Posted in Guides June 2, 2020

The Best Video Poker Strategy

Video poker is a widespread game found both in brick-and-mortar casinos and online casinos across the world. In essence, it’s a hybrid between skill-based games like Texas Hold’em and games based on chance, like roulette. As poker veterans know, luck may rule in the beginning, but it is the skill of a player that decides the final outcome.

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The relationship between skill and luck in video poker is… dicey. Of course, if you are a complete video poker chump – or you drank one too many – and can’t differentiate between a straight and royal flush, you will probably have a hard time making the right decision.

Should You Keep a Pair of Kings or Try to Get a Royal Flush?

Let’s explore some of the tough decisions commonly seen in video poker. Once you understand the strategy, such decisions get easier since you understand the math behind the game.

Unless you have the right cards that provide the biggest hypothetical value, you won’t get the hypothetical return of the video poker session you’re in. In this case, you are holding a pair and are looking at a potential three of a kind and four of a kind draw. And, of course, a royal flush draw and a flush draw. 

Considering the likelihood and payout of each hand, it’s possible to determine the expected value of each hand. How do you calculate that? Well, the answer isn’t easy, especially since there aren’t a lot of video poker aficionados who can calculate the expected value just from looking at the hands. The matter becomes way simpler when you let the machine do the math, and depending on the calculations, create guidelines that will help you evaluate each hand.

Using the example above, the computer would calculate the expected value of the two options you have:

  1. Keep the royal flush draw
  2. Keep the two kings

Then you determine the expected return depending on the likelihood of getting a winning hand and its payout. If you have a pair of kings, there are 16,215 likely outcomes you may get when you think about all the cards the machine can deal to you. Since you already have a pair of kings, all outcomes will be winners. 

There are:

  • 2,592 combinations that hit two pairs
  • 11,559 combinations that hit a pair
  • 1,854 combinations that end up with three of a kind
  • 166 combinations that get a full house
  • 45 combinations that get four of a kind

But, if you decide to keep the royal flush, there will be only 47 likely outcomes. Eight times you will get jacks or better. There are 27 outcomes that don’t hit anything, eight outcomes could result in a flush, while only one could result in a royal flush. 

Hence, when you take the likelihood of getting a royal flush (1 out of 47) and multiply it by the value of the royal flush, you get a possible expected return for your hand of 85.12. 

Next, when you determine the expected return for every possible winning outcome you can draw – straight, flush, and jacks or better – and combine every expected value together, you get a 92.33% total expected return for your hand if you have the royal flush. 

When you do the same math for keeping the two kings, you discover that the anticipated return is 7.67%. Thus, it would be a big blunder if you just kept the pair. There’s only one chance to get a royal flush in this example, but the possibility of a big victory makes it worthwhile. 

Should You Keep a Small Pair or Try to Get a Straight?

Yet another tough decision is before you. You have two obvious choices:

  1. Keep the pair of fours and aim to get three or four of a kind or full house
  2. Keep the open-ended straight and aim for a straight

Considering the expected value of both choices, in the case of aiming for the straight draw, you’re looking at an anticipated return of 3.404%, while holding the pair of fours means your anticipated return will be 4.118%. 

It’s easy to see that a pair of fours has a larger anticipated value than an open-ended straight draw. However, this is only true when you’re playing with a paytable in the full pay game, but not as much when playing with other paytables or another video poker game.

All this tells us that you can have a universal video poker strategy if a small variation in games and paytables is present. However, when bigger variations are present either in the game or paytables – for example, in Deuces Wild – you’ll need an entirely different plan. 

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Optimal vs Simple Video Poker Strategy

Video poker veterans utilise two kinds of strategies. A basic – or simple – strategy that groups outcomes with resembling anticipated values. Naturally, this kind of strategy is much simpler and more effortless to understand than the optimal strategy. 

When you compare basic and optimal strategies, the difference in expected value is small. For example, for full pay Jacks or Better, the difference in the theoretical payout for simple and optimal strategies is 0,09%. And this 0,09% is only there because players make mistakes.

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