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Too many players play casino games by the seat of their pants. This consists of two significant problems. 

First, players play hunches: I have a 14 in blackjack and the dealer has an 8. What do I think the next card will be? If you’re counting and have a true sense the next card’s value is not quite as random as a freshly shuffled deck, this concept might be okay.

If you just think the next card is a 10/Face and choose not to hit, you are doing nothing more than guessing and not playing the proper odds to increase your chances of winning.

The second problem is players play consistent strategy. They just play it wrong consistently. If you refuse to hit a 16 when the dealer has a 9 up because you think it is the right play, at least you are not guessing what the next card will be. But, you may have guessed what the strategy is and that is no better.

If you’re strong at math, you might be able to figure out some of the strategies on your own. You can figure out the probability of players winning or losing by hitting/sticking in the above situations. Ironically, blackjack scenarios can be relatively easy compared to video poker strategies.

My father had one of the strongest math minds I ever knew. I’m pretty good, too, but I grew up in a generation of calculators and computers. My dad mastered the slide rule and learned how to do very complex calculations in his head.

Despite all this, when he analyzed video poker for the first time, there were a few big surprises he stumbled across. The first of these is what I’ll call the Flush-Pair-Straight sandwich.

This means if the player is dealt a 4-Card Flush and a Low Pair, he keeps the 4-Card Flush. When he is dealt a Low Pair and a 4-Card Straight, he keeps the Low Pair. The only exception to this is a Pair of 10’s combined with a JQK.

It is fairly easy to calculate the expected value of a 4-Card Flush or a 4-Card Straight. Calculating the expected value of a Low Pair is a bit more of a challenge. Once you find out what the math says, it is not hard to understand how a Flush with 9 “outs” paying 6 will outrank a Low Pair, but a Straight with 8 outs paying 4 does not.

Of course, the 4-Card Straight with 3 High Cards also has 9 more outs to pick up a High Pair, so that adds to the complexity. The Low Pair, on the other hand, can turn into Trips, Two Pair, Full House or Quads. Calculating the probability of each and the resulting expected value is greatly eased with a program (or at least a spreadsheet).

The other surprise was probably even more of a shocker. If dealt 3 High Cards and 2 of them are suited, you keep the 2 suited cards. Maybe this is obvious to you, but it was not to my father. Most likely if you were playing 5-card draw around a poker table with your friends, you’d keep all 3 High Cards. If you’re lucky, you wind up with a High Pair.

If you’re really lucky you pull the Straight. In table poker, pulling the Straight and pulling a Flush (if possible) have nearly the same value. You’re highly likely to win. But, in video poker, a Flush is worth 50% more than a Straight. A Royal Flush is worth 200 times a Straight.

You’re not playing to beat another player. You’re playing to maximize your payout. By holding 3 unsuited cards (unless all 3 are of the same suit, they are unsuited), you eliminate any chance to get a Flush or a Royal Flush. You also get rid of any chance of getting Four of a Kind or a Full House.

By keeping only the two suited cards, you make it harder to get a Straight, but you open up the possibility of all these other hands. And, as I already explained, in video poker there is greater value in getting a better hand than there is in table poker.

If you win with a Royal Flush or a Straight, you win. In video poker, you win a lot more if you win with a Royal. But, the right play is not dictated by what I think the next 2 (or 3) cards will be. It is dictated by the math.

If I hold 3 unsuited cards, the expected value is a mere 0.50. With the 2 suited cards (also known as a 2-Card Royal) the expected value will be 0.58 or 0.60 depending on whether or not the 2 suited cards include an Ace.

Of course, while you’re scouting for these hands, don’t lose sight of the possibility of having a 9 or 10 that matches suit with your 2 High Cards. In this case, you will have a 3-Card Royal and this trumps both 2-Card Royals and 3 High Card hands by a wide margin.

Video poker is a game based strictly on math. Unless you’ve got the skills of Rain Man, you’re not going to be able to sit there and figure out the strategy on the fly.

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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 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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