32 ways to play a hand of poker

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In last week’s column, I explained a bit about the 32 different ways a video poker hand can be played. This accounts for all the different ways a player can discard 0 to 5 cards from a five card deal.

Each of these 32 ways is assigned an expected value by looking at every possible draw for that discard combination. Whichever of these 32 has the highest expected value is the right way to play the hand.

Now, if there was an app on your smartphone where you could plug in the five cards dealt to you – and assuming the casinos would actually allow the use of such an app – this is essentially what the app would do. It would look at your specific cards, calculate the expected value for each of the 32 and spit out the one that has the highest expected value. You would then discard the cards the app tells you to.

Maybe somebody has built this app, but as I said, you wouldn’t be able to use it in the casino. You obviously can’t calculate the expected value of each of the 32 ways in your head. So, what are you going to do to learn to play video poker the right way? That’s where a strategy table comes into play.

A strategy table lists all the playable hands in expected value order. So, way up at the top we have a Royal Flush with an expected value of 800. Not much decision making going on here. Just remember to hit all 5 “Hold” buttons! At the bottom we have the dreaded Razgu, which means discard all 5 cards. It doesn’t get any worse than this.

In between there are about 30 entries on our table. The exact number and definition of the entry is dependent on the type of video poker game you are playing (Jacks or Better, Double Bonus, Joker’s Wild, etc.) and the pay table. Changes in the pay table may have minor or large impacts to our strategy table. But more on this in a coming week.

The strategy table is important because this becomes our guide. Since the hands are listed in expected value order, from high to low, the goal is to play the hand you are dealt in the way that corresponds to the highest entry on the strategy table applicable to the hand.

This is easier than it sounds. Of the 32 ways you can play a hand, the human brain can quickly discard 28-31 of them. Rarely are there more than three ways that hand can realistically be played. You’re not going to discard a Three of a Kind to go for a 3-Card Flush!

So, you need to look at your 5-card hand and quickly decide the small subset of playable hands. Then you review the strategy table. Some casinos may allow you to bring in a printed strategy table. But, you’re best off memorizing one. It is much easier to do this than it sounds. Of the 32 entries, most are fairly obvious. You do not need to memorize the expected value of each hand. You only need to memorize the order of the hands.

You compare the possible ways your dealt hand can be played and compare it to the strategy table. You start at the top and work your way down. You stop when you hit a hand on the strategy table that exists within your 5-card dealt hand.

So, if as your scanning down the strategy table, you come to 4-Card Flush and your hand IS a 4-Card Flush, you can stop right there. If you keep going, you’ll see a Low Pair, which your hand may be as well. But this is meaningless as you play the hand that occurs first on the table as it will have the higher expected value.

In order to speed this up, it will be helpful if you study the strategy table and become familiar with the hands that occur frequently and the ones that are playable vs. not playable. You don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking a 3-Card Flush or 3-Card Straight is playable. But, 3-Card Straight Flushes are most definitely playable and probably the most overlooked hand that is dealt fairly often.

There are a variety of different software packages and/or apps you can use to practice the strategy. I strongly advise you to practice with no money until you have mastered the strategy. You’ll find this will be a lot easier on your bankroll.

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Elliot Frome is a second generation gaming analyst and author. His math credits include Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Mississippi Stud, House Money and many other games. His website is www.gambatria.com. Contact Elliot at [email protected].

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About the Author

Elliot Frome

Elliot Frome’s roots run deep into gaming theory and analysis. His father, Lenny, was a pioneer in developing video poker strategy in the 1980s and is credited with raising its popularity to dizzying heights. Elliot is a second generation gaming author and analyst with nearly 20 years of programming experience.

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