Plan your strategy

Apr 20, 2004 5:05 AM

I think it’s fair to say that GamingToday is not the first publication that video poker players would likely reach for. Historically, it has been targeted at the sportsbook/racebook Player.

It is only relatively recently that it began publishing articles discussing video poker strategy. So, there’s a pretty good chance if you’re reading this article that you’re not already one of the many dedicated video poker players. If you’ve been reading my column for the past few months, I have hopefully at least piqued your interest in video poker. The problem is, you’re not sure exactly how to get started playing video poker.

Video poker may very well be one of the most complex games in the entire casino. It may look like a slot machine, but that’s where the similarities end. About the only strategy for slots is whether to push the button to spin the wheels or to pull the handle. The scary part is that many newer slot machines don’t even have a handle anymore!

Video poker, on the other hand, is all about strategy. Each variety of poker has its own strategy. Each different paytable for each variety has its own variations of that strategy. At this point, there are probably hundreds of different variety/paytable combinations, each requiring learning a new strategy. Where should you start?

My suggestion is start by buying a good book on video poker. Of course, I’m partial to our own publications, but they’re not the only ones out there. Read about the basics of the game. Learn what an expected value (EV) is. Learn what a strategy table is. Learn how to recognize different pre-draw hands. Memorize a strategy table, and practice, practice, practice. Which game should you start with?

I suggest you start with Jacks or Better. This is for a few reasons. One, the game is found in virtually every casino in every jurisdiction. Two, the strategy table is pretty straightforward. Three, you don’t want to start with a wild card game. It just adds a layer of complexity in recognizing hands. You don’t want to start there. Four, the strategy you learn will be very usable on a variety of different paytables for Jacks or Better with very little consequence.

Strategy for video poker generally consists of a Strategy Table. A strategy table lists the playable hands in the order of the Expected Value, from highest to lowest. The higher the Expected Value, the more valuable that hand is. A higher Expected Value does not mean a hand that will win most often, but rather, over the long run, it represents HOW MANY coins you can expect to win on average. Expert Strategy dictates that you play the hand with the highest Expected Value. Most hands that you are dealt will not be an issue, but sometimes, Pre-Draw hands can be interpreted as 2 or more possible hands on the Strategy Table. For Example

5D 6D 7D 8C KS


The hand above could be interpreted as a 3-Card Straight Flush, a 4-Card Straight or a High Card. The decision on how the hand gets played is determined by the Strategy Table. In looking at the Strategy Table for Jacks or Better, we find the following entries:


 Expected Value

4-Card Straight 0 High Cards



3-Card Straight Flush

0 High Cards (SFL3H0)


One High Card (HON1)


From this portion of our Strategy Table, we now know that the proper play is the 4-Card Straight. All three are losing hands on average, but we can minimize the damage by playing it as the hand with the Highest Expected Value. In parentheses next to the hand description is the short hand I use when referring to certain hands. I’d like to tell you there is one absolute standard for this, but none exists. There are similarities from one source to the next. In a future column, I’ll cover my own shorthand in more detail.

Make sure the book you get has a strategy table for Jacks or Better. After you have studied the strategy chart and memorized it, it’s time to practice. This can be done the old fashioned way, with a deck of cards, or the new-fashioned way, using one of the many software programs that are available. Many of these software programs have the strategy charts built in and will warn you if you make a mistake. When you have achieved 99% accuracy, you’re ready to head to the casino.

If it’s available to you, start with nickels. More accurately, start with A nickel. Normally, I advocate max-coin play to maximize the payback thanks to the bump-up in the Royal payout. However, when you are just starting out, you’re better off giving up the 1.4% in payback because you’re still likely to be making a few mistakes which will cost you even more at max-coin. Once you feel comfortable you are playing at a high level of accuracy in the casino, you can move to max-coin. Remember, assuming identical payables, you’re better off playing five nickels instead of one quarter.

Once you feel you’ve mastered playing Jacks or Better, you can begin to work on the next game. Keep in mind that even games that seem similar have at least slight variations in their Strategy Tables. While using the standard Full Pay Jacks or Better Strategy Table on Bonus Poker won’t cost you much, using it on Double-Double Bonus will significantly reduce the payback. You want to make sure that you pick games that have the highest available payback. The book or software you buy should be able to give you the payback of a variety of different games and paytables.

You should also make sure that you ENJOY playing the type of game. Deuces Wild is a very popular game because of its high payback in the full-pay version. There are people though who find it very boring because of its very high (relative to Jacks or Better) number of Razgus (where you draw 5 new cards). If you don’t like playing the game, the odds are you will not remember the strategy table properly and you will simply NOT have fun playing. Unless Video Poker is your JOB, you probably want to have fun playing it as well.

Becoming an Expert Video Poker player takes a bit of work. By becoming one, both you AND your wallet will benefit.