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Video Poker strategy is all based on what we call a Strategy Table.

In Blackjack, it is a matrix of Dealer upcard vs. Player hand, which is the information that is available to the Player at any point during the game. The decisions are then your basic Hit, Stick, Split. In Video Poker, the decision the Player makes is which cards to keep/discard. The only other information the Player has is the paytable for the game, which doesn’t change from hand to hand – unless you change which variant of Video Poker you are playing.

So, what kind of ‘table’ can guide the Player to make the right strategy decision?

The table itself is rather straight forward. It is just a listing of hands and partial hands. Frequently, the table will also show the expected value for that hand, but this is really just for information purposes. The table is always listed with the highest expected values at the top and the lowest one at the bottom.

So, knowing that we should always play our hand to maximize the expected value means we start at the top of the table and work our way down. If the hand we are dealt can form the hand on the strategy table, then we can stop right there and play the hand that way. As I mentioned the last week or two, if only we were looking just for partial Straights, Flushes or Straight Flushes.

But high cards matter too. A 4-Card Straight without any High Cards has an expected value of about 0.6 below that of a 4-Card Straight with 1 High Card. Because of this, there is actually one exception to a rule I recently mentioned. I had stated that you play a 4-Card Flush over a Low Pair, which you play over a 4-Card Straight. But, in reality there is one 4-Card Straight you play over a Low Pair – the 4-Card Straight with 3 High Cards.

The only hand that meets this definition is a 10-10-J-Q-K (unsuited). If you are dealt this hand, you play the 4-Card Straight.

Some of you may wonder why I didn’t include a 10-10-J-Q-A into this. This 4-Card Straight is an Inside Straight as there is only one rank that will complete the Straight (the King). Losing that second rank to complete the Straight makes a huge impact on our expected value. The expected value of the 4-Card Straight with 3 High Cards is 0.87. The expected value of the 4-Card Inside Straight with 3 High Cards is only 0.53. The Low Pair is at 0.82.

So, this might seem rather simple to all of you. Play a Low Pair over a 4-Card Straight unless it is 10-10-J-Q-K. Well, that part is mostly true. The problem is if you don’t have a Pair of 10’s and you’re dealt 5-10-J-Q-A, now what do you do?

Some of you may just figure you play the 4-Card Straight, but unfortunately that isn’t so clearly the case. You see, if three of the four cards that make up the Straight are suited, then you have a 3-Card Royal Flush and that plays over a Low Pair, yet alone the 4-Card Straight. If two of those four cards are suited, you have a 2-Card Royal and then it depends on which two cards are suited. If it is the J-Q then this 2-Card Royal outranks the 4-Card Inside Straight.

If it is the J-A or the Q-A, this also outranks the 4-Card Inside Straight, but by a smaller margin. If it is the 10-J or 10-Q, this might be a playable hand, but the 4-Card Inside Straight has a higher expected value.

And if it is the 10-A, well, then it is not a playable hand under any condition in jacks or better video poker.

Confused? I’m not surprised. For many of you, you’ve heard about how good the video poker paybacks can be and that generally speaking they are as good as anything you can find in the casino and certainly better than slots.

But these paybacks are not achieved just by sitting there. Nor are they even achieved by playing with some smarts. They require the process of learning the strategy table for your particular game and utilizing the strategy table when you play, all the time, every time.

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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