Knowing when to draw is the key to a winning hand
by Bob Dancer
If we complete the straight, we know how many coins we will earn.
I come from a large family and we often played mentally-challenging games such as chess, checkers, Scrabble, Mastermind, Boggle, etc. My father had played chess and poker while in the army during World War II, and he was happy to pass on what he knew. I can remember his advice when playing poker: “Never draw to an inside straight.” Dad was talking about a four-card combination such as 4-5-6-8 or K-Q-J-9 composed of at least two different suits.
Generally speaking, Dad was right, at least when it comes to playing the draw-poker variation of live poker. You only have four “outs” to complete the straight out of 47 chances. This is approximately 11 to 1 against you, and the pot rarely offers odds that good. And even if it did, a straight isn’t always a winning hand. Occasionally, perhaps, it’s okay to make the draw as a bluff, but as a regular practice it’s an expensive habit.
It’s very different in video poker. In most video poker variations, at least some inside straights are eligible to be held. Being “eligible” doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t a better option in the hand (such as a pair, a three-card straight flush, or sometimes a two-card royal flush), but it does mean that holding the inside straight is better than throwing everything away.
Why is it so different between the two games? Most variations of video poker are, after all, based on draw poker. The first explanation is that in video poker, your “ante” keeps you into the game until the bitter end. In live poker, not drawing to an inside straight means not matching someone else’s bet. If nobody else bets in live poker, of course you’ll draw to that inside straight if that’s your best option. In video poker, there are no intermediate bets to match, so sometimes drawing to the inside straight is your best bet.
The second reason we draw to inside straights in video poker is that we can figure the odds precisely in that game. If we complete the straight, we know how many coins we will earn. Computer programs can instantly evaluate each one of the 32 different possible plays on any hand, and sometimes the inside straight comes out on top.
All inside straights aren’t created equal. In dollar games without wild cards where you earn $20 for a straight and $5 for a pair of jacks or better (and there are a lot of such games), an inside straight with no high cards (like 2-3-4-6) is worth $1.70; an inside straight with one high card (like J-9-8-7 or A-2-3-4) is worth $2.02; an inside straight with two high cards (like Q-J-9-8) is worth $2.34; with three high cards (like K-Q-J-9) we’re talking about $2.66; finally an inside straight with four high cards (specifically A-K-Q-J) is worth $2.98. It is easy to conclude that each additional high card in an inside straight is worth 32¢.
Before we continue, let me give you a little puzzle. Assume you are playing dollar Double Bonus, where straights pay $25 instead of $20. If I tell you that 2-3-4-6 is worth $2.13 in that game, would you guess that A-2-3-4 was worth $2.45 (i.e. 32¢ more)? Higher than that? Or lower than that?
The answer is that A-2-3-4 is indeed worth $2.45 in that game. The extra 32¢ represents the value of the extra three chances to get a $5 high pair, in this case aces. The higher return on the straight is reflected in the $2.13 value for the inside straight without high cards instead of $1.70, but since the return for a high pair remains $5 in both games, each additional high card is worth the same 32¢.
In games where you get double your money back for two pair (such as Jacks or Better, Bonus Poker, and Aces and Faces), the general rule is that the only inside straights that are eligible to be held have three high cards (A-K-Q-T, A-K-J-T, A-Q-J-T, K-Q-J-9) or four high cards (A-K-Q-J). Inside straights with two or fewer high cards are not held in these games.
In games where you get even money for two pair and 4-for-1 for the straight (such as Double Double Bonus, Double Aces and Faces, Triple Double Bonus, Super Aces Bonus, Super Double Bonus, White Hot Aces, the lesser versions of Double Bonus, etc.) you hold more inside straights. In these games inside straights with two high cards (K-Q-T-9, K-J-T-9, Q-J-T-8 and Q-J-9-8) are eligible, along with inside straights with no high cards (2-3-4-6 through 6-8-9-T). Inside straights with one high card (J-9-8-7, Q-T-9-8 + A-2-3-4, A-3-4-5) are never held in these games.
Why do we hold more inside straights when the return on two pair is dropped? Let’s consider K-Q-T-9. The value of the inside straight doesn’t depend on how much you get for two pair, because when you draw one card to K-Q-T-9, it’s impossible to end up with two pair. But you do end up with two pair when you draw two cards to K-Q once every 23 times, and whether you receive $5 or $10 for two pair affects the value of K-Q by 22¢. This is enough to make a difference. The exact value of an unsuited K-Q varies on the return for the four of a kind, full house and three of a kind; but it is almost always greater than K-Q-T-9 when two pair returns even money, and it’s almost always less when two pair returns twice that.
The second question is, why isn’t an inside straight with one high card eligible to be held, when we already know that it’s worth 32¢ more than an inside straight with no high cards, which is eligible? This doesn’t make sense if we only concentrate on the value of the inside straight. To understand this we need to consider the value of the high card by itself. In 9/6 Double Double Bonus, for example, we learned earlier that the J-T-9-7 inside straight is worth $2.02. But the solitary jack in that game is worth $2.20. Yes the inside straight is too valuable to totally throw away, but there’s something else in the hand that is worth more.
The hints in this article are just that. Hints. They are reasonably accurate for players who play a lot of different games. The best players, however, learn exact strategies (or almost exact, anyway) for each game they play. The correct strategy for inside straights depends on the entire pay schedule.
As an example, consider the hand Ah Kc Qc Jd 9c. The best two choices are the suited K-Q-9 or the A-K-Q-J inside straight. When the flush returns at least 30 and/or the straight flush returns 500, hold the three-card straight flush. When the straight flush is 400 or less and the flush returns 25, hold the inside straight.
It would be simpler if there were hard and fast rules that applied for all different games. Unfortunately that’s not the case in video poker. But just following the rules presented today will improve the results of a lot of players.