called. There are dozens of VP variants each with their respective spice. What cannot be stressed enough is that there is not a one strategy fits all approach to VP.

Video poker is a popular casino game both online and in brick and mortar casinos because players (depending on pay schedule and skill level) face a relatively low house advantage, generally in the low single-digit percents. In other words, for every Dollar or Euro a player runs through a VP machine, he/she can expect to have 95 to 99 cents returned in the long run.

If you haven’t had the best of luck on the VP machines, learning the optimal strategy for the game type you play may surprisingly change your luck around. One key is that on a given hand, the correct Deuces Wild play may be very different than with the same cards in Double Double Bonus.

The best advice one could give to a casino regular aspiring to improve his/her video poker performance is to seek to master one game variant at a time. Some nuances may cost a player just a few hundredths of a percent in expected value, while using an identical strategy for both Ultimate X and Jacks or Better for example may yield catastrophic errors.

Hand Rankings

Video poker hands, like in other forms of poker, are five card hands ranked as follows:

  • Royal Flush
  • Straight Flush
  • Four of a Kind
  • Full House
  • Flush
  • Straight
  • Three of a Kind
  • Two Pair
  • Pair

Basic Gameplay

A simple game to play, yet one that requires practice and discipline to master, video poker is a game of individual hands where after a wager is placed, cards are randomly dealt, held, and new random cards from the deck are drawn to replace the discarded ones.

Hands play at the speed of the player with some VP players able to accurately play dozens of hands per minute. This level of proficiency takes time to develop, so it’s OK to take an extra moment to refer to a chart or table (easily found online) for help in decision making.

Pay Tables

What is the most critical information in determining optimal VP strategy? The math and strategy of every VP game comes from the pay table which dictates the prizes for hitting respective poker hands per number of coins played.

As you become familiar with different VP games, you may notice that casinos adjust pay tables in order to offer a more generous or stingier payout structure to players. The most common pay adjustments are made with full houses and flushes.

Players use terms like 9/6 and 8/5 to refer to the number of credits paid out for full houses and flushes respectively. On a 9/6 game, a full house pays 45 credits on a max 5 credit bet and 30 for a flush.

Pay tables also explain why betting max credits is significantly better than betting one, two, three, or four. The answer lies in the royal flush row. For every other poker hand from straight flush to pair the payout scale mirrors the multiple of credits wagered, but with the royal max (5) credits pays 4,000 credits in many games — 4 times the 1,000 credits that a 4 credit bet would pay.

What does this all mean? Casinos significantly short change non-max bettors. Always play max credits, or drop down to a lower denomination.

Most Popular Games

  • Jacks or Better – 99.54% return on full pay (9/6)
  • Deuces Wild – 100.76% (9/5)
  • Bonus Poker – 99.17% (8/5) and 400 per coin for 4 of a kind Aces

How to read a strategy chart

So you’ve decided to be a smart gambler. You’ve reviewed pay tables and want to master the perfect strategy for a particular game you enjoy. Don’t be alarmed because the strategy information you found online seems dauntingly complicated; it’s all quite simple really.

Strategy charts order the expected return of a play from a dealt royal at the top to having to discard all five cards and start over at the bottom. So, if you’re unsure whether to hold three to a royal or a pair of Jacks in Jacks or Better, see where those respective hands rank on the strategy chart.

Sample of a Jacks or Better strategy chart:

  1. Royal Flush
  2. Straight Flush
  3. Four of a Kind
  4. Four to a Royal
  5. Full House
  6. Straight
  7. Three of a Kind
  8. Four to a Straight Flush
  9. Two Pair
  10. High Pair (Jacks or Better)
  11. Three to a Royal Flush
  12. Four to a Flush
  13. Low Pair

The strategy chart dictates that a straight (a made hand yielding 20 credits per max bet) be discarded in favor of four to a royal flush. Similarly, hold three of a kind in lieu of three to a royal flush.

Loyalty clubs, bonuses, and promotions

Factors outside of fundamental game composition exist which may influence strategy. Player loyalty clubs and deposit bonuses may make full pay games like 100.76% payback Deuces Wild less appealing than they may appear at first glance because of rewards like free play and cash back offered by the casino.

Generally casinos are aware that their hold is potentially non-existent on certain full pay games, so they reward play at a lower pace than on other 96-98% payback games. In a hypothetical example, to clear a deposit bonus may require earnings 1,250 points. If on most games like 9/6 Double Double Bonus players earn 1 point per dollar in coin-in, that’s 1,000 spins at $1.25 each.

However, if on the 100.76% payback game the casino rewards points at half the normal pace, a player has to spin 2,000 times in order to clear the same bonus. Players at the very least must consider these details before making judgements on a casino’s offerings.

Have fun!

There are so many video poker variants to choose from. Some have high jackpot payouts which occur at low frequencies while others have less variance. Skip around and try a few to see which you like the best; but remember, optimal play strategy changes (sometimes ever so slightly) between games. Most of all, good luck and hit lots of ROYAL FLUSHES!