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Lesser of Two Evils

How to Handle Low Return Video Poker

By Jerry “Stickman” Stich



It is always great to be able to find high return video poker such as 99.5 percent or more.  If players are diligent, they can usually find high paying games in most gambling destinations.  It may take a little work and the search area may have to be widened from the big name casinos, but usually good games are available.  Even on the Strip in Las Vegas, video poker games paying at least 98 percent are available in virtually all the casinos.

But what if you are part of a captive audience?

I recently took an extended Mediterranean cruise where the ship had a casino that held about 25 to 30 video poker machines.  None of the games were progressive games where the payoff for a royal flush builds as the game is played.  To say these games were tight is an understatement.  Here are some examples.  (NOTE: The “Pay Table” column only shows the pays that are different from the standard “full pay” machine.)


Game Pay Table



Jacks or Better 7/5 (full pay is 9/6)

96.1 %


Bonus Poker 6/5 (full pay is 8/5)

96.8 %


Double Bonus 9/6/4 (full pay is 10/7/6)

96.3 %


Dbl/Dbl Bonus 8/5 (full pay is 9/6)

96.7 %


Deuces Wild 20/16/10/4/3/3 vs. 25/15/9/5/3/2

96.2 %


Deuces Deluxe 4/3/2 (full pay is 4/4/3)

95.8 %



As you can see from the “Return” column, most these games took almost $4 dollars for every $100 played through the game—a truly miserable return.

I simply will not play any video poker game that does not return at least 98 percent.  Actually, that is not quite true.  I will not play a video poker game that does not return at least 98.9 percent.  On progressive games, I will play once the payoff for a royal flush builds to the point that the game pays back 100 percent or more.  Since none of these conditions were met, I did not play video poker on this cruise.

While I recommend others follow my guidelines for play, not everyone is as serious about the game.  Many enjoy running a few dollars through just to see if they can get lucky.  They budget a certain amount (which they fully expect to lose) to video poker play.  Once that amount is gone, they are through playing.  They don’t become upset when they lose.  They don’t chase losses.  In short, they are okay with losing (though they may not like it) and have budgeted accordingly.  They are ecstatic when they win.

If you are one of these types of video poker player, it really doesn’t matter that much which of these miserable paying games you play.  They all return around $96 for every $100 played through.  The variance, however, is somewhat of a factor.  The higher the variance, the faster you could lose your bankroll.  However, the higher the variance the higher is the potential for a big hit.  The choice is up to you.  Would you rather play longer with fewer opportunities for a jackpot, or would you rather risk a very short time playing for a shot at several jackpots?  Only you can answer that question.  Just know that in the long run playing these games you will lose and lose big.  Have fun, but make sure you stay within your budget.  Don’t let a stingy cruise ship’s casino games spoil the rest of your cruise.

How does a more serious player handle lower return video poker games?  All the same rules about bankroll, chasing losses and discipline apply.  The difference is playing strategy.  Whether playing on truly miserable games such as those on cruise ships or playing 98, 99 or 100 percent plus games in casinos, playing the best strategy is critical to maximizing the hard-earned dollars you risk at video poker.  Remember, the returns shown are for perfect play.  If the proper strategy is not followed, the return will be even less.

There are many different software programs available that calculate the return and variance of multiple games as well as generate playing strategy.  If you are to get the most from your casino experience you must purchase one of these programs and use it.  All of the programs of which I am aware are initially set up for full pay games.  The pay tables can be changed to give you what you need for the specific games you will play.  Generally this capability is found in the “Options” section.  If you have trouble figuring out how to modify the pay tables and generate information for different paying games, try the “Help” option that almost all software programs have.

If you use the proper playing strategy from these programs, you will have more winning sessions and lose more slowly than without using the strategy.

Each player must decide if maximum play time or shots at more or bigger jackpots are what they prefer.  If maximum play time is the choice, choose low variance games.  If playing time is less important that hitting jackpots, higher variance games should be selected.  But return is still the major factor in playing longer with more chances for a jackpot.  It is important to find the games with the best return.  Decide for yourself if you are willing to give the casino what they will win over the long run on games playing less than 100 percent.  If you are, make sure you maintain the discipline to make your casino adventure’s fun and not catastrophic.


Video Poker Strategy – How Would You Play This Hand?

By Jerry “Stickman”


You are playing a full pay Jacks or Better game (9/6) with max coin-in of five quarters, you are dealt the following hand:

A K 105 K


How would you play it?

This is an interesting hand because it has several possibilities. It has three cards of a royal (A♦ K♦ T♦) four of a flush (A♦ K♦ T♦ 5♦) and a high pair (K♦ K♠).  Many gamblers would take the three of a royal, reaching for the thrill of a big win.  Still others may take four of a flush figuring there are nine out of 47 remaining cards (roughly one in five) that will give them a six-for-one payoff.

The correct answer is to hold the high pair.  The proper way to evaluate hands is by looking at the expected return for each possible hand.  In this case three of a royal (A♦ K♦ 10♦) has an expected return of 1.2868 credits per credit played.  The four of a flush has an expected return of 1.2766 credits per credit played.  The high pair outdoes both of these with an expected return of 1.5404 credits per credit played.  For this hand on a quarter machine with five coins in ($1.25) the paybacks (the amount paid minus amount played) are as follows:


Three of a Royal       $1.6085

Four of a Flush          $1.59575

High Pair                    $1.9255


While the three of a royal is slightly better than four of a flush, the high pair pays almost 32 cents more.  This is not a trivial amount when playing hundreds of hands for an hour.  By failing to make the correct choice you are costing yourself real money.

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