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Recognizing Your Playing Options

By Henry Tamburin

Many video poker players think they know their playing strategy cold. However, where they miss the boat is not recognizing all the playing options in a hand before they decide which cards to hold. For example, suppose you are playing 9/6 Jacks or Better and are dealt the following hand. Which cards would you hold?


Most players will recognize two playing options; the suited J-K of hearts (i.e., two-card royal flush) and the consecutive three-card straight flush 8-9-10 (spades). Of the two options, the three-card straight flush (8-9-10) has a higher expected value (3.00 ER) than the two suited high cards (2.98 ER). It’s a close call, but holding the suited 8-9-10 is slightly better than holding the suited J-K. Nevertheless, if you look closely at the hand there is an even better option that most players miss. That’s holding the four card-straight 8-9-10-J. The EV for the latter is 3.72, making this the preferred hold of the three options.

Here’s another example (Jacks or Better). Which cards would you hold?


When players initially see this hand pop up on their screen, they will invariably focus on the three high cards (A-K-J). The correct hold when you have three unsuited high cards that includes an ace is to drop the ace and hold the other two unsuited cards (i.e., hold the unsuited J-K with a 2.42 EV). However, look closely at the hand again because there is a better hold that is not so obvious: the three-card straight flush A-2-5 (2.69 EV).

The above hand is an example of how players tend to focus only on the high cards in their hand. They immediately make a decision on which high cards to hold and then hit the draw button. In addition, many players view the ace as a high card only, when, in fact, it could be used as a low card (and part of an ace low, three-card straight flush).

Here’s another hand that players often misplay.


You might think that this hand is a no brainer but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve observed my friends focus only on the high cards, quickly hold the two kings, and then hit the draw button. In the course of playing their hands rapidly, they completely miss the fact that their initial hand contained two pair, which is a much better hold (in most games) than a high pair.

I once attended a Jacks or Better video poker class taught by Bob Dancer, who showed the following hand to make a point. (Which cards would you hold?)


Most players will recognize the low pair (8-8), and the three-card royal flush (10-J-Q). However, there is a better hold that is not so obvious: the four-card straight flush 8-10-J-Q (spades). The point is this: Playing your hand by the correct basic playing strategy is important; however, just as important is being able to recognize all the playing options in your hand.

Here are two tips that could help you avoid the costly mistake of not recognizing all the options in your hand.


  1. When you initially look at the cards in your hand and hit the hold buttons under the cards that you believe is the best playing option, train yourself to look at the hand one more time to be sure you haven’t missed another playing option.
  2. Practice playing video poker at home on your computer, using video poker training software. The program will alert you when you make an incorrect play (that includes “missing” a playing option). This type of training will help you recognize all the playing options in each hand. (The two software programs that I recommend are Video Poker For Winners, and Optimum Video Poker. Both are available on my online store at


Lastly, if you slow down your play and, in addition, take frequent breaks (at least stand and stretch once an hour), this will help keep your mind fresh and focused on recognizing all the playing options in every hand.


Tamburin’s Tip of the Month

You are playing Jacks or Better. What are the three playing options in this hand, and which one would you hold?


One option is the consecutive four-card straight 5-6-7-8. A second option is the consecutive three-card straight flush 6-7-8 in diamonds. The third option is the low pair (6-6). Many players would hold the consecutive three-card straight flush because they are hoping to draw the two cards they need for a high-paying straight flush. However, that’s a mistake. Holding the low pair is always more preferable than a four-card consecutive straight (except for 10-J-Q-K), while the latter is preferred over a three-card straight flush with no gaps.



Henry Tamburin is a blackjack and video poker expert. He is the host of the website and the editor of the Blackjack Insider newsletter (for a free three-month subscription, visit  For a free copy of his Casino Gambling Catalog, which contains books, strategy cards, and software for video poker players, call toll free 1-888-353-3234, or visit the web store at



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