Playing Positive in Poker
Capitalizing on video poker games that (potentially) pay back more than 100 percent
By Jerry “Stickman” Stich
The main thing to remember when you play a positive expectation video poker game is that even though the overall payback will be positive over the long run, you’re playing in the short run. Variance will impact you much more than the positive expectation.
Although they are increasingly rare, you can find positive expectation video poker machines scattered in casinos throughout the country. Positive expectation means that with perfect play, the game will pay back more than 100 percent of what is put into it (over the long run).
You might not believe these machines actually exist. And to be fair, 100+ percent payback machines are usually progressive machines where the jackpot for getting a royal flush increases as a bank of machines is played. The jackpot continues to rise until the royal flush is hit, at which time it resets to the base value, which is usually the same as on non-progressive games.
In order to fund the rising progressive amount, paybacks for some of the lower paying hands are reduced. For example, a 9/6 (9-for-1 paid for a full house, 6-for-1 paid for a flush) Jacks or Better non-progressive would be reduced to 8/5 as a progressive—reducing the payback to just over 97.29 percent at reset from 99.54 percent. In order for this game to have the approximate payback of a 9/6 non-progressive game, the progressive amount would have to double, to about 8,000 credits. For the game to become positive, the progressive amount would have to reach 8,700 credits.
Having so much of the payback tied up in so few hands causes the variance (volatility) of these games to go from 19 to 96, which will mean huge swings for your bankroll. This means that playing positive expectation progressive video poker games requires a much larger bankroll than non-progressive games.
It’s also still possible to find positive non-progressive video poker games. If you search hard, there are still “full-pay” (10/7) Double Bonus games which pay back 100.17 percent with perfect play. There are also a few (very few) “full-pay” Deuces Wild games that pay back 100.76 percent with perfect play. These games also concentrate more money into fewer hands, and reduce the pays on some lower paying hands. This raises the variance (volatility) of these games to the mid to upper twenties from about 19. Playing these games will require a larger bankroll than lower variance games such as Jacks or Better.
The main thing to remember when you play a positive expectation video poker game is that even though the overall payback will be positive over the long run, you’re playing in the short run. Variance will impact you much more than the positive expectation. By switching from Jacks or Better to Double Bonus Poker, your variance increases by about 50 percent, so you’ll have a wilder roller coaster ride with your bankroll when playing Double Bonus. With progressive games that have become positive, you may have huge—really huge—drawdowns in your bankroll. Just because you’re playing a game that returns more than 100 percent doesn’t mean you’re going to make money every session.
You’ll probably lose many more sessions than you win, but in the long run, you will come out ahead. Just make sure you prepare for the “short run” losses.
Video Poker Strategy – How Would You Play These Hands?
This month, I want to show you three hands where the proper play should be more obvious than in some of my previous columns. These hands appear quite frequently, so I want you to be absolutely sure how to handle these situations. All of the hands are for 9/6 Jacks or Better with the maximum of five coins played.
Qh Kh Th Js 4h
How would you play it?
This hand has three of a royal, four of a flush and four of a fully open straight. Let’s look at the expected return for each of these possible combinations.
Save four of a fully open straight with three high cards and your expected return is about 4.36 credits. Save the four of a flush and your expected return soars to about 6.38 credits. If you choose to save three cards of a royal, your expected return becomes about 6.75 credits. Saving three of a royal is about one-third of a credit better than saving four of a flush and more than two credits better than saving for the straight.
Qh Kh 4d 4c Jc
Some video poker players constantly try to “hit it out of the park” by saving for the royal. More savvy players know how to take what you can get and only go for the royal when the expected return is higher than other possible saved hands. Even though low pairs can be frustrating when you get them, they are still fairly powerful hands. In this case we have two cards of a royal, three cards of a straight with three high cards, and a pair of 4’s.
The proper play is to hold the low pair, but how much better is it? The return for holding the low pair is about 4.12 credits. The return for holding the two cards of a royal flush is only about 2.96 credits—more than one third higher. In fact, it’s better to hold the low pair and any one of the three high cards than to hold the two of a royal flush. The return for holding the low pair and one high card is about is about 3.38 credits—also considerably more than holding two cards of a royal flush. Holding the three high cards of a straight will return only about 2.57 credits, making it the worst hold of these options.
Ad Kd Qd Td Js
This hand has four of a royal, but it also has a sure straight. Almost everyone would save the four of a royal flush—which, incidentally, is the proper play. If you decide to take the sure thing, how much would you be giving up?
When holding four of a royal you have a one in 47 chance of completing the royal flush and collecting 4,000 units. Dividing the two, the return from hitting the royal is just over 85 credits. However, there are other possible paying outcomes from this hold. You could get a flush, or a straight, or one of several high pairs. Factoring in all these possibilities, the expected return for holding four cards of a royal flush is about 92 credits—more than four and a half times holding the sure thing. In this case, holding for the royal flush is a stellar move.