Think you’re an ace at video poker? See if you know how to match pay tables with the correct strategy
By John Grochowski
My friend Bill is a video poker enthusiast—one who remembers how exciting it was when he first realized the difference that strategy makes.
“My wife and I were gearing up for our first trip to Las Vegas, and my brother Bob had told me all about these great games,” he recalled. “He lent me books and strategy cards, and I was ready. Not every machine had the games Bob told me about, but we found ’em: 9-6 Jacks or Better, 10-7-5 Double Bonus Poker, full-pay Deuces Wild…it was great.”
Closer to his Midwestern home, Bill found a few of the same games, but sometimes they just weren’t available. Instead of 9-6 Jacks, with full houses paying 9-for-1 and flushes 6-for-1, he was finding 8-5 and 7-5 games. Instead of 10-7-5 Double Bonus, he was finding 9-6-5, with full houses and flushes lowered to 9-6, and sometimes 9-6-4, with payoffs on straights dropped to 4-for-1.
He knew that lower pay tables lead to lower payback percentages. Each unit drop in the return on a full house or flush costs about 1.1 percent in our long-term return. 9-6 Jacks or Better returns 99.5 percent with expert play, while the 8-5 version returns 97.3. 10-7-5 Double Bonus pays the experts 100.17 percent, while the 9-6-5 version pays 97.81 percent.
Still, while he was in the casino, he was going to play.
“There was no question that I was going to play anyway,” he told me. “We were at the casino for the day, and I had the bug. Video poker was what I was going to play. I started wondering, though, if the strategies I’d learned were still right for those games.”
Bob was right to wonder. Changes in pay tables demand changes in strategy. Sure, we’d like to limit our action to only the highest-paying games—but when they’re not available and you’re going to play anyway, getting the most out of a game means changing the way you play.
One thing you’ll find is that changes in flush payoffs affect strategy much more than changes in full house payoffs. High enough flush returns enable us to be more aggressive about chasing three-card straight flushes, or even three card flushes. There’s little we can do to be more aggressive about chasing full houses. The only situation in which we’re clearly chasing a full house is drawing one card with two pairs on board, and we’re almost always going to make that play at any payback.
Let’s try a few sample hands, where the pay table makes a difference.
GAME: JACKS OR BETTER
When flush payoffs are higher, we chase a lot more three-card straight flushes. In 9-6 Jacks or Better, with flushes paying 6-for-1, holding the suited 4-5-6 has an expected value of 3.15 coins per five coins wagered, while holding the suited Queen-Jack, with a long-shot chance at a royal flush, has an EV of only 3.12 coins.
It’s a hairline call, and we go the opposite way when flush payoffs drop to 5-for-1. In 8-5 Jacks or Better the EV is 3.07 on Queen-Jack, while it drops all the way to 2.96 on 4-5-6.
It’s always tempting to go for the big one with three parts of a royal, and in 8-5 Jacks or better we should do just that. Holding Ace-King-10 of spades has an EV of 6.18, topping the 5.43 for holding all four spades. But in 9-6 Jacks, that higher flush payoff turns things around, so that Ace-King-10-5 has an EV of 6.38 that nudges the 6.35 on Ace-King-10.
GAME: DOUBLE BONUS POKER
We don’t break up high pairs very often, but in 10-7-5 Double Bonus Poker it’s sometimes worth the risk of tossing a combination with a guaranteed payback. Breaking up pairs of Kings, Queens or Jacks is the way to go to chase most three-card royals, and for four-card flushes that include at least two high cards. Here, the EV on 10-7-5 Double Bonus is 7.55 for holding all four clubs—which is better than 7.28 on the pair, or 6.85 on the three-card royal.
If you’re playing 9-6-5 Double Bonus, the lowered flush value means holding the pair of Jacks (7.23 EV) over the three-card royal (6.68) or four-card flush (6.60).
Bob’s strategy card for 10-7-5 Double Bonus would have told him to hold the three-card double-inside straight flush, King-Queen-9 of diamonds. There, we average a 3.26-coin return per five coins wagered, better than the 3.09 on the inside straight draw, King-Queen-Jack-9. On the 9-6-5 game, though, the EV remains 3.09 on the inside straight and drops to 3.06 on the straight flush draw.
One of the defining characteristics of Double Bonus Poker is that it pays 5-for-1 on straights—usually. That means we make many more straight draws than on other Jacks or Better-based games that pay only 4-for-1. On either 10-7-5 or 9-6-5 Double Bonus, we’d hold 2-3-4-5, with an EV of 4.26, over the pair of 2s, EV of 4.08 on 9-6-5 or 4.13 on 9-7-5.
But what if straights pay only 4-for-1? (There are Double Bonus games that make this pay table change.) Then we revert to holding the 2s. In a 9-6-4 game, the EV of 4.08 on the pair of 2s is far better than the 3.40 on the four-card straight.
There are so many variations in Deuces Wild pay tables, and corresponding strategies, that you practically have to be a Deuces specialist to keep up with it all. The same hand can have several different “best” ways to play. The example above is one of them.
In full-pay Deuces Wild—which is recognizable mainly by its 5-for-1 payoff on four of a kind—the best play is to hold 2-2-10-10. That gives you a sure pay of 25 coins for a five-coin bet, with a one-card draw for five of a kind and a 75-coin payoff, leaving an EV of 29.26. It’s a dead heat in the game the late video poker guru Lenny Frome called “Illinois Deuces,” which pays 3-for-1 on flushes instead of the 2-for-1 on the full pay game, while quads drop to 4-for-1 and full houses rise a unit to 4-for-1. Holding either 2-2-10-10 or 2-2-Jack-10 brings an average return of 24.68 coins per five wagered.
What about the game Frome called Colorado Deuces, where quads drop to 4-for-1, flushes stay at 3-for-1, straights at 2-for-1, but five of a kind rises to 16-for-1 and straight flushes soar from 9-for-1 to 13-for-1? The high straight-flush return makes 2-2-10-Jack the best play, with a 25.53 EV to 25.11 on 2-2-10-10.
“How in the world do you keep all that straight?” Bill asked, after I reeled off those numbers.
To be honest, few players can. Your best defense is to check out the games that are available where you’re going to play, and put in a little time on the computer before you hit the casino. The VPFree2 data base at http://www.vpfree2.com/ tracks the best pay tables throughout the country. Software such as Video Poker for Winners, Frugal Video Poker and WinPoker allow you to change pay tables so you can practice the games before you start wagering real money. The first two can also generate strategy sheets that you can print out and carry with you.
As a starting point, just understand that the “best” strategy does change with video poker pay tables, Players need to be particularly attentive to flush payoffs— chasing more three-card flushes and straight flushes when flush pays are high.
“OK, now I get it,” Bob said as I wrapped up my spur-of-the-moment instructional session. “And hey, a little practice time never hurt anybody.”
True, indeed. Put in the time, learn the right calls, and you’ll see for yourself how much of a difference the right strategies make.