Video Poker Strategy

Most video poker players can improve their chances by following the few simple rules for holding or discarding the first five cards that they have been dealt:

Always hold a royal flush, straight flush, four of a kind, full house, three of a kind, or two pair. However, with three of a kind, discard the remaining two cards for a chance at four of a kind while leaving full house opportunities open, and with two pair, discard the fifth card for a chance at a full house.

Break up a flush or a straight only when you have four cards to a royal flush. That is, if you have ace-king-queen-jack-9, all of clubs, discard the 9 to take a chance at the big payoff for the 10 of clubs. That still leaves open the possibility of a flush with any other club, a straight with any other 10, and a pair of jacks or better with any ace, king, queen, or jack.

Break up a pair of jacks or better if you have four cards to a royal flush or four cards to a lower straight flush.

Keep a low pair instead of a single high card (jack, queen, king, or ace).

Do not draw to a four-card inside straight -- one in which the missing card is in the middle rather than on either end -- unless it includes at least three high cards. A four-card open straight is one that has space open at either end to complete the hand; for example, a hand of 4-5-6-7 can use either a 3 at one end or an 8 at the other to complete the straight. An inside straight has space in the middle that must be filled to complete the hand; 4-6-7-8 needs a 5 to become a straight. Open straights give the player a better chance, with twice as many cards available to fill the straight.

Optimal Strategy

Once you're used to the quick strategy, you may want to move on to a version that is more complex, but more accurate. Following is a strategy that is optimal for the common 8-5 and 7-5 Jacks or Better machines. It also varies only about a tenth of a percent from optimal on 9-6 Jacks or Better and for Bonus Poker machines.

Just as in the quick version, a few hands are never broken up. Obviously, if you're fortunate enough to be dealt a royal flush, you hold all five cards and wait for your payoff. (On payoffs this large, the machine will flash "Jackpot!" or "Winner!" In these cases the winnings will be paid by an attendant rather than by the machine. Do not put more coins in the machine or attempt to play another hand before you are paid for the royal flush.)

Also hold all five cards on a straight flush or a full house. Hold all four matching cards on four of a kind. Hold three of a kind while discarding the other two cards for a chance at either four of a kind or a full house. Hold both pairs in a two-pair hand, but discard the fifth card for a chance at a full house.

In the right circumstances, however, the player sometimes will break up a flush, a straight, or a pair of jacks or better. If you do not have one of the "always keep" hands, use the following list. Possible predraw hands are listed in order. Find the highest listing that fits your predraw hand, and discard any cards that do not fit the hand. For example, if your hand includes jack of spades, jack of diamonds, 10 of diamonds, 9 of diamonds, and 8 of diamonds, you have four cards to an open straight flush in diamonds, and you also have a pair of jacks or better. The four-card open straight flush is higher on the list than the pair of jacks or better, so you would discard the jack of spades and draw to the four-card straight flush. You are giving up the certain 1-for-1 payoff for a pair of jacks, but you have a chance at a straight flush with either a queen or 7 of diamonds, could draw a flush with any other diamond, or still could finish with a pair of jacks by drawing the jack of either clubs or hearts.

This strategy distinguishes between inside straights or straight flushes and open straights or straight flushes.

Remember, keep a royal flush, straight flush, four of a kind, full house, three of a kind, or two pair. Here is how other predraw hands rank:

1. Four-card royal flush. Note that you would break up a flush, a straight, or a high pair when you're missing only one card in a royal flush. But if you have a straight flush that runs from 9 through king of the same suit, take the straight flush payoff rather than chasing the royal. 2. Flush. 3. Straight. 4. Four-card open straight flush. The big difference in the payoff between a royal flush and a lower straight flush means that the only winning hand you break up to chase a straight flush is a pair of jacks or better, whereas you'd also break up a flush or a straight to chase the royal. There is no option to break up two pair. 5. Four-card inside straight flush. 6. Pair of jacks or better. Discard the remaining three cards. Sometimes players who are used to playing table poker want to keep a high-card "kicker" to the pair -- for example, holding an ace along with two queens. Don't hold a kicker in video poker; give yourself the maximum chance to draw a third high card, or even a full house or four of a kind. 7. Three-card royal flush. 8. Four-card flush. 9. Four-card open straight, two or three high cards. An example would be 9 of clubs, 9 of spades, 10 of clubs, jack of hearts, queen of diamonds. Throw away one of the 9s, and the remaining cards give you a chance at a straight with either an 8 or a king, and you also have a chance at either a pair of jacks or a pair of queens. 10. Low pair (two 10s or lower). Most new players keep a single jack or better rather than a low pair, and it's true that keeping that one high card will result in more frequent winning hands. But most of those will be 1-for-1 payoffs for a pair of jacks or better. Keeping the low pair will result in more two-pair, three-of-a-kind, full-house, even four-of-a-kind hands. 11. Four-card open straight, one high card. 12. Three-card inside straight flush with two high cards. 13. Three-card open straight flush with one high card. 14. Four-card open straight, no high cards. 15. Two-card royal flush, no Ace or 10. You won't hit the royal most of the time, but more possible straights can be formed with lower cards than with aces. And unlike other parts of a royal flush, the 10 leaves no potential high-pair payoff. So the two-card royal is a better play with cards in the middle than with aces or 10s. 16. Three-card double inside straight flush, two high cards. A double inside straight flush has both cards missing on the inside; for example, 8-jack-queen of clubs, where the 9 and 10 are needed. 17. Four high cards; ace, king, queen, and jack of mixed suits. The draw could match any of them for a pair of jacks or better or bring a 10 for a straight. 18. Three-card open straight flush, no high cards. 19. Two-card royal flush, including ace but no 10. 20. Four-card inside straight with three high cards. For example, king-queen-jack-9 of mixed suits; this is the lowest ranking inside straight we draw to. With any others that do not qualify elsewhere on the list, discard all five cards. With jack-10-8-7-3, you'd keep the jack (no. 26 on the list), but with 10-9-7-6-3, you'd draw five new cards. 21. Three high cards. 22. Three-card double inside straight flush, one high card. 23. Three-card inside straight flush, no high cards. 24. Two high cards. 25. Two-card royal, includes 10 but no ace. Note that we don't draw to two-card royals consisting of an ace and a 10. In that case, you would just keep the ace and discard the rest. 26. One high card. 27. Three-card double-inside straight flush, no high cards.

In any hand that does not fit one of the above categories, draw five new cards.

That's a pretty lengthy list for a beginner, but it can be shortened considerably by taking all those three card straight flushes -- open, inside, double inside, with high cards, without high cards -- and lumping them together just below four high cards. That'll cost you a few tenths of a percent, but when you're comfortable with the rest of the strategy, you can start breaking down the categories for more expert play.

Money Management

Two important points to remember: Don't overbet your bankroll, and if a machine is available at which you feel comfortable playing the maximum number of coins, do so. If you are sitting down to play with $20, you don't belong at a $1 machine that will take up to $5 at a time. It is better to play five quarters at a time than one dollar at a time. Though video poker machines pay back a high percentage of the money put into them, the payouts are volatile. It is not unusual to go five or ten or more consecutive hands with no payout. Don't play at a level at which you do not have the funds to ride out a streak.

While the saying, "The house always wins," is true for almost any casino game, video poker is one of the few exceptions. If you have patience and can follow the simple rules in this article, you may come out ahead for once.

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