Jacks or Better Video Poker Guide

Video Poker Strategy Guide
Video poker is one of the most successful and popular games ever invented. After 30 years, the original Jacks or Better variety is still a favorite, probably because the house edge is less than half of a percent! Video poker came about in the 1970s when Si Redd’s little company in Sparks, Nevada, introduced Draw Poker. The original game was slow and clunky, but as technology grew, so did SIRCOMA, and his company became today’s International Game Technology. Much of the company’s early success was due to video poker’s popularity.

In the late 1980s, the game became a cultural phenomenon, with players spending hours mesmerized by their video screens. Most of that early interaction and addiction centered on the first real game, Jacks or Better. The name signifies that winning payoffs start with a five-card draw hand of at least a pair of jacks. Higher hands offer higher payoffs, and unlike the first poker machines that offered just 1,000-coin jackpots, today’s machines pay 4,000 coins for a royal flush.

Also, some video poker games are linked together and offer a progressive jackpot. A 25-cent machine pays $1,000 for a royal flush, but in the 1980s, with many machines linked together in bars and other locations, jackpots often rose to more than $2500. Popularity was sky-high. Over time, new variations of video poker like Joker Poker, Deuces Wild, and Double Bonus were introduced. Triple Play came along later with a player option to play three simultaneous hands on the same machine.

Through all the changes and competition, Jacks or Better has remained the original and most popular game. And there are good reasons for the player loyalty. To begin with, it’s a game that can offer a return of 99.5% to the player. That’s terrific. To get that pay-off, you’ll have to follow the optimal strategy I’ll show you later. Another advantage of Jacks or Better is that it offers lower volatility in payoffs than other video poker games. That makes a difference in your cash flow or bankroll. Games with other high payoffs like Deuces Wild and Double Double Bonus have sneaky ways of making those payoffs.

When you play Deuces Wild, payoffs start with three of a kind, not a pair of jacks. Similarly, at Double Double Bonus, payoffs do start at a pair of jacks, but the payoff for two pair isn’t 2 to 1; it’s the same as for a pair of jacks. Hmm, that’s not bad. It’s just tougher on your bankroll and causes more variance. If you are rich, the variance won’t make any difference to you. That would be nice! For myself, I’m not rich. I gamble for fun and excitement, and I try my best to get a fair shake as often as possible.

Poker Cards
How to Play Jacks or Better Video Poker

Video poker is based on the poker game of five-card draw, but it is unlike the card game, where there is a pot to strive for, and the best hand wins. In video poker, a player makes a wager, usually five coins, and is dealt five cards. They may hold any or all cards or discard as many as five cards and draw new ones. To win, the player must make a final hand of at least a pair of jacks. Payoffs are shown at the top of the video screen and following this introduction.

If you bet five coins and make a high pair (jacks or better), you’ll get five coins back. Not exactly a win, but it’s better than nothing. The hands listed are the same as in a standard poker game with a deck of 52 cards and no jokers. Two pair pays 2 for 1 and is designated by any two pairs, such as K-K-8-4-4. If you are dealt that hand, you would hold the K-K-4-4 and discard the 8, trying to improve to a full house.

Any hand with three of a kind pays 3 for 1, regardless of whether you start with that hand or draw cards to make the final combination. A straight is any five cards in sequence, such as A-2-3-4-5 or 7-8-9-10-J. They can be of any mixed suit, and the payoff is 4 for 1. A hand such as 3-4-5-6 is called an open-ended straight since you can make your hand by catching a card on either end with a 2 or a 7.

A gut-shot or close-ended straight draw is a starting hand like 5-6-7-9. To make the straight, you’ll need to catch an 8. A flush is any five final cards of the same suit, such as 3-6-8-9-Q of clubs. Making a flush pays 6 for 1. The next-best hand is a full house. You’ll be paid 9 for 1 when you get three of a kind and a pair, such as 2-2-7-7-7. If you make a hand like 2-7-7-7-7, you’ll have quads. You’ll get paid 25 for 1 when you make four of a kind.

