Use strategy to play poker hands

Jan 18, 2005 6:10 AM

Given the hundreds of variations of video poker and the multitude of different paytables, there are literally tens of thousands of little "tips" I could write about in any given week. About 75 percent of all hands require almost no real thought to decide how to play. The other 25 percent provide me with the material needed for many years to come. It is these hands that the average person would see at least two different ways to play them.

When I choose to write about these circumstances, there are usually two main considerations. The first is how often these situations occur. It is possible for a two-card royal to "overlap" with a three card straight flush with no high cards, but this will occur only a few hundred times out of the nearly 2.6 million possible hands. I’m not suggesting you ignore these finer points, but you’ve got to focus on the more frequently occurring situations first.

The second circumstance is the magnitude of the difference between the two options. In the example above, a three-card straight flush with no high cards has an expected value of 0.63 (where 1.0 has a chance of occurring 1 percent of the time). The two-card royal (JQ, JK, QK) has an expected value of 0.60. Again, I wouldn’t suggest this be ignored, but as I will show shortly, there are bigger fish to catch in this video poker ocean.

The most common single type of hand in jacks or better video poker is the low pair. It will appear in about 30 percent of all hands. Most of these will be played as a low pair. There are, however, two very important situations in which we will want to throw away the low pair in favor of another hand. These hands are the four-card flush and the three-card royal.

This may sound simple, but the problem is that many people who throw the low pair in favor of these hands also throw the low pair in favor of the four-card straight and perhaps for three-card straight flushes. Four-card flushes are also a very common pre-draw hand, occurring about one in thirty hands.

About 15-20 percent of these hands will contain a low pair. Also, the difference in expected value between these two hands is great. The low pair has an expected value of 0.82, while the four-card flush has an expected value of 1.22. In reality, you’d be throwing away a loser and replacing it with a long-term winner.

Unlike our example earlier, this situation will occur far more frequently, and the impact will be far greater. On a quarter machine playing maximum coins, misplaying this one will cost you about 50 cents each time you misplay it, as compared to four cents in our prior example.

Also, in a three to four hour session, I can all but guarantee you’ll see the low pair/four card flush come up at least half a dozen times, while there’s a good chance you won’t see the other one at all. While the three-card royal/low pair combination will occur less often, the expected value of the three-card royal is 1.41, so the impact will be even greater when it does occur.

On the other side of the equation are the four card straights. While there is ONE four-card straight that should be played over the low pair (pair of 10’s plus J-Q-K), all others should be discarded. The same goes for three-card straight flushes. These hands have expected values in the range of 0.81 (just a smidge below the low pair) to 0.63, and this doesn’t include four-card INSIDE straights.

To master expert strategy, it is important to learn ALL the rankings in our strategy table. But that doesn’t mean that all mistakes are created equal. This translates into learning the important strategy points before worrying about the small nuances.