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Optimal Play

A look at some common video poker options

By John Grochowski


No matter how dedicated the video poker player, it’s all but impossible to memorize the ins and outs of strategy for every game and every pay table. If you’re going to flip back and forth among Jacks or Better, Double Bonus Poker, Double Double Bonus Poker and Deuces Wild, you’re bound to make some mistakes.

In the name of optimal play, it’s useful to zero in on a game or two (or even three) that you really like and make those the focus of your computer practice time as well as play in the casinos.

Part of focusing on the favorites is understanding the game characteristics of the available options. Do you want a more volatile game that gives you the chance to win big but takes your money fast in the lean times? Or would you prefer a more even-keel experience that keeps you in your seat for the long haul, but with less potential for a day-making bonanza?

You can win big or lose fast in a short session on any video poker game, but the bankroll requirements for a busy casino trip vary wildly even on high-paying games. To have a 95 percent chance of staying in play for 10 hours at quarter 9-6 Jacks or Better (99.5 percent with expert play), it takes $450, while the needed bankroll increases to $510 in 8-5 Bonus Poker (99.2), $585 in “Not So Ugly” Deuces Wild (99.7), $675 in 10-7-5 Double Bonus (100.2), $825 in 9-6-5 Double Bonus (97.8) and $885 in 9-6 Double Double Bonus (99.9).

Let’s look at game characteristics of some of the common video poker choices:



This is one of the least volatile video poker games. If you’re looking for an even-keel experience that will keep you in your seat for a while, this is your game. The key is the 2-for-1 payoff on two pairs. On the full-pay 9-6 version, about 12.9 percent of all hands will result in two pairs, and those hands account for 25.9 percent of our overall return. That stretches your bankroll, while games that pay only 1-for-1 on two pairs, such as Double Bonus Poker or Double Double Bonus Poker, are wilder rides.

The flip side is that the only hand that’s going to leave you walking away feeling like you’ve won big is the royal flush, which comes up an average of once per 40,391 hands. The most common “big” hand is four of a kind, which comes up about once per 423 hands. In Jacks or Better, it’s a return of 25-for-1, or 125 coins for a five coin bet. That’s $125 on a dollar game, or $32.75 on a quarter machine. That’s a nice payback, but not one that’s going to send you home feeling like you’ve won big.

On 9-6 Jacks, you get returns at least equal to your bet on 45.5 percent of hands, including returns of at least twice your bet on 24 percent.



Game characteristics are about as similar to Jacks or Better as you can get. Both have the 2-for-1 payoff on two pairs. Bonus Poker is slightly more volatile because some of the overall return is transferred from full houses and flushes to bigger paybacks on the less common four of a kinds. With a five-coin bet, four aces bring 400 coins and four 2s, 3s and 4s bring 200 instead of the 125 you get on all Jacks or Better quads. However, the full-pay full house and flush returns drop from 9-6 on Jacks or Better to 8-5 on Bonus Poker.

One tip: If you’re in a casino that has low video poker pay tables and are faced with a choice between 7-5 Jacks or Better or 7-5 Bonus Poker, go with Bonus Poker. If the full house and flush returns match between games, there’s no reason not to go for the bigger quad paybacks.

On 8-5 BP, you get returns at least equal to your bet on 45.5 percent of hands, including returns of at least twice your bet on 24 percent, much the same as on Jacks or Better, since game strategies are very similar.



The full-pay version players loved for the first couple of decades of video poker popularity has waning availability even in Nevada, so let’s focus on the “Not So Ugly” version that pays 4-for-1 on four of a kind and full houses, 3-for-1 on flushes, 2-for-1 on straights and 1-for-1 on three of a kind. There are several versions that do that, but what sets NSU Deuces apart is that it raises the five-of-a-kind return to 16-for-1 and straight flushes to 9-for-1, while leaving the top of the pay table intact at 250-for-1 and rising to 4,000-for-5 on a natural royal, 200-for-1 on four 2s and 250-for-1 on a royal with wild cards.

That secondary jackpot of 1,000 coins for a five-coin wager when you draw four 2s is what made this game popular in the time before Double Bonus and Double Double Bonus gave us large, achievable pays on quads, especially four aces. Fueling that secondary jackpot means the game has to be a little more volatile than Jacks or Better or Deuces Wild, but not enormously so.

In Not So Ugly Deuces, you get returns at least equal to your bet on 44.3 percent of hands, including returns of at least twice your bet on 17.6 percent. The percentage of hands where you get at least your bet back is not radically lower than JB or BP, but the payoff is larger than your bet on fewer hands, yielding a more volatile game.



The volatility builds here. All four-of-a-kind pays are at least doubled here, compared with Jacks or Better. For a five-coin wager, you’ll get back 250 if your quads are anything from 5s to Kings. Not only that, the full-pay version increases full house pays to 10-for-1, flushes to 7-for-1 and straights to 5-for-1, compared with the 9-6-4 on Jacks or Better.

Funding all those increases had to mean a drop in return somewhere. That drop comes at two pairs, which pay only 1-for-1.  Two-pair hands account for only 11.9 percent of our overall return here, less than half the 25.9 percent on 9-6 Jacks or Better.

In 10-7-5 Double Bonus Poker, you get returns at least equal to your bet on 43.3 percent of hands, just a couple of percent less than in Jacks or Better or Bonus Poker. But you get payoffs larger than your bet on only 11.6 percent of hands, a radical drop from the 24 percent on JB or BP.

It’s not all that easy to find 10-7-5 DB in many markets. If you’re settling for 9-6-5 Double Bonus, it’s lower paying while still being volatile, with paybacks at least equal to your bet on 44.5 percent of hands and returns of more than your bet on only 11.4 percent.



Most four-of-a-kind pays are the same as on Double Bonus, except for a couple of extra-large returns. Four aces accompanied by a 2, 3 or 4 as the fifth card brings a 2,000-coin jackpot for five coins wagered, while four 2s, 3s or 4s with an ace, 2, 3 or 4 as the kicker brings 800. That aces-plus-kicker, half-a-royal pay has made Double Double Bonus one of the most played video poker games, even though its 9-6 full-pay version returns a little less overall than other full-pay games.

To pay for the bigger quads, Double Double Bonus does not ramp up full house, flush or straight pays, like its first cousin Double Bonus. If you see straights paying 4-for-1 on Double Bonus, you know you’re seeing a low-paying game. On Double Double Bonus, that 4-for-1 pay is just business as usual.

In 9-6 Double Double Bonus Poker, you get returns at least equal to your bet on 44.7 percent of hands, and payoffs larger than your bet on 11.3 percent of hands. That’s not dramatically different from Double Bonus, but the lower full house-flush-straight pays make this a bumpier roller-coaster.

In the end, you pay your money and you make your choice. Do you want the Jacks or Better experience, with its low bankroll requirements? Do you want the Double Double Bonus ups and downs, with the chance at big money? Or do you want something in between? Pick the game that suits your preferences and bankroll, and practice, practice, practice.




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