The next biggest payout is for a straight flush. To win the 50 for 1 payoff, you’ll need to make a straight and a flush at the same time! That means your hand will have to be similar to 2-3-4-5-6 in a single suit. The biggest payout in video poker is for a royal flush, which is also the highest straight flush. You’ll only win the 4,000-coin payoff when you hold A-K-Q-J-10, all in a single suit.

It doesn’t matter what the order of the cards is on a video poker screen. You’ll be paid the same, even if they are mixed up. However, occasionally you’ll find a casino that offers a bonus for a sequential royal flush. The payoff for a sequential royal flush is usually 10,000 for 1. I’ve seen super jackpots or 10k on machines at the Palazzo in Las Vegas, the Atlantis in Reno, and in the past at online sites like Bovada and Jackpot City. You may have to search around, but the added payoff sounds fun.

What you can expect for payout hands on a Jacks or Better 9/6 video poker machine:

Hand Payoff Combination Probability Return
Royal Flush 800 41,126,022 0.000025 1.9807%
Straight Flush 50 181,573,608 0.000109 0.5465%
Four of a Kind 25 3,924,430,647 0.002363 5.9064%
Full House 9 19,122,956,883 0.011512 10.3610%
Flush 6 18,296,232,180 0.011015 6.6087%
Straight 4 18,653,130,482 0.011229 4.4918%
Three of a Kind 3 123,666,922,527 0.074449 22.3346%
Two Pair 2 214,745,513,679 0.129279 25.8558%
Jacks or Better 1 356,447,740,914 0.214585 21.4585%
All Other 0 906,022,916,158 0.545435 0.0000%
Total 1,661,102,543,100 1.000000 99.5439%

This payoff table shows all the possible combinations of video poker. The table is based on 9/6 payout, meaning that you receive 9 coins back for each wagered on a full house and six coins back for each wagered on a flush. You’ll hit two pairs a huge amount of the time. And your payout for that hand will be nearly 26% of your total returned while playing. That helps reduce variance, as you will get a small winning amount back quite often, as compared to getting just even money on two pairs at other games.

This full-pay table is treasured by players. Because gaming jurisdictions usually only require an 80% payback on video and slot machines, it may be hard to find. So, note it in your gaming journal, a pack of smokes, or store it somewhere in the back of your mind so that you can return to the good life from time to time. Online, I’ve found this full-pay game at some Playtech sites, as well as some that use Microgaming software. In Las Vegas, it’s hard to find on the Strip, but there are games at other places in the city.

Station Casinos has this pay table at many of their casinos, including Palms, Red Rock, Boulder Station, Palace Station, Sunset Station, Texas Station, and Santa Fe Station. They are out there! Keep in mind that although the game has a great payback, your “luck” will have a lot to do with your results. That doesn’t mean varying from the best strategy; it means that when you are playing any gambling game, especially one that has a high payoff jackpot like video poker at 4,000 coins, it can be a long time between big hits.

If you look back at the payback table, you’ll see that the amount you receive over hours and hours of play is dictated greatly by the pair and two-pair hands. And while the royal flush is only about 2% of your total return, it will be your savior and catch you up for a lot of losses along the way. That’s what creates a variance, so you will still have times when you seem to be running bad because you can’t make any decent payoffs.

Gambling is a funny animal. I have friends who played video poker for a living when progressive jackpots were more plentiful, and one year, a single player hit 55 royal flushes, while most of us hit only a couple dozen. Did he have a trick? You could call it good luck, which it was, but it all comes down to variance. Over the next few years of play, I’m sure his results came back closer to the norm. That’s gaming.

Poker Cards
The Best Video Poker Advice

My first piece of advice is to always look for the best pay tables. When you play Jacks or Better, you’ll find plenty of machines, from IGT Game King to Bally Game Maker, and other suppliers. But what you’ll find most of the time is a payoff that is lower than 9/6. That wouldn’t keep me from playing, but I’d play more often with the best odds, wouldn’t you? Most of these odds are better than playing a game like roulette or Three Card Poker, so video poker isn’t bad. Just keep in mind that you’ll get a lot more hands at the slots and video poker than at a table game.

