For people who have been watching all the poker shows on television, you know the power of the ace. It seems pretty obvious. A pair of aces beats all other pairs. An ace high flush or ace high straight beats all other similar type hands. The same must be true for video poker, right?
Wrong! In video poker, you’re only playing against a paytable, not another player’s hand. An ace high straight is worth no more than a 6 high straight. A 7 high flush is just as good as an ace high flush. A pair of jacks will get you the same push as a pair of aces. In fact, a single ace can actually be a BAD card relative to other high cards. An ace participates in only two straights (A2345, 10JQKA), whereas a jack participates in four different straights.
Thus, when we look at the expected value of holding a single ace (in full pay jacks or better) we find it’s about .4707, whereas the expected value of a single jack is about .4829. It’s not a huge difference, and you’re still better off holding both than either one, but if you had to pick which one you’d like to have, you’d rather see a single jack over the single ace. The exact expected value of each hand will depend on the suit makeup and the number of cards discarded that may have aided in completing a straight.
Holding an unsuited jack/ace combination doesn’t help us out much. Its expected value is .4783. The expected value of a jack where an ace is discarded drops to .46+ so we don’t want to do that. An unsuited jack/queen has an expected value of nearly 0.51, so again, the ace has done nothing positive for us. We find a similar circumstance with regard to 2-card royals, where royals with J-Q-K combinations rank significantly higher than combinations that include an ace.
This past week, I received an e-mail from a reader asking about holding the single ace in games where quad aces pays more than other quads. It would make sense that the expected value of any hand that contains an ace where quad aces is possible would have its expected value increase slightly as a result of the higher payout on quad aces. The problem is that when you’re talking about holding a single ace, the increase is often not enough to change how we choose to play the hand.
I’d like to say that there is simple rule of thumb to guide you when to play the single ace, but none came to mind. I can tell you that in all the popular versions of bonus games, the two high cards outranks the single ace. This is true for bonus poker, double bonus poker, and Double Double Bonus Poker. In some specialty bonus games where the quad aces pays significantly more than other four of a kinds, such as Nevada Bonus Poker, Super Aces and Power House Poker, the single ace will outrank the two high cards.
That all said, it should be noted that in most of these games, the difference between two high cards and the single ace is not that big. I won’t advocate playing the lower ranking hand to shoot for the quad aces, but it is not unlike the concept of hunting for a royal, given that on some machines the quad aces is approaching the payout on royals. If you decide to take this approach, just realize that you will be giving up some long-term payback to go for the big jackpot.