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I don’t peddle schemes for how to beat the house. I offer strategy on how to maximize the payback of each game. If you do this, you give yourself the best chance to win in the short run. There are also some games that give you a chance to eke out a small gain over the long haul.

The foundation to all of this is Expert Strategy. This involves three key components. Play the right games, know the right strategy and know what to expect. It doesn’t take a lot to learn which are the right games to play. Find video poker machines with full-pay paytables and you’ll be playing games at about 99% or better. When you throw in the comps and cashback, you’ll be very close to 100%. Again, with some of the games, you’ll be over 100%.

Learning the right strategy takes a good deal more work. This does not involve some sort of betting scheme that works 9 out of 10 times, but is a disaster the 10th time. Those betting systems have all been proven to be hoaxes thanks to the use of computers. Learning the right strategy for video poker is akin to learning when to hit/stick/double/split in blackjack. No one disputes that.

Sure, there are some people who count cards and go one step further. But no respectable blackjack player is going to tell you split to 10’s. They’ll tell you to hit that 16 looking into a 9, even though it means you’ll bust more times than anything else. They tell you this because the math dictates what to do.

If I were to tell you I created a program to simulate a particular blackjack hand one million times and it shows you’ll win that hand 55% of the time when you hit and only 42% when you stick, would you question what to do? Blackjack is a nearly binary game. You either win or you lose. When you win it’s even money (except blackjacks). About 90% of the time, the only wager in action is the original one. Explaining the right play is also relatively easy, it usually comes down to two, maybe three choices out of Hit/Stick/Double/Split/Surrender.

Video Poker is far more complex in nearly every respect. Technically, there are 32 different choices on every hand, ranging from keeping all five cards to discarding all five cards and everything in between. Realistically, there are only two, three or maybe four ways to play the hand. Adding to the complexity is that payouts can range from a push to paying 800-for-1. So, looking purely at win frequency doesn’t do us much good. We need to look at how much we win for each potential winning hand and what the probability of attaining that hand is.

We have a tendency to chase Royals because of their 800-for-1 payout. That’s why, if dealt three unsuited high cards where two are suited, we keep the two suited cards. We reduce our chances for a Straight, but increase (from zero) our chance of a Royal. Long odds, but worth it.

The good news is you don’t have to sit there and compute the probability of all the possible winning hands for all the possible ways you can discard cards. People like me have already done all the work, thanks to the help of a computer, calculating the results of playing each of the possible 32 ways you can draw on each of the 2,598,960 unique deals.

We know exactly how many Royals, Straight Flushes, Quads, Full Houses, Flushes, Straights, Trips, Two Pairs and High Pairs you would get if you played all the possible draws for all of the possible ways you can discard for all of the possible 5-card deals.

From these numbers, we can take any paytable and figure out the exact average amount you can expect to win from each way to draw each deal. The way that provides the highest return, expected value, is the proper way to play each hand. All of these results are summarize into what is called a Strategy Table. These tables contain about 30-40 hands or partial hands in order of expected value.

When dealt a hand, you simply need to start at the top of the strategy table and work your way down until you find a hand that matches a portion of what you are dealt. It is in this way we know to play a High Pair over a 4-Card Flush, but we play a 4-Card Flush over a Low Pair.

You could sit at the machine with a strategy table in hand, but this would lead to slow play and some casinos may not allow it. Instead, you will have to memorize the order of the hands. It may sound daunting, but with a little bit of practice you can learn this. Many of the hands are very obvious. The rest just takes time practicing with either a deck of cards of some video poker software.

I’d like to tell you there is a shortcut, but there isn’t. One of the reasons video poker offers paybacks so close to 100% is because most players don’t bother to learn the strategy and the casinos can count on their errors to increase their net win. As a result, you have the opportunity to play these games at their theoretical paybacks with the casino very content to let you do so.

Elliot Frome is a second generation gaming analyst and author whose math credits include Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Mississippi Stud and many other games. His book is “Expert Strategy for Three Card Poker.” His website is Email: [email protected]

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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