In fact, you can play quickly and get as many as 300 hands per hour at video poker. Because of this, the game can be as expensive to play per hour as games like roulette with a slower pace and a higher house edge.

9/5 Jacks or Better

In this game, the payoff for a flush is reduced from 6 to 5. The reduction results in a maximum payout to the player of 98.45%.

8/6 Jacks or Better

At 8/6 Jacks or Better, the payoff for a full house is reduced from 9 to 8. That takes the maximum payout to the player down to 98.39%.

8/5 Jacks or Better

This game reduces both the full house and the flush payoff. You’ll get 8 for a full house and just 5 for a flush. Your maximum payout then becomes 97.30%.

7/5 Jacks or Better

At 7/5 Jacks or Better, a full house pays 7 credits, and a flush pays 5 credits per coin wagered. The maximum payout to the player falls to 96.15%.

6/5 Jacks or Better

The 6/5 Jacks or Better payout is found in many casinos these days. It is even found at many online casinos where I think the payouts should be much higher. The maximum payout to players with this configuration is 95%.

Personally, I try to avoid both the 7/5 and 6/5 Jacks or Better games. I will play these games when they are attached to a progressive jackpot, which increases my percentage payback over the long term. The higher the jackpot, the better the payback. And the more likely I’ll vary my strategy to hit that royal flush. My second piece of advice is always to play the maximum number of coins it takes to hit either the 4,000-coin payoff for a royal flush or the maximum number of coins it takes to hit a progressive jackpot.

Now, you have to take that with a grain of salt. Some machines allow as many as 100 credits per hand. If you are playing a penny machine, perhaps that fits your budget. If you are on a 25-cent machine, that would be $25 per hand. Yikes. Play what you can afford, not what looks best! I only mention the maximum credits because if you are playing a progressive, it might take more than five. It’s your call.

Also, that royal flush payoff is only 2% of the overall payoff a machine makes, but you’ll need it to keep your payback percentage high. If you don’t, you can expect to take that 2% off the overall payback. That’s on you.

Poker Cards
Optimal Jacks or Better Strategy

There is a very good, easy strategy you can use in video poker in the beginner’s guide to video poker. However, if you want to get serious and follow the optimal strategy, it is listed below. Regardless of which strategy you follow, keep in mind that even full-pay Jacks or Better video poker machines hold a lot higher percentage than the .5% the optimal strategy offers. Why is that?

The answer lies again in the murky world of variance and what gamblers believe about luck and skill. Well, that and the fact that most players don’t play anywhere near the best they can. Bad play is costly. That’s the bottom line. Play on hunches, and you can expect Jacks or Better video poker to return about 92% to you. Play less than maximum coins, and the house edge comes closer to 10%. It’s fun, but winning is much better!

Here are a few examples where players make mistakes. The first has to do with a low pair below Jacks and a straight draw.

A Low Pair and a Straight Draw

Suppose you are dealt 4-4-5-6-7. Your pair of threes won’t pay a dime if you don’t improve, and you’ve got an open-ended straight draw. What should you do? According to our optimal strategy, a non-paying low pair (twos through tens) has a higher overall return than an open-ended straight. How can that be, you might ask?

The answer lies in the fact that while the straight will pay 4 coins (20 total) when it hits, you’ll only draw the card you need eight times out of the remaining 47 unseen cards. On the other hand, if you dump the 5-6-7 and draw to your pair of fours, you’ll make two pairs quite often. And you’ll be able to make trips, a full house, and the occasional four of a kind. When all those possible hands are averaged out, the correct decision of keeping the small pair will pay you almost 25% more than drawing at the straight.

This example is shown below by comparing #16, the low pair, to #21, the straight draw.

A Low Pair and a Flush Draw

Now suppose you are dealt that same pair of fours with a four-card flush draw. Now, what’s the best strategy? To start with, a flush pays better than a straight, 6 coins to just 4. Plus, you’ll make a flush more often in the 47 tries outlined above. Instead of making your hand eight times, you’ll make it nine times.

