I like to think of video poker as a thinking man’s slot machine, but it’s so much more than that. It’s one of the most fascinating games in the casino, with some of the most interesting variations. You could spend your entire life learning the intricacies of VP and never get bored.
Even though most video poker games look a lot like slot machines, they’re a much better gamble in almost every day. You face better odds on a VP game if you know even a little bit about playing cards. You don’t even need to be all that familiar with the pay tables to pull that off.
You might have the idea that you can become a professional video poker player. I think that’s stretching it a little bit, though. That might have been true at some point in time, but the pay tables have changed through the years. And the games where you can get really good odds are usually only available in low stakes.
But if you’re a low roller who wants to have a lot of beating the casino—even for a small amount of money—video poker is perfect.
To pull that off, it’s helpful to know from the start how video poker really works:
The Truth about How to Play Video Poker Games
Most people already know something about poker, but that’s only partially helpful with video poker.
The hand rankings for poker are good to know, though:
- Royal flush
- Straight flush
- 4 of a kind
- Full house
- 3 of a kind
- 2 pair
- 1 pair
Those are in order of best hand to worst, and most video poker pay tables pay off based on how good your hand is. But in video poker, you’re not competing with anyone else—just the pay table.
A pay table in video poker resembles a pay table on a slot machine, but with some significant differences. For one thing, instead of having pictures of lemons and cherries, the machine shows pictures of playing cards. For another, the probabilities that underlie the game mimic the probabilities you’d see with a standard deck of playing cards. Some video poker games even add a joker. The implications of this are profound.
For one thing, you could theoretically calculate how much a video poker machine pays out if you played the game optimally. That’s impossible to do with a slot machine by the way.
To calculate a payback percentage for a gambling machine, you need 2 pieces of information:
- The probability of winning each prize
- The amount of those prizes
Slot machines give you the 2nd piece of data but not the first. You have no idea how likely it is that you’ll get a specific combination of symbols on a slot machine.
But we KNOW the probabilities in a deck of cards. It’s not something we can calculate in our heads, but with some brainy types with computers, we can come up with the payback percentage for a video poker game in short order.
I can get more into how the odds are calculated later in this post. First I want to spend some time explaining how to actually PLAY video poker. The first thing to do is pick your denomination. Most video poker games come in 25 cent games, but you can also find a lot of video poker games for $1.
But remember this:
You’re always going to play max coin on a video poker game, which means you’ll be betting 5 of that unit on every hand. The reason for this is because you get a much higher payout when you hit the jackpot if you’re betting 5 coins. (If you’re betting 4 coins or fewer, the payout for the top prize is 200 or 250 coins. When you’re betting the max, the payout is 800 coins. That’s a huge difference.)
This means if you’re playing a quarter machine, you’re betting $1.25 per hand. If you’re playing a dollar machine, you’re betting $5 per hand. And so on.
When you put your money in, the machine converts them to credits. You push the “BET MAX”button, and the video poker machine “deals” you a hand of 5 cards.
If the pay table is generous enough, in fact, you could be playing a game with an edge against the house—but only if you’re making the optimal playing decisions.
Then once you’ve decide which cards to keep and throw away, the machine deals your replacement cards and pays you off based on the poker hand and the pay table. It’s really that simple.
Anyone with a little bit of card sense can do pretty well at video poker, in fact. You don’t even have to memorize a strategy at most casinos to be playing a game with a house edge much lower than that of slot machines.
The Truth about Video Poker Variations
The most basic variation of video poker is called Jacks or Better. All other video poker games are based loosely on this version, and the variations are based on changes in the pay tables and in the wild cards available.
In Jacks or Better, the lowest possible paying hand is a pair of jacks or higher. That pays off at even money, but here’s an interesting distinction between gambling machines and table games:
When you place a bet on a table game, the payout odds are expressed as “x to y.” For example, if you bet $100 on a bet that pays 2 to 1, you get $200 PLUS your original bet back if you win.
The payouts in Jacks or Better video poker go up from there. You get paid off at 2 for 1 on a hand with 2 pairs, 3 for 1 for a hand with 3 of a kind, and so on.
On a Jacks or Better game, most of the variations are based on the payouts for the full house and the flush. On a “full pay” Jacks or Better game, the payoff for the full house is 9 for 1. The payoff for the flush is 6 for 1. They also call this a 9/6 Jacks or Better game.
