With the hundreds of different versions of video poker and countless paytable variations, it simply is not possible to memorize all the paybacks. While you may head to your favorite casino expecting to play a particular type of machine, the reality is that nowadays casinos change paytables more often than they change light bulbs. So, by the time you get there, you may find yourself having to make an on-the-spot decision as to which game to play.
I’d love for everyone to head to the casino with a copy of our Winning Strategies for Video Poker which has the payback and strategy tables for more than 60 different games, but even that won’t help you with every possible game. Some of the software out on the market can calculate the payback of virtually every possible paytable in a matter of minutes, but carrying your computer into the casino is not very practical. To date, I don’t know of any versions for a hand-held computing device.
So, what is a player to do?
Fortunately, there are some simple rules of thumb you can use to help you figure out the payback of many games to within .1% or .2%. There are still a few items you will need to memorize. The first is that full-pay jacks or better (paying 9 coins for full houses and 6 coins for flushes) has a payback of 99.5%.
Next you will need to remember that the impact of a 1-unit decrease for a full house, flush or straight to the payback is just about 1.1%. The impact of a 1-unit change in quads (four-of-a-kind) payout is 0.25%. The impact of a 1-unit change in straight flush is 0.01%. Lastly, the impact of a 100-unit change in a royal flush payout is 0.25%.
Let’s start with a relatively easy example. Your favorite full-pay game has now been changed to an 8/5 game. What’s the payback? Since the casino has shaved 1 unit off of each the full house and the flush payouts, the overall payback is reduced by 2.2% (2 x 1.1%). So, the payback of this game is 97.3% (99.5% - 2.2%).
What if you decide to pass on this game and look for one better, and you find one that is still paying 9/6, but the quads payout has been reduced to 20? The overall payback of this game is about 98.25%. This is calculated by multiplying the 5-unit reduction by 0.25% per unit or 1.25% — 99.5% minus this 1.25% brings us to 98.25%.
So, in a choice between this game and the prior one, you would choose to play this one, all other things being equal.
In an effort to confuse the situation even further, casinos have managed to create an endless stream of different paytables, making alterations to multiple rankings in order to make a game appear more attractive to the novice player. I recently heard of a game that paid 8 coins for full houses, 5 coins for flushes and 30 coins for quads. The overall payback of this game is about 98.55% (99.5% — 2.2% + 1.25%).
The casino could get to a very similar payback by reducing the full house return by 1 unit (98.4%), but doing it the way they did, it appears that they are paying a little more than average for the quads. The game will also be slightly more volatile because they are paying less for more commonly occurring hands and more for the less frequent hands.
It should be noted that the formulas given here are just for approximations. Every change in a paytable also brings with it strategy changes when played expertly. If the changes to the paytable are minor, the strategy changes are likely to be minor and you may cost yourself only 0.1% or less by using standard full-pay jacks or better strategy on a different variation.
As the paytable undergoes more drastic changes, the strategy changes become more important in order to maximize the payback for the player. Just look at the differences in strategy between full-pay jacks or better and a full-pay Double Double Bonus machine. As always, there is no substitution for learning the proper strategy for each game.