Time for pop quiz

May 22, 2006 1:50 AM

In order to master expert strategy, you can’t just read about it. You have to actually learn and master the strategies that you’ll use when you get to the casino.

For some games this isn’t much of a challenge. Just repeat Queen-Six-Four over and over again and you’ve mastered Three Card Poker.

Video poker on the other hand is a bit more complex to master. Each distinct version of the game, combined with its paytable, creates a unique strategy that involves about 30-40 different categories of hands. Each hand you are dealt must be recognized to be one or more of these categories. Next, you need to figure out which one has the higher/highest expected value and play the hand in that manner.

Sound easy? Quite frankly, it’s not. It takes learning the concepts and then learning the specific strategy table. Very few players learn more than a handful of different variations. A common mistake that players make is assuming that they can take the strategy for one game and bring it over to a different game. In some cases, this will cause only a minor reduction in the payback. In others, the impact can be devastating.

Thus, it is imperative that you learn the strategy table for a particular game and stick to that game. When you’re ready, learn another table and then you’ll be ready to play either game.

I’ve covered the strategy table for jacks or better many times in this column in the past two-plus years. Now it’s time to see if you’ve been paying attention, with a little quiz. Assume that you are playing a full-pay jacks or better for each scenario. In future columns, I’ll cover other games, but as always, jacks or better is the best place to start.

How would you play the following hands?


A) J© 3ª K© J¨ A©


B) Q§ 4© J¨ A§ 8ª


C) A§ 3¨ 6© 10§ 8ª


D) 10¨ J§ 9© 9ª Q¨


Here are the answers.

Hand A should be played as a high pair. As tempting as the 3-card royal is, the expected value of this particular royal is 1.31 while the expected value of the high pair is 1.54. Even if it were a J-Q-K 3-card royal, it would still not be worth throwing the pair for. It should be noted, that this play can ”˜flip flop’ if you’re playing a progressive and the progressive gets to a large enough amount.

Hand B should be played as a 2-card royal (Q-A). We always hold two suited high cards instead of three unsuited high cards. The expected value of the 2-card royal is 0.58 while the expected value of the three high cards is only 0.51. This is a VERY frequently occurring hand and learning this play is imperative if you are to achieve the full potential payback of the game.

Hand C should be played as a single high card (the Ace). An A-10 2-card royal is not playable in full-pay jacks or better.

Hand D is another very commonly occurring hand. A low pair outranks a 4-card straight, with one exception. If the hand is a 10-10-J-Q-K, then the 4-card straight should be held. The low pair has an expected value of 0.82 while the 4-card straight with two high cards is just below at 0.81. It gets worse if there is only one high card or no high cards.

So, how did you do? Here’s how the grading goes. If you got all four correct, you’re on the right track. If you got any wrong, well, you failed.

In the course of playing video poker, you will hit the types of hands in this quiz and dozens more that are similar yet different. Another common mistake by players is the belief that they are playing perfectly, when they are in fact, not doing so.

Learning the strategy tables requires practice. You can do it using a deck of cards, or using one of several excellent pieces of software. While it may seem that a few mistakes will not cost you much, the reality is that if you are making mistakes, you are probably making more than a few.

These mistakes add up and can easily reduce the payback of the game by 1-2%, which is the difference between having a 40% chance of walking away a winner and a 20% chance.