Unlike all the loud, flashy slot machines in the casino, Video Poker is a game of skill. For a gambler willing to put in a little effort, this offers an opportunity to minimize the house edge. In fact, some of the best odds in the casino are offered on Video Poker, if you know which machines to play and how to play them. Below I will give you five lessons to get you started on becoming a skilled player and improving your odds at the game. Follow any one of the five and it will help you keep your money a little longer versus playing purely by intuition. Follow all five well enough and the casinos could be paying you to play.
Per Nevada Gaming Control, Video Poker machines must be random, and must be based on a real 52 card deck of cards (53 in the case of joker games). As a result, it is possible to determine the actual payback percentage (portion of each bet that is returned to the player, on average, over the long run) of a machine by looking at its paytable. It is also possible to determine the best possible play (which cards to hold) for any hand you can be dealt. You can even determine the variance of the games (math-speak for how wild the short-term win/loss swings are). Strategies have been determined (by people far smarter than me) for almost every variation of the game. If you pick a game with a good paytable and learn the strategy for it you can limit your losses or even come out ahead over the long run.
Just to be clear, everything I have to say here regarding house edge, payback and losses is true over the long run. Anything can happen in a single gaming session, or even a week long degenerate gambling bender (Royal Flusher style, YMMV), but over the long run, after millions and millions of hands (you’ll get there) these statistics turn into reality.
Use your player’s card. Unless the machine has a notice that player’s club points are not given (I’ve only ever seen this on a handful of machines on the strip), then you should insert your player’s card so that the casino can track and reward you for your play.
The cards are free, so if you don’t have one already you can sign up at the player’s club desk. Different casinos will reward video poker play (and play in general) differently, but the bottom line is they can’t reward you at all if they don’t know you are playing. As a general rule, the more you play with your card the more they offer. Also, there are some promotions, like the scratch cards offered on natural four-of-a-kinds at Main Street Casino, that require you to have your card inserted to participate. Always have it inserted in the machine and make sure that your account comes up on screen before you play. That way all your play is counted and you qualify for any promotions.
Not all Video Poker machines are created equal. Just like slot machines, some video poker machines offer better odds than others. Unlike slot machines, you can tell which video poker machines have the best odds simply by looking at them (alright, in some cases you have to tap the screen a couple of times). If the paytable isn’t on the screen or the glass already, look for a button that says “help” or “pays” this should lead you to the paytable. What you are looking for will depend on which variation of the game (Jacks or Better, Bonus Poker, Deuces Wild, etc) you are playing. A couple of commonly found, very good paytables are pictured below.
Two machines with the same game may look identical to the casual observer, yet one may offer a better gamble. Notice the machines in the picture below. Everything else is equal, except one pays six credits for a flush and the other pays five. You can see which machine got my money. If you want more information, including paytables for more games than I have ever encountered, check out this page on vpfree2.com. For help finding the machines with the best paytables, check out this one.
Always play max credits for each hand you play. On most machines it doesn’t matter how many hands you are playing, but if you play less than the maximum number of credits per hand (usually five) you miss out on the big payout for a Royal Flush. On most machines the difference is 250 for 1 for a royal with less than max credits, 800 for 1 with max credits (even more for some progressives). So a royal playing four credits per hand would pay one thousand credits ($250 on a quarter machine), but the same hand playing five credits per hand would pay four thousand credits ($1000 on a quarter machine).
Playing less than maximum costs about 2% of your expected return for every wager over the long run. Don’t do it. If you can’t afford the stakes, drop down a denomination. It’s far better to play max credits on a nickel machine than one credit on a quarter machine.
Learn the strategy. Strategy charts are available for most popular video poker variations (thanks to those smart people I mentioned earlier), and they are easier to follow and learn than you might think. While there are a mind-numbing number of possible hands in video poker, hands can be grouped together. A strategy chart will typically contain around forty to eighty different types of hand, listed in order of preference. You match your hand to the hands in the list, and keep the cards that make up the highest ranking hand. This is the best hold available for the cards you’ve been dealt, and if you consistently choose the best cards for the hand dealt you will get the greatest possible return from the game over the long run. The more you play with the strategy card, the less you will need it to make your decisions. (Yes, you are allowed to use a strategy card while playing video poker in the casino.) A good source for free video poker strategies is the Wizard of Odds. Make sure to pay attention to what game the strategy is for. Playing 10/6 Double Double Bonus Strategy on a Deuces Wild machine will not yield ideal results. I like the 9/6 Jacks or Better strategy. It’s fairly easy to learn and it can help you achieve a 99.5% payback on 9/6 Jacks. Better still, I can use that same strategy for 8/5 Bonus Poker and ACE$ Bonus Poker with results that, while not optimum (for the true expert, these games have their own, slightly different strategies), are good enough to eek out over 99% on all three games with the proper paytable.
Play games that fit your risk tolerance and your bankroll. Most of the variations on video poker take away some of the payout on frequent, low paying hands and use that savings to jack up the payouts on other, rarer hands. In these games, when you lose you can lose a lot in a short time, which helps make up for the fact that when you win you can win a lot in a short time. This tendency for quick ups and downs is called variance, and the higher the variance number the greater the swings. Higher variance games can be more exciting, because they offer more opportunities for a big win over the short term. They also require a larger bankroll, so that you can survive the heavy losses between the heavy wins. Playing a game that suits your risk tolerance and your bankroll in the short term will help you stay in the game longer, which improves your chances of reaching the “long term” I keep talking about. For more detailed information on the variance of video poker games and plenty of advice that will help you follow these five lessons, I recommend getting a good book on the subject, like Video Poker for the Intelligent Beginner (Gambling Theories Methods), by Bob Dancer.
Practice, practice, practice! You don’t have to be actively gambling to stay sharp on your video poker strategy. There are a number of computer simulations you can use that not only do a fine job of recreating the game on your PC, tablet or phone, but will also warn you if you make an incorrect hold. Some can even track your mistakes, run simulations to show you how long your bankroll might last, and create strategy charts for you to take to the casino! The Wizard of Odds has a free simulator to get you started at http://wizardofodds.com/play/video-poker/. As you get more serious you may want a more full featured product such as Video Poker for Winners or a tablet/phone video poker simulator like Wizard Video Poker (search your app store).
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