Video Poker: 5 Tips for Beginners
Here’s how to get in on one of the most player-friendly games in any casino, online or otherwise: video poker.
e If you play online casino games, chances are you’ve sampled slots from a variety of manufacturers. If you’re an experienced video poker player, chances are you’ve stuck with the few games you know well.
But what if you’ve never played video poker? You can start by sampling games, and chances are, you’ll win occasionally. Everyone knows how to play poker, right?
Well, when it comes to video poker, that’s only partly right. To get the most out of video poker—that is, to get the best chance of coming out of a play session ahead—it’s best to know what you’re doing before you go in. That means doing a bit of research ahead of time, picking the right games, and making the right decisions while you play.
That last piece of advice is particularly suited to video poker. In the end, this is a skill game. That means you can maximize your return by learning which cards to keep and which to throw away.
What’s the RTP on Video Poker?
If you play slots online, chances are you look into the return-to-player percentage, or RTP, of the games ahead of time. The RTP is the percentage of all wagers on a particular game that return to players (all players) as winnings.
The RTP on slot games on legal U.S. sites is normally somewhere around 94 percent. That means there’s a 6 percent house edge on most games. In video poker, if you choose the right games and make the right decisions, there’s virtually no house edge. RTP on the best video poker games is over 99 percent, and on one or two variations, even just over 100 percent, for an actual edge to the player! To be clear, a 100 percent payback doesn’t mean you’ll win. It means the odds are even between you and the house.
Think of it like flipping a coin. Over time, you’ll land on heads as often as you’ll land on tails. But it also means that the right video poker game gives the player a much better shot at winning, long-term, than the vast majority of regular slot games.
So, how do you pick the right games, and how do you make the right decisions on the draw? We’ll address that here with the first video poker variation you should try as a novice: the classic Jacks or Better draw poker game. This was the first video poker game offered on casino machines, back in the mid-1970s when no one in a casino had heard of such a game. It’s also the video poker game with the easiest in-game strategy to master.
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Jacks or Better: Getting Started
Jacks or Better video poker plays just like the draw poker you may have played with your friends at home. You place your wager, hit the “Deal” button, and are dealt five cards. You select the cards you want to hold, and hit the “Draw” button. The draw cards are randomly chosen from the remaining 47 cards in the 52-card deck. (It’s the electronic equivalent of a live poker game if the deck were reshuffled after every hand.) The game pays you according to a pay schedule that is displayed on the screen.
But not all Jacks are Better games are the same. Here’s how to get the most out of the experience.
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1. Picking the Paytable
Video poker is the only casino game in which the player does not need to be told what the payback percentage is. With a little help, you can tell the RTP by simply looking at the paytable.
The way game programmers manipulate the payback percentage on a video poker game is by altering the pay schedule. There are many free websites that will list the top-paying schedules for each game. Check out videopoker.com. It was created by video poker experts and mathematicians who have determined the top schedule for each variation of video poker.
But for our purposes, the key portions of the pay table to watch are the single-coin payouts for the full house and the flush. If the full house pays 9-for-1 and the flush pays 6-for-1, chances are you’ve got the top-paying Jacks or Better game, and a payback percentage of 99.54 percent with perfect play. (We’ll get into perfect play a bit later.) Just make sure they haven’t changed any other part of the schedule—particularly look at the two-pair payout. It should be 2-for-1.
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This is the complete top-paying Jacks or Better schedule, with the single-coin return listed:
- ROYAL FLUSH 250 (4,000 at max bet)
- STRAIGHT FLUSH 50
- 4 OF A KIND 25
- FULL HOUSE 9
- FLUSH 6
- STRAIGHT 4
- 3 OF A KIND 3
- 2 PAIR 2
- JACKS OR BETTER 1
2. Wagering Smart
Always, always wager five credits for the maximum payout. Otherwise, there’s no bonus for landing a royal flush, which only occurs once every 40,000 hands, on average. Credits 1-4 return straight multiples of 250 for the royal. But with five credits wagered, instead of 1,250 (five times 250), the pay is 4,000. Believe us, you don’t want to bet a single coin and end up with 250 for a royal.
3. Playing to Win
The return-to-player percentage of 99.54 percent on Jacks or Better is a calculation assuming the right decisions are made on each draw. Some are not what you may think right away. Say you are dealt a flush, but the cards are 6-J-Q-K-A. You may be tempted to take the sure win, but the correct move is always to hold the sequenced, suited cards—go for the royal. Consider that with four of the five suited cards, the odds of landing the game’s top prize go from the overall one-in-40,000 to a very attainable one-in-48.
If you’re playing video poker for the first time, it’s best to learn basic strategy. While it takes a while to learn perfect strategy (few do), your chances will go up from making the correct draw decisions.
There are many sources you can use to learn video poker strategy, from numerous books—we recommend Bob Dancer’s Video Poker for the Intelligent Beginner or Jean Scott’s Frugal Video Poker—and software programs out there that are great for learning the basics. What’s great about the software programs—Dancer’s “Video Poker for Winners” is the most popular—is they not only tell you the correct strategy, but let you play the game on your computer, and tell you when your choice is incorrect.
If you prefer to play on your smartphone, there are numerous apps that do the same thing.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The quickest way to learn basic strategy is to get a software program or app, and practice, practice, practice. Before long, you’ll be good enough to hold your own with the house, and have a great time doing it.
Not many players master video poker strategy. That’s why many casinos, online and land-based, offer the top pay schedules. The fact that they’re the top pay schedules attracts a lot of amateur play, which more than makes up for the expert play as far as revenue to the site or the casino.
And while you may not become good enough to be a professional—yes, there are people who make a living at this; Dancer is one of the top pros—the better you get, the more chance you have of whittling that house edge down toward zero.
4. Single-Hand or Multi-Hand?
This primer lays out the rules for traditional, single-hand Jacks or Better video poker. However, most online casino sites also offer multi-hand versions of all the single-hand games. Triple Play Poker deals three identical hands at once, Five Play Poker five hands, etc. These games deal the same five initial cards for three hands, five hands, or however many hands are displayed. Your cards are frozen in all the hands, but the computer selects the draw cards for each hand from a different deck containing all but your held cards. The strategy for these games is the same as if you were playing a traditional single-hand game. In picking the game, choose the number of hands—remember, five credits per hand—that your bankroll will allow.
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5. Take a Break!
As we noted earlier, video poker is a skill game, and the more you play, the better you play. It’s also much more repetitive than a slot game—in basic versions of games like Jacks or Better, no bonus events break the routine, so it’s easy to settle into a long, mesmerizing play session.
Build in play breaks. Especially if you hit a big win—four of a kind, straight flush, the top royal—cash out and send those winnings to your account. If you want to keep playing, re-enter your original stake and go from there. Even better, put your phone or laptop away for a bit. Go get a sandwich or take a walk. In a repetitive game like this, it’s easy to give winnings back to the house if you just keep playing.
Next Time: Bonus Poker Variations
Get the straight dope on video poker, online slots and more from iGamingPlayer’s gambling guru Frank Legato.