If you play every hand optimally, you’ll see a 99.54% payback percentage for a full pay Jacks or Better game. This means that the house edge for the game is only 0.46%, making it comparable to blackjack in terms of favorability for the player.
You can also find 8/6, 8/5, and 7/5 Jacks or Better games. The payouts on all the other hands is the same in these variations, but the numbers divided by the “/” represent the payoffs for the flush and the full house. The overall payback percentages for these variations drop dramatically, too. But they’re still better than the average slot machine return to player, almost every time.
Like Jacks or Better, Bonus Poker uses no wild cards. If you find the right pay tables, Bonus Poker games can have higher payback percentages even than Jacks or Better. My favorites, though, are the games with wild cards. Joker Poker is the most obvious of these. It’s played with a 53 card deck, and one of those cards is a joker.
Deuces Wild is even more common. In this game, the pay tables look dramatically different, as the game has to account for the much higher average hand value. Like Bonus Poker, Deuces Wild often has some payback percentages over 100%–again, only if played with optimal strategy.
The Facts about How Video Poker Players Get an Edge over the Casinos
Expert video poker players learn how to recognize the best possible pay tables. They then also learn the optimal strategies for playing those games. Finally, they take full advantage of the slots club card. The cumulative effect of these strategies is to gain a payback percentage of over 100%.
That sounds easy, but it’s not as easy as you might think. Most casinos don’t offer video poker games with pay tables that generous. That’s obstacle #1. And learning the appropriate strategy can take a lot of time and effort. Most people still make some mistakes, too, and each mistake costs you in the form of payback percentage.
The stakes for these games with the edge over the house are always low. Let’s say you find a video poker game where you can get the payback percentage to 100.2% via the right pay table, the right strategy, and the use of the slots club.
How much money can you expect to earn on average at that rate?
You have a 0.2% edge. You’ll probably play 600 hands per hour on average. The machine will probably be a quarter machine, so you’ll be wagering $1.25 per hand, for $750 in total action.
Multiply those 3 factors together, and you get your mathematical expected hourly average win:
0.2% X 600 hands/hour X $1.25/hand = $1.50/hour
I don’t know of any job that pays $1.50/hour. So this is purely a recreational strategy. It’s an opportunity to go to the casino, enjoy some fun, and rather than lose money, walk away with a little money.
This is the approach promoted by Jean Scott, the author of The Frugal Gamber and Frugal Video Poker.
The Least You Need to Know about Video Poker to Play Intelligently
It’s beyond the scope of this blog post to provide a comprehensive treatment of video poker. Entire books have been written on the subject. If you’re interested in diving deeper into the subject, fire up your search engine and search for names like “Bob Dancer,” “Jean Scott,” and “Dan Paymar.”
They’ve all written excellent books about video poker that can take you to the next level as a video poker player.
You should also start by learning how to play Jacks or Better. This includes recognizing a full pay Jacks or Better game. Other pages on this site provide details about the various pay tables available in Jacks or Better game. Jacks or Better is the most plain vanilla version of VP you could play, but it’s almost essential to learn how to play it before trying games like Bonus Poker and Deuces Wild.
Finally, remember that VP is a game of skill. If you make bad decisions, your actual payback percentage won’t come anywhere near the theoretical payback percentage quoted on various VP websites and in various VP books. You can find any number of sites offering video poker strategy tables. In some respects, these resemble basic strategy in blackjack.
But instead of offering a chart cross-indexing your hand with the dealer’s hand, a video poker basic strategy chart lists hands in order or desirability. You just start at the top and work your way down until you find the highest hand on the list that matches what you have in your hand.
When you find that hand, you hold those cards, discarding the rest.
The strategy tables are built using thousands of simulated hands to determine the decisions with the best expected return. You’ll find some variation from one strategy chart to another, though, as these strategy charts sometimes sacrifice a little accuracy for playability.
You have 32 possible ways to play any given hand in video poker, but only one of them will have the highest expected return. It’s both harder and easier to play optimally than you might think.
Video poker is one of the best games in the casino. The house edge for video poker is far lower than most slot machines offer, and these games offer the details needed to calculate what the payback percentages for these games actually are.
But it’s a complicated game with a lot of variations. Becoming a real VP expert can take years of study. Luckily, you can easily get started by mastering Jacks or Better and moving on from there.
If you’re uninterested in blackjack, video poker might be the single best option for you.