When I write about slot machines, I almost always suggest switching to video poker. Strategy matters in video poker more than almost any other casino game.
In fact, video poker has much in common with blackjack, which is the first post I wrote in this “10 basics of casino strategy” series. Not only does it offer some of the best odds in the house, but the decisions you make have a direct effect on your bottom line.
But the role of skill in a gambling game is a two-edged sword. If you make mistakes, those mistakes will cost you money.
I like that, though. I want my decisions to matter.
Here’s how to get the most out of your video poker bankroll and maximize your chances of walking away a winner.
1- Understand and Acknowledge the Differences between Video Poker and Slot Machines
A slot machine gives the house a mathematical edge by paying out prizes at odds lower than the odds of winning. In fact, this is how all casino games work. If you have 5 to 1 odds of winning, the casino is probably going to pay you 4 to 1 or 3 to 1 for winnings.
It’s easy to see how the casino makes money doing that.
The problem with slot machines is that you have no way of calculating how big or small that house edge is. That’s because you have no way of knowing what the probability of getting each of the symbols is.
To my way of thinking, this makes slot machines relatively dishonest when compared with other casino games. With roulette, I know that the odds of winning a single number bet are 37 to 1. And I know that the payoff is 35 to 1. So I can calculate how big an edge the house has.
But the way slot machine random number generators are programmed, you don’t know the probability of getting a particular symbol on a reel stop. Some of the symbols might be programmed to come up 1.8 of the time, while others might come up 1/16 of the time.
To make things even more abstruse, slot machines can look identical on the outside but have different odds on the inside. You could be playing a Wheel of Fortune slot machine where the Wheel of Fortune symbol is programmed to come up 1/16 of the time. The Wheel of Fortune machine immediately next to it might have programmed that symbol to only come up 1/24 of the time.
A video poker symbol, on the other hand, corresponds to a playing card. And the random number generator is programmed to duplicate the probability of a deck of cards. The probability of getting any specific card in a deck is 1/52.
With that information, you can compare the probabilities of winning with the payouts to determine the payback percentage for the machine.
The other major difference is that you have decisions to make in video poker that affect this payback percentage. Make good decisions, and the payback percentage goes up and the house edge goes down. Make bad decisions, and the opposite happens.
Most slot machines have a house edge of at least 8%. Most video poker games have a house edge of less than 5%, and some of them even get under 1%.
And if you’re skilled enough at playing and finding the right pay tables, you can play video poker games where you have an edge over the casino.
Understanding all this is the 1st step to becoming a winner.
2- Learn to Read a Video Poker Pay Table
A video poker pay table lists the possible hands along with the payout for each hand. These payouts are done as a “x for 1” rather than as an “x to 1” payout. You lose the amount of money you put into the hand instead of getting it back.
Here’s the difference:
If a bet pays off at 5 to 1, you get to keep your 1 unit that you bet, so your net profit is 5 units.
On a video poker pay table, there’s a column on left listing the possible hands. These are based on the stand poker hand rankings, but there are some differences. Usually, this list will look like this:
- Royal flush
- Straight flush
- 4 of a kind
- Full house
- 3 of a kind
- 2 pair
- A pair of jacks or higher
Then you have columns based on the number of coins you bet: 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. The payoffs for each of those are listed.
On every video poker machine I’ve ever seen, you get a bonus payoff for the royal flush if you’re playing for 5 coins per hand. The payoff, if you’re putting 4 coins or less, is usually 200 for 1 or 250 for 1, but when you’re betting 5 coins, you get 800 for 1 instead.
That’s one of the first tenets of video poker strategy, by the way—always bet 5 coins.
You don’t have to be able to calculate the probability of getting each hand. Other people smarter than you and I have already done the work for us.
Just understand that when you multiply the probability of getting that hand by the payout for that hand, you get the expected value for that hand. Add all those together, and you have the payback percentage for the game.
The probability of getting a pair of jacks or higher is about 21.5%. The payoff is 1 unit, so the expected value for that hand is 0.215. The probability of getting 2 pairs is 12.9%, but the payoff is 2 units, so the expected value for that hand is .258.
In some games, the pay tables only change on 1 or 2 hands, so you can differentiate the better games from the worse games.
The best example of this is Jacks or Better, which I cover in detail in the next post.
3- Start by Specializing in Jacks or Better
Jacks or Better is the most basic video poker game. It pays off at 800 for 1 for a royal flush, and you get even money if you get a pair of jacks or better.
The 2 critical hands on a Jacks or Better pay table are the full house and the flush. They pay off at 9 for 1 and 6 for 1 respectively on a full pay game.
If you play a full pay Jacks or Better game with perfect strategy, the payback percentage is 99.54%. This means the house edge is 0.46%, which is better than most modern blackjack games.
But not all Jacks or Better games offer this pay table. In fact, it’s unusual. You’re more likely to find a game with an 8/6 or and 8/5 payout for those hands. In those cases, the payback percentage drops to 98.39% or 97.3% respectively.
That might not sound like much of a difference, but let’s look at it in terms of how much you can expect to lose per hour of play.
To calculate that, you multiply the house edge of the game by the total amount of money you put into action each hour. If you’re playing for $5 per hand on a Jacks or Better game, you’re probably putting $3000 into action per hour.
With a house edge of 0.46%, you’re only expected to lose $13.80 per hour.
But with a house edge of 2.70% (which is what you face with an 8/5 machine), you’re expected to lose a whopping $81 per hour.
See what a difference a small change in a pay table makes?
But you should start by learning to find full pay Jacks or Better games and play them with perfect strategy.
4- Learn How to Find the Best Games with the Best Pay Tables
Where can you find such games?
