LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP
All Bonus Poker games are not created equal
By John Grochowski
Smart video poker players have long been trained to look at the payoffs on certain hands before deciding to play. In games without wild cards, the first place to look is the return on full houses and flushes. A Bonus Poker game that pays 8-for-1 on full houses and 5-for-1 on flushes (an “8-5” Bonus Poker machine) carries a higher payback percentage than 7-5 or 6-5 Bonus Poker games.
Left unsaid in all that is that the 8-5 version of Bonus Poker will pay more than the 7-5 version if all other payouts are equal. That’s usually a reasonable working model. On video poker games without wild cards, full houses and flushes are usually where payoffs are changed to raise or lower the payback percentage.
But look before you leap. There are pay tables that reel in the unwary, yielding less return than you’d expect at first glance. Bonus Poker has a number of versions where a simple look for the “8-5” will bring you something less than a full-pay game. Double Bonus Poker players would be wise to check out the straight payback as well as those on full houses and flushes. And Deuces Wild fans, who should be used to checking several spots on the pay table, need to be careful about the rise of short payoffs on wild royal flushes and five of a kind.
Following are some pay table variations to check before you play.
For many years, the name of the game was descriptive of a specific play experience. Bonus Poker paid 2-for-1 on two pairs, making it an even-keel experience like Jacks or Better. Full house and flush paybacks were reduced, with 8-5 being the full-pay game, compared to the 9-6 pay table that Jacks or Better players seek. To offset that, some four of a kind paybacks were enhanced, with four 2s, 3s or 4s paying 200 credits for a five-credit bet, and four Aces paying 400.
But in recent years, the Bonus Poker has become kind of a catch-all title. Some versions keep the quad bonuses, but pay only 1-for-1 on two pairs while enhancing full houses and flushes. Those games have lower payback percentages than classic Bonus Poker.
So does a current version in which all four of a kinds pay 30-for-1 (or, 150 per five credits wagered). There’s no 400-coin jackpot on four Aces, or 200 coins on four 2s-4s. The bonus is just a 25-credit increase from Jacks or Better quad payoffs.
Classic 8-5 Bonus Poker pays 99.2 percent with expert play. With all quads paying 150, 8-5 Bonus Poker pays only 98.5 percent. If you go down a level, to the 7-5 game where full houses pay 7-for-1 and flushes 5-for-1, the classic version that includes the 400- and 200-credit levels on quads returns 98.0 percent, while the 150-for-all-quads version pays only 97.3 percent.
An earlier version looks enticing because of a 10- 8 pay table, returning 10-for-1 on full houses and 8-for-1 on flushes. That doesn’t come close to offsetting a drop in the two-pair return from 2-for-1 to 1-for-1. This version of Bonus Poker returns only 94.2 percent with expert play, which is 5 percent less than classic 8-5 Bonus Poker.
There’s even a rare version that for all the world looks like classic 8-5 Bonus Poker. The enhanced quad payoffs are there. So is the 2-for-1 payoff on two pairs. The one time I saw it in a casino, I was ready to settle in for a session until I noticed that three of a kind paid only 2-for-1 instead of the standard 3-for-1.
That’s a problem. Three of a kind occurs frequently enough that the short payback costs 7.5 percent of the expected return, and takes this version of 8-5- Bonus Poker all the way down to a 91.7 percent return.
DOUBLE BONUS POKER
Two numbers will suffice for referring to most non-wild-card games. We look for 9-6 Jacks or Better, 8-5 Bonus Poker, 9-6 Double Double Bonus Poker and 9-5 White Hot Aces.
For Double Bonus Poker, three numbers are used, with the full-pay version being 10-7-5 Double Bonus Poker. We’re looking not only at the full house and flush payoffs (10-7), but also the return on straights (5). That’s partly because most Double Bonus Poker machines differ from other Jacks or Better-based game by paying 5-for-1 instead of 4-for-1 on straights. But it’s also because sometimes you’ll find a Double Bonus machine paying 4-for-1, and that changes the character of the game.
