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Winning is Everything

Tips for playing video poker tournaments

By Henry Tamburin


What’s critical is not how much you win per round but rather ending up with more credits than your opponents have, even if it’s less credits than you started with.


When you play video poker, it’s you against the casino. You use the best playing strategy in games that will give you the highest expected return. Your goal each session is to end up with more credits (i.e., money) than you started with.

Video poker tournaments are different. For starters, it’s not you against the casino but rather you against your fellow tournament players. What’s critical is not how much you win per round but rather ending up with more credits than your opponents have, even if it’s less credits than you started with. (Get it?) Tournament play, therefore, requires a different strategy.

There are different rules and formats for video poker tournaments. What follows is a summary of the two most popular formats, and then tips that will improve your chances of finishing in the money.

First, here are some generalities about tournament play. Each tournament contestant pays an entry fee, which is the same for all tournament players. All the players will be given a specific amount of credits at the start of their round. Usually, you will see the starting credits on the bottom of your screen and there will be another counter that will record the amount of credits that you are winning on each round (i.e., unlike a regular video poker machine where credits played are deducted from your credit meter, in tournaments the counter for the winning credits will only increase). Casinos can install any video poker game they want on their tournament machines (ditto for the pay table, although usually the pay tables are liberal). Some tournament machines are programmed to always play the maximum five coins per hand (which you would want to do anyway so be sure you are always playing max coins per hand).

There are generally two types of formats for video poker tournaments: those based on a specific time limit (also known as speed tournaments), and those based on a specific number of hands played.


Timed (or Speed) Tournaments

VPTimeIsMoneyToonIn this tournament format, you have a specific amount of time (via a timer on the machine) to play as many hands as you can. (I’ve played in timed tournaments that lasted 5 minutes, some 10 minutes, and others 20 minutes). Your goal is to play as many hands as you can in the time allotted, which is why these tournaments are also known as Speed Tournaments. You want to play your hands quickly because completing even a few more hands than your opponents will give you a leg up on them.

I mastered three techniques before I played in a timed tournament, and I recommend you do the same. First, you need to practice using two hands (not only one hand) to press down on the draw/deal and hold buttons. By doing this, you will be able to play more hands than the majority of your opponents, who use only one finger to mash the buttons (or worse, the touch screen). Practice using two hands when you play video poker in a casino; yes, at first it may seem awkward but after a little practice you will be able to quickly using two hands to complete a hand rapidly. Remember: the goal is speed.

The second thing you need to master is to make your playing decision on every hand quickly. By using a software trainer on your home computer, you can practice quickly scanning the five cards in your hand and making a fast decision on which cards to hold. In the beginning, you’ll make a few mistakes when you try to play rapidly, but your goal is to play as many hands as you can in a specific period. (Remember s-p-e-e-d!)

Lastly, and probably the most important strategy tip I can offer you, is to use what I call the “go-for-the-royal” strategy. The reason I’m proposing this strategy is that in most of the video poker tournaments that I’ve played in, the players who finish in the money are the ones that have hit a royal flush (or four aces and a kicker if the game is Double Double Bonus). This means you should take an “all-or-nothing” approach when you play in a timed tournament, and on every hand, you rapidly hold the cards that could give you a royal flush and the big payout, rather than holding the cards that would give you a smaller payoff.

Let me give you some examples of the “go-for-the-royal” approach. If you are dealt 6-6-6-6-Q, you would hold only the Q and discard the four 6s. (Of course, you would never make this hold when you play video poker in a casino but your goal in tournament play is to go for the royal flush.) Likewise, with 10♥ Q♥ K♥ K♠ 5♦, you would hold the three-card royal rather than the high pair. Bottom line: with a go-for-the-royal strategy, you only hold cards in your hands that could give you a royal flush on the draw. If you have none, then you discard all five cards and draw new ones. (This “royal strategy” will improve your odds of hitting a royal flush from one in every 40,000 hands to one in every 23,000 hands.)

I realize that playing for the royal flush is an extreme strategy, and when you use this “all or nothing” approach, most of the time you will end up with nothing. However, look at it this way: having a low score of, say, 300 credits is no different from having a score of, say, 3,000 credits if you need a bigger score to wind up in the money.


Total Hand Format

In this format, you get to play a specific number of hands; therefore, speed is not important, playing accuracy is. (Some tournaments will also have a time limit so be sure you finish playing all your hands within the period.) In these tournaments, it’s important you know beforehand what game is being used in the tournaments, the pay table, and then you should master the game’s playing strategy. Practice at home on your computer with a software trainer that will keep track of your playing accuracy.


More Tips

You can use video poker training software to develop a go-for-the-royal playing strategy. Find out from the tournament director what the game will be on their tournament machines. Then call up that program on your software, set the royal flush to 4000 coins and all other pays to zero. The strategy that the software will generate will be for the go-for-a-royal strategy.

If the tournament consists of several rounds of play and each player’s points are accumulated, schedule you play for a later round then try to find out what the top scores were (ask the tournament staff or other players). By knowing what score you need to hit, you can adjust your playing strategy. (This is an important strategy tip!)

Make sure you read the tournament rules beforehand, and you know how many players move on to subsequent rounds, and what the prize structure is. (For example, if most of the prize money goes to the first place prize winner, a go-for-royal-strategy is even more important.)

Luck plays a large role in your outcome in each tournament because so few hands are played. However, if you continue to play in video poker tournaments using the above strategies, you have a better chance of finishing in the money in one of them.


Tamburin’s Tip of the Month

If you want to know which casinos are holding video poker tournaments in Las Vegas, use the video poker search function on Just click on Gambling Advisor on the home page, then Tournaments, and then use the drop menu to select Games (use the “other” category for video poker), and then Location and Dates. (You can also select an Invitational, Major, or Mini Tournament). One final tip: If you are a regular player at a specific casino and you know they are having a video poker tournament, ask a casino host to comp your entry fee (or if it’s an invitational tournament, to put you on the invite list).

Good luck!



Henry Tamburin is a blackjack and video poker expert. He is the host of the website and the editor of the Blackjack Insider newsletter (for a free three-month subscription, visit For a free copy of his Casino Gambling Catalog, which contains books, strategy cards, and software for casino players, call toll free 1-888-353-3234, or visit the web store at



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