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Is Keeping It Simple Stupid?

The value of using simplified video poker strategy

By Jerry “Stickman” Stich


Many regular readers of this publication and Strictly Slots are aware of the paybacks of popular video poker games. For example, full-pay Jacks or Better returns 99.54 percent, full-pay Bonus Poker returns 99.16 percent, full-pay Double Bonus Poker returns 100.17 percent, and full-pay Double-Double Bonus Poker returns 98.98 percent.

These returns are calculated based on what is called “perfect play.” Playing “perfectly” means for each hand that is dealt, the mathematically highest paying combination of cards are saved. It takes into account all possible combinations of held cards and all possible combinations of hands possible for each saved combination. Of course the result of each hand played will vary wildly, but after thousands and thousands of hands, the actual returns will very closely match the mathematical return. How is the “perfect” strategy determined?

Computer programs churn through every conceivable hand and come up with the probability of each hand appearing during each possible hold combination. The program then multiplies the probability of each hand occurring by the amount that is paid for that hand to calculate the contribution of each possible hand. The contributions are summed and compared for each hold combination and the combination with the highest return is determined to be the “perfect” hold.

This may sound simple in theory, but putting the results of the computer calculations into a playable strategy can get pretty complex. The difference of just one rank in one of the cards can alter the results enough to change the strategy.

The strategy for some games such as Jacks or Better can be fairly straightforward, while others such as Double-Double Bonus can be fairly complex; the more complex the strategy the better the chance for error. Serious video poker players practice long and hard to master the strategies of their chosen games no matter how complex they may be.

But what about the more casual player, the ones who do not put in the scores of hours of practice needed to master perfect strategy?

Most video poker strategy programs as well as several strategy cards have different levels of strategy. Some have as many as four different levels. Does it make sense to use a strategy that has been simplified and by so doing relegate some of the possible edge to the casino?

Remember, the stated return for a video poker game is based on perfect play. Every mistake made shifts more money toward the casino. Some mistakes may only amount to a fraction of a cent, but most mistakes cost the player much more—from several cents to potentially over a dollar.

Using a simpler strategy streamlines the learning process while only minimally reducing the return—in many cases only a tenth of a percent or so. The strategy charts can be dramatically different, however.

Consider the two different versions of strategy (basic and advanced) generated by a popular video poker strategy program. The basic version of strategy for Jacks or Better has 45 separate lines. The advanced version weighs in at almost twice that amount at 87 lines of strategy. As another example, compare the two versions of strategy for Double Bonus Poker. The basic version has 58 lines of strategy while the advanced version has 94 lines.

Learning all the additional lines of strategy comes at a price. More time is needed to master the strategy and there are many more opportunities to make a mistake while playing. Is all the added complexity worth the additional fraction of a percent return?

Only you can answer that question.

Any casual player who doesn’t have the time or inclination to practice a complex strategy should seriously consider learning a simplified strategy. It may be just what the video poker doctor ordered. Even though the return is slightly lower, it is still better than misplaying the complex strategy or, even worse, playing by hunch with no formal strategy.


SIDEBAR: Video Poker Strategy: How Would You Play This Hand?

Since this month’s article talks about using simplified video poker strategy, let’s look at an example of a simplified strategy dictating a different play.

Playing a full pay Jacks or Better game (9/6) with max coin-in of five quarters, you are dealt the following hand: A♦ Q♦ 10♦ 8♦ 9♠

How would you play it?

This hand contains three cards of a royal flush and four cards of a flush. It also contains four cards of an inside straight.

A popular video poker strategy computer program has two versions of strategy available, a basic strategy and an advanced strategy.

Using the basic version of the strategy there is only one strategy line for three of a royal and it returns about one-tenth of a unit more than the one line in the basic version for four of a flush. So, using the basic version of the strategy the proper play is to hold the three of a royal (A♦Q♦10♦).

The advanced version of the strategy has 20 strategy lines for three cards of a royal and three lines for four of a flush. According to the advanced strategy, the proper play is to save the four of a flush having two high cards over a suited Ace, Queen, and 10 when there is also an additional card of a flush (8♦) and an additional card that could form a straight (9♠). The former hold returns about one one-hundreth of a unit more than the latter. In this case the proper hold would be the four of a flush.

Notice how this advanced play improves the return by only a very slight amount and the strategy involved in making the decision has 23 lines versus two in the basic strategy. This is an excellent example of a lot of added complexity for very little gain.

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