Building a Straight can be a challenge

December 25, 2018 3:00 AM


Over the last few weeks, I’ve covered the subtleties of a strategy table for video poker. 

You have to review your dealt hand and figure out which cards you want to hold/discard. We do this by recognizing the partial hands out of the five cards that are dealt and determine which of these partial hands have the highest expected value. 

That is, over the long run, which will return the most money back to us. Adding to the challenges of playing your basic Jacks or Better video poker are that cards that have higher value than other cards – namely the cards that are Jacks or Better because they have the potential to become a High Pair.

Also, suited cards 10 and above have higher value if they are the only ones we keep because they have the potential to make a Royal Flush which has an outsized value to the overall payback.

As a result of these nuances, we occasionally find ourselves facing relative tough decisions. If dealt the following hand, what is the right play?





I think we can all agree that the 5 is being discarded. But do we play a 4-Card Straight, a 3-Card Straight Flush or a 2-Card Royal?

The question can’t be answered as asked because we need to know how many High Cards are in the 4-Card Straight and 3-Card Flush and what type of 2-Card Royal are we talking about.

The 4-Card Straight has two High Cards. The 3-Card Straight Flush has only one High Card. Neither is ‘inside’ as they are contiguous cards. 

The 2-Card Royal is a 10-J. So, now that we have properly identified the three possible playable hands, we go to the strategy table.

If we start at the top and work our way down, the first hand that matches one of the three identified is a 4-Card Straight with two High Cards. It has an expected value of 0.81. We can stop right there and play the hand this way. There is no need to look any further.

But, since at the moment you are reading this column and not actually playing, we’ll keep on scanning to see what we find. Three rows down we will find our 3-Card Straight Flush with One High Card with an expected value of 0.72. We’d have to scan pretty far down before we find the 2-Card Royal that is a 10-J. Its expected value is only 0.48.

In fact, the J-Q unsuited actually has a higher expected value at 0.49. We only play a 10-J suited if there is basically nothing else in the hand worth playing at all.

What if the QC was an 8C instead? Well, then the 4-Card Straight now with one High Card would still be played as it has an expected value of 0.74 and we find this right below the 4-Card Straight with two High Cards.

And if the QC was a KC? Then our hand would be defined as a 4-Card Inside Straight with two High Cards. It becomes an Inside Straight because we would now need a Queen to complete the Straight instead of an 8 or King.

The impact of this is to not only make the hand less valuable than the 3-Card Straight, it is not a Playable hand at all in Jacks or better. We need to have Three High Cards to consider playing an Inside Straight.

You don’t need to memorize the actual expected values. While it is a good idea to have some familiarity with them as well, as they do give you an idea of just how costly a mistake might be, they do not actually provide us with our decision. Only the order of the Strategy Table does that.

The full-pay Jacks or Better Strategy table has 36 rows on it. The good news is that about 25 percent of it are the very obvious pat hands. But there is no getting around the fact that in order to maximize your chances of winning at video poker you’re going to have to learn the rest of the strategy table order.

Virtually all books, including my own, will have the strategy tables for most of the popular games.