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When it comes to video poker, I think there is no doubt the ace is by far the most enigmatic card in the deck.

In the old days when we only had jacks or better video poker, the ace was actually worth far less than most people gave it credit for. In video poker an ace high flush or ace high straight has no more value than a seven-high hand of the same rank. Whereas a full house with three aces is nearly unbeatable in table poker, it has no more value than 3’s over 2’s in video poker.

The only additional value an ace has is as a high card. In this regard, it has the same value as a jack, queen or king. These four cards give extra weight to the expected value of our partial hands because of the opportunity to pick up a high pair. Once you have a high pair or better, they provide no additional value.

This is where the irony starts to build.

A single ace actually has the lowest expected value of any single high card (tied with a king). This is because an ace inherently creates only INSIDE straights. With a single ace you still have two shots at a straight (10-A or A-5), but if you add an ace to any other high card (i.e. J-A) you leave yourself only once chance to make a straight. Whereas, if you hold a J-Q, you can make a straight multiple ways (8-9-10, 9-10-K, 10-K-A).

We overlook this weakness when we have an opportunity to hold two suited high cards (i.e. a two-card royal). We would rather hold a suited J-A than an off-suit J-Q. However, when we have three unsuited high cards and one of them is an ace, we do NOT keep the ace. Thus, if dealt J-Q-A, J-K-A or Q-K-A (offsuit), we keep the two non-ace cards.

The reduction in our chances of grabbing a straight by keeping the ace is greater than the benefit of keeping the third high card.

Thus, we see from all this that the almighty ace is really not so almighty. From an expected value perspective it is the weakest of all the single high cards. Fortunately for the ace, someone invented the bonus poker variations of video poker restoring it to its full glory.

The bonus poker variations turned the values of cards a bit upside down. Pairs of jacks or better still paid one, so this kept the extra value of the single high card. However, the second tier of bonus payouts for quads went to 2’s – 5’s. This gave extra weight to these cards as they started to pair up.

No one discards three of a kind so that wasn’t an issue, but all of a sudden low pairs had to be split between ‘very’ low (2’s – 5’s) and just low (6’s – 10’s). The top tier (Aces) is what restored the Ace to the top of the pecking order. Not only did it have value as a singleton above the low cards, it now had the top value as it began to pair up and players hoped to collect all four.

In reality, the pay table of the original Bonus Poker doesn’t do much for the aces. Obviously a pair of aces has a higher expected value, as does that of the single ace – but not enough to really change how we play our hands. However, as we move up the ladder of bonus games, this begins to change.

In Double Bonus Poker, a pair of aces outranks a three-card royal, but a pair of J-Q-K’s does not outrank all of them. If you’ve got trip aces with another pair (i.e. a full house), you’ll throw away the pair to go for the fourth ace. Don’t do that with any other three of a kind!

If we move up to Double Double Bonus, we now find that if we’re dealt a pair of aces with another pair (two pair) that we discard the other pair hoping to get dealt the remaining two aces. The power of the ace is complete!

The most important lesson in all of this is that you need to learn the strategy table for whatever game you are playing. You also need to discard your pre-conceived notions about cards and their values. In table poker an ace is a very powerful card.

In most versions of video poker, it is just another high card and not even the most valuable of them. Video poker is not about kickers and eking out a better hand. It’s a game about cold calculated math.

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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