For video poker, stick to strategy

Jul 31, 2018 3:00 AM

We now have less than six weeks to go until National Video Poker Day, which is Sept. 6 (9/6). I’ve spent this summer doing my best to bring my readers up to speed on the basics of video poker and why it is deserving of having its own day.

Video Poker is a relatively unique game that offers the player high paybacks, but requires a fairly detailed and complex strategy. Some have tried to criticize the concepts of Expert Strategy for just this reason. But, the reality is, there is no alternative.

The strategy for video poker is based on mathematical probabilities. Nothing else matters. There are no hunches or trying psych-out an opponent as in regular poker. You are not playing against anyone, not even the machine. The machine is just the mechanism that deals completely random cards. You will get the exact same results if you take a physical deck of cards and play at your kitchen table.

The notion of criticizing the complex strategy is absurd. It would be like criticizing a golfer for lining up his putt as opposed to just going up and hitting it. He may not make every putt, but he’s going to make more of them by properly preparing than by just guessing which way the green rolls.

I would argue learning video poker strategy is infinitely easier than learning how to putt. In putting, you must learn how and then you must physically execute. In video poker, you must simply learn the strategy. You can, within reason, take your time to make sure you play each hand correctly and there really isn’t much physical effort required to carry out what you want. In many cases, casinos may not care if you even bring the strategy chart into the casino with you.

This all being said, mistakes are inevitable. But not all mistakes are created equal. There are those you realize you made right after you hit the “draw” button. I had one of these this past week. I had a Low Pair and some High Cards. The Low Pair were separated on the screen and in my haste, I didn’t see them until I hit the draw button and my brain realized I had thrown a Low Pair.

A Low Pair has an expected value of 0.82. I don’t remember my exact hand, but 2 High Cards has an expected value of 0.49. Even if it was a 2-Card Royal at 0.58-0.60, I still made the wrong play.

The difference between these expected values is not nothing. If I repeatedly made this play wrong, my bankroll would feel it and I would likely shave a fair amount off the overall payback (taking into account the frequency of the hand occurring).

But, this was one hand out of hundreds per hour. If I were playing five nickels, my expected payback should’ve been just over 20 cents; instead I played it at more like 15 cents. The payback for this hand is reduced by 25 percent. But over an hour, I will play perhaps $150 and 5 cents out of this impacts the payback by 0.03 percent.

Another type of mistake a player might make is to take two very close hands and repeatedly make the mistake. Let’s say when the player has 3 High Cards and two are suited, he plays the 3 High Cards instead of the 2-Card Royal. The 3 High Cards has an expected value of 0.51. The 2-Card Royal will vary from 0.58 to 0.60 depending on the exact suited cards. So, he is costing himself about 0.08 in expected value. Now, we have to careful here.

We give payback numbers in percent but expected value in decimal form. A 0.08 difference in expected value translates to an 8 percent difference in payback. So, if a player were to make a 0.08 mistake on every hand, he would cost himself about 8 percent in payback. But that is not what is happening here. The 2-card Royal of the types I’m talking about happen about 6 percent of the time and not all will have a third High Card.

For argument’s sake, let’s say half of them do for a total of 3 percent of all of our hands. We multiply this frequency by our 8 percent to get a rough impact of about 0.25 percent of payback. This can increase the house advantage by 50 percent, but it is not devastating.

Finally, there is the type of mistake I alluded to earlier. If a player were to repeatedly play a 2-Card Royal over a Low Pair, the impact is 22 percent of payback. Low Pairs are nearly 30 percent of our hands. I honestly don’t know how many Low Pairs are also 2-Card Royals, but even if only 15 percent of them are, we have a total impact of almost 5 percent of our hands. But this time we multiply it by 22 percent and we arrive at more than one percent of payback reduction. Now we’ve tripled the house advantage and we’ve taken a strong game with a payback of 99.5 percent and brought it down to a more mundane 98.0 to 98.5 percent.

We are all human and are going to make mistakes. An occasional mistake here and there won’t make a huge impact on our bankroll. Keeping these types of mistakes to a minimum requires a thorough knowledge of the strategy and the smarts to keep a pace that avoids the mistakes. Playing wrong by not knowing strategy will almost assuredly cost you far more.