Learn the full strategy to the game

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Gambling strategies come in all forms. For most table games, it is usually a set of rules in English. For Three Card Poker, it is a single simple sentence – Play with Q-6-4 or better.

Four Card Poker strategy is a bit more complex, but can also be simplified to betting 3x when your hand is of a certain rank, folding when it is below a certain rank and betting 1x for everything in between. A game like Ultimate Texas Hold’em has far more complex strategy, but again, it comes down to betting based on the strength of the hand.

Video poker really isn’t all that different. Since the game is a draw hand, however, the “strength” of a hand is a bit harder to say. Also, for most table games, either the strength doesn’t really impact how much you win or you’ve seen your entire hand and the hands that pay more leave little to think about.

In video poker, which is stronger – a Low Pair or a 4-Card Straight? Quite frankly, there is no one way to answer that question. It depends on the pay table and the variety of video poker we are talking about. So, how is a player to decide which way to handle the hand?

This is where a strategy table comes in, which lists every pre-draw hand we would consider playing in expected value order from highest to lowest. At the top we generally find a Royal Flush. Not much to think about here. If you’re dealt a Royal, you’re keeping it.

At the bottom of the strategy table, we will always find a Razgu. This is a term my father called a hand when you want to get rid of all five cards. There’s nothing worse than this, when keeping even one of the cards results in a lower expected value.

In between we have most every imaginable hand – Three of a Kinds, High Pairs, Low Pairs, 4-Card Straights, 4-Card Flushes, 3-Card Straight Flushes, 2-Card Royals and even High Cards. Of course, if it was that simple, the strategy table might only be 10 or 12 rows long. Jacks or Better video poker was cleverly built with pairs of jacks or better being worth more than other pairs.

As a result, High Cards (Jacks through Ace) are worth more than cards below that. Thus, we need to break down our Straights and Straight Flushes based on how many High Cards we have. This creates many more entries on our strategy table and adds a good deal more complexity.

Just as important as what we find on our strategy table is what we don’t find. You won’t find 3-Card Flushes, 3-Card Straights or 2-Card Straight Flushes (except Royals). Most casinos will probably not let you bring the strategy table in with you (some might). If they do, they’re not going to let you play one hand per minute while you try and figure out what the right strategy is.

This is similar to a blackjack table. Some casinos will let you have a strategy card at the table, but not if you’re slowing up the whole game.

In video poker, you need to look at the five cards dealt and determine which hand on the strategy table can be found within your five cards. You start at the top of the table with the highest expected values and work your way downward. Once you find a match, you’re done. If you have a High Pair that is also a 4-Card Flush all that matters is which of these two hands is higher on the strategy table.

Doing this “manually” for each hand, by literally scanning the strategy table, you’ll be lucky if you play 150 hands per hour. At some point, you’re going to essentially have to memorize the order of the table. This is why it becomes important to quickly eliminate hands that aren’t on the table at all.

In theory there are 32 ways you can play each hand. Even a novice can quickly eliminate 25. You want to get to the point where you’re only giving thought to 2 or 3 at most per hand. About 75% of our hands will be extremely obvious. If you can reduce the remaining 25% to 2 or 3 possibilities, you’ll increase your speed and I think you’ll find you have a more enjoyable experience.

As always, I suggest you start with learning the strategy for a full-pay Jacks or Better machine. These can be found in most casinos. You should practice at home either using software or a real deck of cards. Move on to real money after you’ve mastered the strategy.

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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].

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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