In the early 1970s, when video poker was introduced and was still struggling for acceptance, the machines were usually referred to as "poker slots." And video poker has a lot in common with slot machines. They are easy to use, requiring no interaction with a dealer or with other players. Card combinations, like slot reels, are governed by a random-number generator.
But video poker adds something slot machines don't have -- an element of skill. Players have decisions to make that affect the outcome. And because cards are required to be dealt from a randomly shuffled 52-card deck -- or 53 cards, in the case of Joker's Wild machines -- the possible combinations are known, the frequency of the combinations can be calculated, and an optimal playing strategy can be devised. In fact, when Missouri riverboats opened under a law that forbade games of chance, casinos were allowed to offer video poker, as a game of skill, even though slots, as games of chance, had to wait until voters changed the law.
The best video poker machines, played skillfully, offer odds that rival any table game. The basic game, Jacks or Better, in its full-pay version returns 99.5 percent with optimal play over the long haul. Other machines, especially some versions of Deuces Wild, offer a positive expectation to the player -- that is, over the long haul, they'll return more than 100 percent with optimal play.
Why do casinos offer games that can be beaten? Because only a very small percentage of players know the basics of proper play. Enough mistakes are made that the casinos actually pay out 2 to 4 percent less than the expectation for skilled players. In competitive markets, casinos walk a tightrope between two choices -- offering a pay table so good that the best players can expect to make a profit in the long term, or offering lower pay tables and risk driving away the weaker players who are the casino's bread-and-butter customers. In less-competitive markets, where the demand for space to play is great, casinos will offer lower-paying machines because they will be played despite the low payoffs.
Enough Americans have an easy familiarity with the rank of poker hands that video poker has become one of the most popular casino games. As gambling markets mature and players become more experienced, the demand for video poker has tended to become stronger. In Nevada, casinos with a clientele of locals devote more than 50 percent of slot space to video poker, and there are video poker bars that offer few other gambling options. The major resorts that cater to tourists turn a lower percentage of space to video poker, about 10 percent to 15 percent. That's about the percentage you'll find in other United States gaming destinations. In Missouri, as soon as voters allowed games of chance, about 80 percent of slot space was turned over to reel slots.
In the early 1980s, Si Redd and his new International Gaming Technology entered into a licensing agreement with Bally's Manufacturing that gave IGT exclusive rights to manufacture video poker machines. Few people recognized the potential at the time, but that gave IGT the boost it needed to become Bally's main competitor in producing electronic gaming devices. Today IGT and Bally's both produce video poker machines, and their machines take up most of the floor space devoted to electronic gaming devices across the country.
If you're ready to join the video poker craze, you have found the right article. In the following pages, you will learn how to navigate the sea of buttons and flashing lights that is a video poker machine, as well as tips and tactics to come out a winner. Let's get started with a quick refresher on the winning hands in poker.
Rank of Poker Hands
All payoffs are based on five-card poker hands, which rank as follows:
Royal flush: Ace-king-queen-jack-10 all of the same suit (hearts, clubs, spades, or diamonds).
Straight flush: Five consecutive cards of the same suit; for example, 2-3-4-5-6, all of clubs.
Four of a kind: Four cards of the same rank; for example, ace of hearts, ace of spades, ace of clubs, ace of diamonds.
Full house: Three cards of one rank, two cards of another rank; for example, 3 of diamonds, 3 of hearts, 3 of spades, 6 of hearts, 6 of spades.
Flush: Five cards of the same suit; for example, ace, 10, 7, 4, 3, all of diamonds.
Straight: Five consecutive cards of mixed suits; for example, 2 of diamonds, 3 of hearts, 4 of diamonds, 5 of clubs, 6 of spades.
Three of a kind: Three cards of the same rank; for example, 6 of hearts, 6 of clubs, 6 of diamonds.
Two pair: Two cards of one rank, two cards of another rank; for example, ace of spades, ace of hearts, 7 of clubs, 7 of diamonds.
Pair of jacks or better: Two jacks, queens, kings, or aces.
Now that you know how to win, let's take a look at the device that you'll be playing on. Move on to the next section to learn the anatomy of a video poker machine.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For more information on video poker and general poker tips, try the following links:
- To see all of our articles on poker rules and advice, go to our main article on How To Play Poker.
- Whether you're playing a machine or eight guys with cigars, you'll be glad to know some Poker Basics.
- If you like your card games on a screen, you might enjoy learning How to Play Poker Online.
- There are other machines happy to take your money on the gambling floor. Be smarter than they are with some Casino Gambling Basics.