WITH EXPERT PLAY
Every game has its own turning points on hands with royal potential
By John Grochowski
There’s nothing like a royal flush to make a video poker player’s day.
On a quarter machine it’s a $1,000 payoff if you bet five coins, and it’s a grand experience. I remember every detail of my first royal. My hands were shaking as I showed my wife the 10 $100 bills. It was a December trip, so back at home we had a great time walking up Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, purchasing holiday gifts with cash.
On most video poker games, royal flushes account for about 2 percent of the overall return.
With that in mind, progressive jackpots on royals can eat into the house edge in a hurry. Specifics change with our strategy from game to game, but as a rule of thumb you can add half a percent to a game’s payback percentage for each 1,000 coins added to the jackpot.
For example, 8-5 Jacks or Better, a 97.3 percent game with expert play and a 4,000-coin royal, becomes a 97.8-percent game with a 5,000-coin royal.
“With expert play” is a key phrase here, because the best play for many hands changes depending on the size of the royal flush jackpot.
Every game has its own turning points on hands with royal potential, where the best play becomes chasing the royal instead of holding a hand that leads to more lower-level winners.
Detailing those turning points for every video poker game and pay table variation would take an entire book. For now, let’s use one game that’s often been offered with a progressive jackpot – 8-5 Jacks or Better – to illustrate the kinds of adaptations players need to make.
Virtually any hand that contains a royal flush card has a break-even point beyond which it’s a more profitable play to go for the royal rather than make the usual strategy play.
However, many such plays come at jackpot levels you’re unlikely to see in casinos. Knowing that in progressive 8-5 Jacks or Better, the royal prize has to get up to 19,500 coins before we hold suited King-Queen-10 instead of three 10s is more of a trivia answer than a useful strategy guideline.
Another rarity: It’s possible you might see a jackpot of 11,412 coins – that’s $2,853 on a quarter machine, but it would be a surprise. Should you ever see the jackpot at that level, that’s the turning point for breaking up a King-high straight flush. The flat value of holding the straight flush is 250 coins, and the average return for holding suited 10-Jack-Queen-King is 250.4. It’s a rare jackpot level, a rare hand and a small advantage – you don’t lose much if you don’t know that play.
However, there are a number of hands that are much closer calls where the jackpot doesn’t have to be so high to reverse strategies. To give you an idea of the kinds of switches involved if you want to get the most out of progressive games, here are some 8-5 Jacks or Better hands where the strategy changes at less than 6,000 coins – $1,500 on a quarter machine.
At about this level, it becomes profitable to hold three cards to a royal instead of a high pair. For example, if you’re dealt suited King-Queen-Jack, another Jack and an off-suit 5, the breakeven point is 4,420 coins, or $1,105 on a quarter progressive. At that level, the average return is 7.6318 coins for a five-coin bet regardless of whether you hold the pair of Jacks or the suited K-Q-J.
The break-even point is higher when there is a gap in the royal flush cards of when an Ace is involved. Both of those circumstances limit the number of potential straights, and reduce the value of holding the three-card royal. So, for example, if you have Ace-King-Jack suited, another Jack plus an off-suit 5, the break-even point rises to 4,985 coins. When the jackpot reaches that level, holding the pair of Jacks and holding the three-card royal have the same 7.6318-coin expected value.
In a hand with a flush penalty card, suited King-10 becomes a better play than holding the King by itself. Dealt King-10-5 of diamonds, 9 of spades and 2 of clubs, the break-even-point is 4,580 coins. With the jackpot at that amount, the average return is 2.2849 coins regardless of whether you hold King-10 or just the King. With a lower jackpot, hold the lone King, and with a higher jackpot, hold King-10.
In a hand with a flush penalty card, suited Jack-10 becomes a better play than unsuited King-Jack. Given Jack-10-3 of hearts, King of diamonds, 6 of spades, the EV is 2.4252 on either Jack- 10 or King-Jack when the jackpot reaches 4,745 coins. At lower jackpots, the better play is King-Jack, and with bigger money in the pot, the better play is Jack-10.
Suited Queen-10 becomes a better play than unsuited Ace- Queen, if the hand has a flush penalty. Note even at a rollover value of 4,000 for a royal, suited Q-10 is the better play than unsuited A-Q if there is no flush penalty card in the original hand. Dealt Queen-10 of hearts, Ace of clubs, 6 of spades and 3 of diamonds, we’d hold Queen-10 at any jackpot level. However, switch that 3 from diamonds to hearts, and discarding it means fewer chances to draw a flush. That reduces the value of Queen- 10 just enough that Ace-Queen becomes the better play.
However if the jackpot gets big enough, it can raise the value of suited Q-10 enough that we revert to holding just those two cards even if it means discarding a flush penalty. In the specific hand listed above – Q-10-3 of hearts, Ace of clubs, 6 of spades – the breakeven level is 4,950 coins. At that level, Q-10 and A-Q both have an EV of 2.3660.
If your mixed suits A-K-Q-J also includes and 9 or a flush penalty, this is the level where it becomes the stronger play top to hold suited Q-J. With suited Queen-Jack to go with King and Ace of different suits plus an off-suit 9, the precise turning point is 5,085 coins, with the same 2.9787 expected value for holding either suited Q-J or all four high cards.
Holding suited King-10 becomes a better option than holding unsuited Ace-King. Dealt King-10 of diamonds, Ace of clubs, 6 of spades, 3 of hearts, holding either Ace-King or King-10 is worth an expected value of 2.3660 coins when the jackpot hits 5,310. Ace-King is the stronger play at lower jackpots, King-10 at higher totals.
Suited Jack-10 becomes a better play than unsuited Queen-Jack. With Jack-10 of hearts, Queen of diamonds, 6 of spades, 3 of clubs, it’s break-even at a 5,900-coin jackpot, with EVs of 2.4844 on either suited Jack-10 or unsuited Queen-Jack.
Beyond that, we’re getting into jackpots of 6,000 or more coins and hair-splitting decisions you’ll rarely need to make. And remember, the turning points listed here apply specifically to 8- 5 Jacks or Better. I know of no guide to turning points on all games or pay tables, so players who are serious about progressive strategies will have to do some legwork on software such as WinPoker or Video Poker for Winners.
The turning points for holding three suited high cards vs. a high pair or King-10 vs. a King alone won’t be precisely the same on 8-5 Double Double Bonus Poker or 9-6-4 Double Bonus Poker as on 8-5 Jacks or Better, but hands such as those are where to start looking.