Full-pay 10-7-5 Double Bonus Poker returns 100.17 percent with expert play. It’s one of those rare games in which an adept player can get a mathematical edge. Drop the full house payback one unit to yield a 9-7-5 game, and the payback percentage falls to 99.11 percent.
A common version also takes a unit away from the flush payback, and that 9-6-5 game is a 97.74-percenter, if you know when to hold ’em. By the time you get to 9-6-4 Double Bonus, taking a unit away from the return on straights, the payback is down to 96.38 percent, even if you play at expert level. By the time you get to 8-5-4 and 6-5-4 versions…well, forget it. You don’t want to play.
Strategy-wise, it’s the flush and straight changes that make the major differences. Strategy for 10-7-5 and 9-7-5 Double Bonus is very similar, but when the flush return drops to 6-for-1, we no longer chase quite so flush and straight-flush draw. And when straights pay 5-for-1, we push straight draws even of the inside variety. Dealt a hand such as Jack-9-8-7-2 of mixed suits, the best play is to hold Jack-9-8-7 in Double Bonus versions where straights pay 5-for-1, but to hold the Jack by itself in the 9-6-4 Double Bonus game.
But really, informed play at Double Bonus Poker starts with checking the pay table, looking beyond the full house and flush pays, and skipping the game altogether if it pays only 4-for-1 on straights.
Comparing Deuces Wild games has never been as simple as checking out the full house and flush returns. In going from full-pay Deuces Wild to the version the late video poker guru Lenny Frome called “Illinois Deuces” (and which the VPFree website now calls “Airport Deuces”), there were changes in payoffs on four of a kind, full houses and flushes.
In the full-pay game, paying 100.8 percent with expert play, four of a kind pays 5-for-1, full houses 3-for- 1 and flushes 2-for-1. In Illinois or Airport Deuces, four of a kind drops to 4-for-1, but full houses increase to 4-for-1 and flushes to 3-for-1. Four of a kind is such a frequent hand in Deuces Wild that the payback percentage with expert play drops to 98.9 percent, despite the increases on both full houses and flushes.
Side note: for those who are wondering, the machine glass doesn’t say “full-pay Deuces” or “Airport Deuces.” They just say “Deuces Wild.” The nicknames are player shorthand to refer to games where reference by payback numbers can be cumbersome.
There are many, many versions of Deuces Wild, with changes at many spots on the pay tables, and many player nicknames. Players are used to checking returns on four of a kind, five of kind, straight flushes, full houses and flushes.
One stable payoff has been the 25-for-1 return on a royal flush with wild cards, a 125-coin mini-bonanza with five coins wagered. And the five-of-a-kind pay has remained within a small range—15-for-1 on full-pay and Airport Deuces, 16-for-1 on Not So Ugly Deuces, a 99.7-percent game that differs from Airport Deuces only in kicking five-of-a-kind and straight-flush returns up a notch.
Still, there are games on casino floors that throw a curve to Deuces players. Watch out for games in which a wild royal pays 20-for-1—100 credits for a five-credit bet—instead of the standard 25-for-1, 125-for-5. That payoff is usually coupled with a drop to 12-for-1 pays, or 60 credits for 5, on five of a kind.
The impact isn’t as great as it would be with a short pay on four of a kind, full houses or flushes, but there’s an impact nonetheless. A game that looks like Airport Deuces except for 100-for-5 pays on wild royals and 60-for-5 on five of a kind drops the overall return from 98.9 percent to 97.1, for those who play at an expert level.
That’s too big a gap for cash back, free play, comps and bounce-back vouchers to bring your total anywhere near break-even. With those short pays, the expert play is to walk away.
The overriding lesson: look at the paybacks on commonly changed hands first, whether it’s full houses and flushes on non-wild card games, or four of a kind, full houses and flushes on Deuces Wild. If the game looks good at that point, you should still take one more look up and down the pay table before you play. Don’t get caught napping, and waste your play on a game with a pay table shortfall you aren’t expecting.