The Video Poker Machine

Almost all video poker machines in use today are variations on five-card draw poker. Attempts have been made to introduce machines based on seven-card stud, and a few machines based on five-card stud are in use. But five-card draw is the basic game, and Jacks or Better is the game by which most varieties are based.

There is no dealer's hand or no other player's hand to beat; payoffs are strictly according to a pay table posted on the machine. The lowest winning hand is a pair of jacks or better (a pair of queens, kings, or aces).

Each machine features a video screen on which the images of cards are dealt. Winnings are usually compiled as credits, which the player may cash out at any time, and the credits are also displayed on a meter on the video screen. On some machines the pay table will also be on the screen; on others, the pay table is painted on the machine's glass.

Below the screen is a console that includes a bill validator. Players slide in currency, and credits then appear on the screen. Usually, on the left are buttons marked "Cash Out" and "Bet One Credit"; in the center are five buttons, one corresponding to each card dealt, marked "Hold/Cancel"; to the right is one button marked "Deal/Draw" and one marked "Bet Max."

Play begins when the player pushes the buttons to bet and deal. Most machines accept up to five coins or credits at a time. If the player hits Bet Max, the machine will deduct five credits and deal the hand.

Once you've made your bet, five cards are dealt faceup on the screen. You have the option of holding or discarding any or all of the cards. To hold, push the Hold/Cancel button corresponding to the card you've chosen. You may hit the same button again to cancel the hold decision.

After you make all your hold decisions, you push the Deal/Draw button. All cards not held will then be discarded, and new cards will be turned up to take their places. These five cards are the final hand. The machine compares that hand to the pay table, and if the hand is a winner, the corresponding number of credits are added to the meter.

Until recently, some video poker machines called for the player to push a button to discard a card rather than to hold it. That caused some confusion for players moving from one type of machine to the other. Today, "HOLD" buttons are standard, though a few older machines of the "DISCARD" type remain in use.

The Pay Table

The version of Jacks or Better regarded as full-pay, returning 99.5 percent with optimal play, is commonly referred to as a 9-6 machine, from the 9-for-1 payoff for a full house and 6-for-1 payoff on a flush. The full table for a 9-6 machine, with returns for one coin played, is as follows: Pair of jacks or better, 1; two pair, 2; three of a kind, 3; straight, 4; flush, 6; full house, 9; four of a kind, 25; straight flush, 50; and royal flush, 250.

With one exception, payoffs are proportional to the number of coins played; that is, three of a kind returns three coins with one coin played, six for two, nine for three, 12 for four, or 15 for five. The exception comes on a royal flush, which pays 250 coins for one, 500 for two, 750 for three, 1,000 for four, but on the fifth coin jumps to a return of 4,000 coins.

Casinos usually change the machines' payout percentages by lowering the payouts on the flush and full house. In many casinos throughout the United States, 8-5 machines, paying 8-for-1 on the full house and 5-for-1 on the flush, and 7-5 machines are offered instead of the 9-6 games. With optimal play, an 8-5 machine yields 97.9 percent; the 7-5 machine pays 96.2 percent.

Full-pay 9-6 machines are most common in Nevada, but they can be found in Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri -- indeed, nearly anywhere there is competition for players. Even in Nevada, some casinos offer the 8-5 pay table, sometimes even alternating 9-6 and 8-5 pay tables at the same bank of machines. Be sure to read the pay table before sitting down to play. If you are in an area with several casinos within walking distance, do not settle for a pay table that is below the standard for the area.

The best Jacks or Better machines ever offered were 10-6 and 9-7 machines at a casino in Las Vegas. Both versions carried payout percentages of more than 100 percent for optimal play, a fact the casino proudly trumpeted with signs on every machine. Of course, the casino didn't lose money on these machines -- most video poker players aren't skilled enough to play at optimal level.

One caution: Even a skilled player on 100-percent-plus machines will have more losing sessions than winners. Those percentages assume that over the long haul the player will hit a normal share of royal flushes with full coins played. Royal flushes are expected about once every 40,000 hands -- about once every 80 hours of play. There are no guarantees, however. Without a normal number of royal flushes, or if fewer than the maximum number of coins are played, the payout percentages will be lower.

I know what you're thinking, "Tell me how to win!" Well, in the next section, you will find strategies take some of the chance out of your gambling.