With those improved odds and payoffs, you’ll want to keep the flush draw and toss those measly fours. Check the list below, and you’ll see the flush draw is listed higher, at #14, compared to the low pair at #16.

Guaranteed Payoff Versus a Big Draw

Sometimes the payoff is more dramatic than making a straight. Suppose you get a guaranteed winner in the form of a pair of jacks. However, your total hand is the jack of hearts with a ten, jack, queen, and king of spades. Now you’ve got a four-card draw at a royal flush. Should you toss the guaranteed payoff of the pair of jacks or toss the jack of hearts and go for the big payoff?

In this case, you’ll want to draw to the royal flush and the 4,000-coin payoff. Along the way, you’ll have a chance to make a straight flush if you catch a nine of spades, a flush if you catch any other flush, and a straight if you catch a different nine or a non-spade ace. You’ll also get paid if you pair your jack, king, or queen. With all those payoffs, it is always best to toss a high pair when you have a one-card draw at a royal flush.

If you have three cards to a royal flush with a high pair, you should go ahead and draw three to the pair. On the other hand, if you have a low pair and a royal flush draw, toss the little pair and draw to the big bucks. If these examples make sense to you, the optimal strategy shown below will too. You will always draw to the biggest hand possible from the highest listed hand on the list.

Rank Combination
1 Royal flush
2 Straight flush
3 4 of a kind
4 4 cards to royal flush
5 Full house
6 Flush
7 3 of a kind
8 Straight
9 4 to straight flush open ended (queen high)
10 Two pair
11 4 to straight flush inside draw
12 High pair (jacks, queens, kings, or aces)
13 3 cards to royal flush
14 4 cards to flush
15 10 J Q K
16 Low pair (two through tens)
17 9 10 J Q
18 8 9 10 J
19 9 J Q suited
20 9 10 J suited
21 Open-ended straight draw (highest card a ten)
22 8 J Q suited
23 3 to straight flush – open ended (highest card a ten)
24 9 Q K suited, 9 J K suited
25 9 10 Q , 8 10 J , 8 9 J suited
26 J Q suited
27 J Q K A
28 J K suited, Q K suited
29 J A, Q A, K A suited
30 4 to straight inside (three high cards)
31 3 to straight flush – two gaps and one high card
32 3 to straight flush – one gap and no high card
33 JQK
34 JQ
35 10 J suited
36 JQ, JK
37 10 Q suited
38 JA, QA, KA
39 10 K suited
40 One high card – jack, queen, king, or ace
41 3 to straight flush two gaps and no high card
42 Five low cards, no straight or flush draw – redraw all five cards

Poker Cards
A Few Final Thoughts

What the strategy above insists is that you see what you are dealt, find the highest part of it on the list, and play from there. In other words, if all you have is five unsuited, unconnected low cards, you discard them all and draw five new cards. The next-worst starting hand is three cards to a straight flush with two gaps (a double gut shot) and no high cards. That would be something like 2-4-6 of diamonds with an 8 and a 9. It’s not much better than a single high card and no straight or flush draw.

If all you have is two small cards and J-Q-K (#33 on the list), you discard the two small cards. But if you also have a small pair, you discard the J-Q-K since the small pair is a higher start (#16 on the list). This list might sound tough to memorize, but after playing a bit and consulting your list from time to time, it will become second nature, and you’ll do great.

The final note is that although you might not be able to find the perfect 9/6 machine, you can always enhance your return by joining the casino players club. Most large casinos in the US and Canada offer complimentary rooms, food, and beverages for players. In Las Vegas, most casinos comp at 1 point per $1 in action. 1,000 points equals $10. If you are playing 25-cent video poker, your comp total for an hour of play with 300 hands played will be about $3.75. If you find a good 9/6 Jacks or Better video poker machine with the standard 99.5% payback, you’ll get more than 100% payback with your comps. It doesn’t get much better than that!