You could just go to a random casino and look at the individual machines there. That could take a lot of time, but it might be fun wandering through there.
You could also find a website that lists what games and pay tables are available at specific casinos in specific cities. The most comprehensive directory for that information I can find is at vpFREE, which used to be a Yahoo discussion group.
Just keep in mind that these listings are current when the site publishes them, but they’re user-generated, so they could include mistakes. Casinos also change what machines they have on the floor, too.
But vpFREE is your best starting point.
5- Play with a Sufficiently Large Bankroll
Your goal when playing video poker is to get a royal flush. That’s 4000-unit payout, and it’s a surprisingly large part of your of payback percentage.
But you’ll only see a royal flush once every 40,000 hands.
Most video poker players get in about 500 hands per hour, so you’re looking at maybe 80 hours of play before hitting your royal flush. It might even be longer than that—or you might hit it early.
But if you don’t have enough money in your bankroll to avoid going broke first, you won’t ever hit that jackpot.
That you have at least $600 or $700 in your bankroll if you’re playing the quarter machines at $1.25 per hand. If you’re playing for $5 per hand, you should have between $2000 and $3000.
You still risk going broke, but you have a lower percentage of it.
This is true whether you have an edge against the casino or not. If you’re confused about that, think about it this way:
You have $5. You play one hand of video poker with that. You have a 54.54% chance of seeing a hand that doesn’t pay out. If that happens, you go broke.
Naturally, if you had $10, you’d get 2 shots at it. You’d be less likely to go broke.
6- Maximize the Effects of the Players’ Club Card
Almost no video poker game offers a payback percentage of over 100%. Some get so close that you can combine the game with the rewards from a players’ club card to get a positive expectation.
Most people already know how the players’ club card works. It tracks the amount of money you’re running through the slot machines and video poker machines. Based on that, they then give you back 0.2% or so in the form of rebates and free stuff (comps).
If you’re playing a video poker game with a payback percentage of 99.95%, and you get 0.2% back in comps, the effective payback percentage for the game goes up to 100.15%.
How does that translate to dollars?
Find out in #7.
7- Be Satisfied with a Small Edge and Small Winnings
With an edge of just 0.15%, it’s hard to make a significant amount of money playing video poker. You can multiply your hourly action by 0.15% to get your expected profit per hour.
If you’re an average low roller playing for $1.25 per hand, you’re looking at $750 in action (600 hands per hour at $1.25 per hand.)
That’s 90 cents per hour.
If you’re playing for $5/hand instead, you’re looking at $3.60 per hour in earnings.
That’s not even minimum wage.
But I never promised you that you’d be able to earn a living from video poker, either.
When you compare the idea of losing money on a gambling game with the idea of winning money, the difference becomes more significant.
It’s not unusual to have an expected loss of $13/hour for a gambling game. Compared to earning 90 cents per hour, that’s a difference of $13.90.
And, truth be told, most of the casinos offering such generous pay tables limit them to the lower stakes machines. They don’t want you to earn a living from their video poker games.
You can also add the value of your free cocktails to your hourly expectation if that makes you feel better, too.
8- Branch Out into Other Games as Soon as You Can
Once you’ve mastered full pay Jacks or Better, it’s time to start looking at other video poker games. The most appropriate of these to start with are the Bonus Poker family of games. Double Bonus, for example, has a payback percentage of 100.15% when you play with perfect strategy.
The Bonus Poker games offer larger payouts for 4 of a kind hands. The amount of that additional payout is based on the ranking of the cards making up the 4 of a kind.
The main similarity Bonus Poker has with Jacks or Better is the lack of wild cards.
But if you like wild cards, you should also learn to play Joker Poker, which has an additional wild card in the deck. Deuces Wild is also popular, although the wide variation in pay tables for that one is confusing.
9- Be Careful of Online Video Poker Games and Games at Native American Casinos
Most online video poker games are just as legit as their land casino counterparts in terms of their random number generator.
But not all of them.
I remember one specific online casino that offered a couple of different video poker games that were actually just slot machines that looked like video poker. The random number generator did NOT emulate a deck of cards, and your decisions made no difference to your final result.
And some online casinos are just flat-out cheaters. I read about one customer who played several hundred hands of video poker without winning anything on even a single hand. That’s almost impossible—less likely than winning the lottery, in fact.
Worst of all, in those situations, you have no way of knowing what kind of payback percentage you can expect.
10- Let the Machines Deal You a Winning Hand
The correct strategy for each video poker variation is different. It can, in fact, vary based on the pay table.
But one thing they all have in common is that most of the time, if you’re dealt a winning hand, you’ll be reluctant to try to improve it. A bird in the hand is worth 2 in the bush.
This is true for most games and most situations, but the big exception is when you have 4 cards to a royal flush. If you have the choice of drawing to that hand while breaking up a hand that’s a sure winner, you should go for it.
The potential return is big enough in that case to make up for giving up on the sure thing.
Memorizing the exceptions to this rule is one of the key aspects to mastering video poker strategy.
The best place to learn video poker strategy is via Bob Dancer’s excellent series of video poker strategy guides.
Video poker might be my favorite game in the casino. I enjoy the mental challenge of making the right decisions on each hand. I like being the master of my own fate.
But winning at video poker isn’t something anyone can do just walking off the street and using some card sense. You need a big enough bankroll to avoid going broke, for one thing. You also need to understand the strategy well enough to get an edge (or at least minimize the house edge.)
This requires study and practice.
But even casual gamblers can enjoy video poker and face a lower house edge than they’d see at almost any other casino game.
They’re always a better deal than the slot machines.