Video Poker: Part 1

Video poker is a high-value game with a big
skill element. Brett Morton
explains the basics in the first
of a two-part guide

 
If you play for long enough, then you will hit a royal flush. This win will make the losses pale into insignificance

Video poker is a game that, at its best, can have odds in your favour of over 100%. No, I am not kidding. Does that mean that you will win every time? No, absolutely not. If you have just one pound to bet and you stake that on one hand and lose, then you have lost 100%. So also will most players with only £20 or £100, but by learning from these two articles, the game can be profitable.

Skill, not chance

When you approach a machine, the random number (card) generator is running anyway. When you bet, your final cards are immediately determined – not just the five that first appear but those that will be the replacements if you change them to improve your hand. Unlike playing the typical slot games, where it is simply a matter of spinning the reels to win with no input from you, video poker requires your skill. This is why it is fun to play and why the returns can be so much better.

The payouts, regularly hovering just above or below 100%, mean that you will probably lose slowly and that in the long run, you ought to come out ahead. Most people lose in casinos because they (1) play with too little money, (2) do not understand the game and (3) fail to quit when ahead, usually because they are too greedy or overly optimistic and want the big one. Typically, despite some modest wins, suddenly there are no more coins or credits to play with. If you cannot survive the long periods of drought, you are wiped out before a big payout can rescue you.

Start with a big bank

Don’t blame me, I am just the messenger, but to be brutally frank, a bankroll of £3,000 to £5,000 is needed to play only modest stakes with a sensible chance of not going bust and of getting that royal flush. The less your wad, the greater the chance of goodnight Irene. If you play for long enough, then you will hit a royal flush. This win will probably make the losses pale into insignificance. However, though the payouts are fixed, precisely when that elusive royal flush will hit is random. Selecting new cards only to win a royal is not too sensible. If you have 8, 8, 3, 3, Q, and you are obsessed with a royal, then you have to keep the queen. Is that sensible? No – unless that huge long shot works with the four new cards.

Mathematically, a royal will appear around every 40,000 attempts but it might come your first hand or not for 120,000 hands and then repeat shortly afterwards. Most of us play slots for shorter times and basing a strategy on playing for as long as it takes to hit that royal is unrealistic. The better way to look at it is that if you play regularly, one day you will stumble on a royal flush. What is more important is that your skill in card selections will ensure some attractive paybacks along the journey with chances to quit while ahead.

Location, location, location

A friend of mine used to work in a downtown Las Vegas casino trying to lure people into playing the slots. He sat by the casino entrance where he would keep winning – with much whooping and shouting – using machines that had their payouts adjusted specially to ensure lots of wins. It remains part of Vegas folklore that slots in highly visible places like that are more likely to be generous than those tucked away. True or false, the point remains that your task is to find the video poker game with the best payouts. Identical looking games can vary a great deal.

Shrewd buyers shop around. Video poker is no different: find the best deals, whether playing online or in a casino. Check the paybacks. Casinos may change the payouts on a machine overnight. Just as roulette wheels may be moved around to confuse those who track wheel imperfections, so your ‘usual’ machine may change from a 9/6 payout (full-pay) to an inferior 8/5 on jacks or better. Are full houses paid at 9/1 and flushes at 6/1? This is the 9/6 rating. If not why play to win the inferior 8/5 paybacks and reduce your percentage payback from 99.5% to 97.3%? Shop around.

Quit when you’re ahead

If you do not play the maximum bets for the game, you are throwing away money and are far more likely to lose. It is a false economy. Giant corporations go bust because they are under-capitalised. So will you. The less money you have, the more vital it is to quit when even modestly ahead.

Telling me that you can afford to bet only one coin instead of the maximum per play leaves one simple conclusion. Don’t play at all. Save up till you can afford to play the maximum bets or find a cheaper game. The casinos love mugs and suckers who play less than the maximum. Imagine winning a royal flush on a five-coin game with just one coin played. You will get only 250/1 (98.4%). Fat cigars all round for the casino moguls. Had you bet all five, the payback is not just five times larger, 1,250/1, but a whopping 4,000/1 (106.2%). Had you played maximum coins, you would have received not five times more but 16 times more.

Know your game

There is no one winning strategy for video poker because of the large variety of games. Are you playing jacks or one of countless variations that may trap the unwary? Your attempt to achieve a positive advantage of over 100% means that you must always play the maximum and take the correct decisions on hand-improvement. We will focus on individual strategy charts for different varieties of the game in part two of this masterclass.


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