Pick a card, the best card

Sep 5, 2006 1:24 AM

We’ve all seen the same scenario at the video poker machine: Up comes five cards. You wonder to yourself, or even ask out loud — Which cards should I hold? The low pair or the straight? The low pair or the flush? Should I go for the royal?

Although choosing might be confusing, the good news is that the majority of video poker hands require very little analytical thinking. Once you realize you’re not playing table poker and there’s no reason to keep ace kickers, most hands are pretty obvious as to what to keep and what to throw.

There are, however, some recurring hands that leave most novices and even many experienced players wondering. It’s not necessarily because the choices are of nearly equal value as much as each hand looks so tempting.

In reality, there isn’t much skill required for these hands. Once you have made up your mind to let Expert Strategy be your guide, it simply comes down to knowing which play has the higher Expected Value, that is, the best rate of return for a possible hand.

For instance, if a hand has an EV of .79, there is an expectancy of winning only 79 cents on every dollar played. Conversely, a hand of 1.40 has an expectancy of returning $1.40 for every dollar wagered.

So, let’s take a look at some common "overlapping" hands, those that give the player more than one option of what to hold and what to discard. Assuming we are playing Full-Pay Jacks or Better, how would you play the following hands:

A 10 Clubs J Diamonds  J Spades Q Hearts K Clubs
B 2 Diamonds 5 Diamonds 8 Diamonds K Diamonds K Spades
C 2 Hearts 2 Clubs 3 Diamonds 4 Spades 5 Clubs
D 10 Spades 10 Diamonds J Clubs

Q Hearts

K Spade
E 10 Spades 10 Diamonds J Clubs Q Heart A Spade
F 2 Hearts 5 Clubs 5 Clubs 8 Hearts 10 Hearts

The four-card straight in Hand A has an EV of .85, while the high pair has an EV of 1.54. Playing anything but the high pair would be a big mistake. High pairs beat all four-card straights; four-card straight flushes beat all high pairs.

The four-card flush in Hand B has an EV of 1.19, while the EV of the high pair is again 1.54. Once again, high pairs beat all four-card flushes. The only types of hands we discard a high pair for are four-card straight flushes (inside or outside) and four-card royals.

Hand C makes us choose between a low pair and a four-card straight with no high cards. This type of straight has an EV of .68, while the low pair has an EV of .82. The chances are a little closer than some of our other examples, but still a clear choice — play the low pair.

t the straight now has three high cards, which makes it the highest-ranking four-card straight. Its EV is .87 which puts it above the low pair. A four-card straight with two high cards would be a 9,10, J, Q and it would have an EV of .81.

This is one of the more complex strategies to remember relative to low pairs. Play a low pair over all four-card straights, except a pair of 10’s versus a 10, J, Q, K straight. In this one case, it’s preferable to play the straight. It should be noted that there are only a few hundred (out of nearly 2.6 million possible hands) chances that this particular hand will show up. While we can’t advocate playing the low pair against all four-card straights, it won’t cost you a lot in the long run ”¦ about .001 of the total payback. We do recognize the advantage of keeping the strategy table easy to remember.

Hand E is a choice between a low pair and a four-card inside straight with three high cards. The EV of this hand is a mere .53 and is the lowest playable four-card straight. Its EV is well below the EV of the low pair of .82 and thus we play the low pair.

Hand F illustrates a four-card flush with a low pair. In this example, the four-card flush has an EV of 1.15, well above the low pair’s EV of .82. This four-card flush has the lowest EV possible for a four-card flush. The more high cards the flush has, the higher the EV. Of course, if a flush has three-high cards, it becomes a three-card royal and would outrank the four-card flush.

Let’s sum up what we’ve covered. High pairs outrank all four-card straights and four-card flushes, but do not outrank any four-card straight flushes.

Dealing with low pairs is a bit more complex. Low pairs are outranked by all four-card flushes. Low pairs outrank all four-card inside straights, and almost all four-card straights. The one exception is a 10, J, Q, K straight.

These rules apply to Jacks or Better Full Pay machines. They may very well apply to other, if not most other pay tables, but it cannot be assumed that the strategy for one version of video poker will apply to other versions or other pay tables. This is why it is suggested that you limit yourself to one or two versions of the game and become an expert at it before moving on to other versions.

Of course, these are not all the cases that can make you turn to the stranger seated next to you and ask, Which should I hold? But these are among the most commonly occurring and probably the most commonly misplayed hands that pop up.

Nothing stated here can’t be easily determined by reading the Strategy Table for the particular pay table you’re interested in. In a future column, I’ll review more common overlapping hands.