Video poker strategy complex but time well spent

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There are few games in the casino that require learning a strategy as complex as video poker. Really, only blackjack (and its variants like Blackjack Switch and Spanish 21) comes to mind.

Fortunately, as complex as the strategy is, about 75% of video poker hands become fairly obvious after a little bit of time spent studying, and some time spent practicing. The tough part is the remaining 25% of the hands. Some require a bit of thought and some require some serious concentration. It is these hands that separate the average player from the true expert player.

Consider the following hand in full-pay jacks or better:

  

 

It is not a very pretty hand and I dare say most beginners are probably not going to play this one correctly. If they do, it may be more by accident than by design. So, which way should you play it? If you say “the way that gives you the highest expected value,” you’re right, but you’re cheating a bit. Which way has the highest expected value?

I think we can all agree we’re NOT going to hold onto that 3 of clubs under any condition. So, that leaves us with four hands to consider:

 

 

Option 1 is a four-card inside straight with two high cards. If you look for it on the strategy table, you won’t find it. The expected value is about 0.47. By itself this doesn’t make it unplayable, but at least one subset of these four cards always has a higher expected value.

Option 2 is a three-card straight. The expected value is 0.44. Again, you won’t find it on the strategy table, meaning some subset of these cards always has a higher expected value.

Option 3 is a two-card royal. A J-Q royal is categorized as a V3 for the highest ranking royal as it consists of two out of JQK. If the two cards consist of an ace and one of JQK, then it is V2. If it consists of a 10 and one of JQK, it is a V1 and if it is an A10, it is a V0. We WILL find this one on the strategy table. It has an expected value of 0.60.

 The expected value of this specific situation is 0.59 as a result of discarding the 10 and the 8, reducing chances for staights, flushes and even a straight flush. The fact that we find it on the strategy table, at least means this MIGHT be the right answer.

Option 4 is a three-card double inside straight flush with two high cards. It almost sounds like something you would order at Starbucks! When we look on the strategy table, we’ll find it has an expected value of 0.64. Discarding the 10 brings the actual expected value of this hand to 0.63, which is still a bit higher than Option 3.

So, in the end, never mind Starbucks, this is the hand you want to ‘order’ if dealt the five cards described earlier.

I’d like to say there is some sort of easy way to remember this is the right way to play the hand, but there isn’t. To make matters worse, if you were playing a progressive with the royal paying 1600 instead of the usual 800, Option 3 would actually have the higher expected value and become the proper play.

Will you obliterate the payback if you always play Option 3? No. The hand is infrequent enough and the impact small enough that you will only cost yourself marginally. You’ll also hit a few extra royals (over a lifetime), so this might make up for the lost bankroll. But, expert strategy is about playing the right hand all the time and avoiding playing any sort of hunches or going for the big kill.

There is one other lesson from this example. One of the most forgotten hands in video poker is the straight flush. Players are quickly taught to ignore three-card straights and three-card flushes in most versions of video poker.

However, the three-card straight flush (and all its variations) are quite playable in most games. While they all have expected values below 1.00, and thus are ‘losing hands’, this doesn’t mean playing them incorrectly is okay. It is just as important to play the losing hands correctly as it is the winning hands. Perhaps more so as there are far more losing hands than winning hands.

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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