Video Poker Lessons

A Beginner's Guide

See also how to play: Baccarat | Blackjack | Craps | Roulette | Slot Machines | Texas Holdem | Video Poker

Video poker offers some of the best odds in the casino. It's a good alternative to slot machines since you still have the chance of hitting a big jackpot, but you're about five times more likely to actually get it.  Slot players should seriously consider graduating to video poker, because they're much more likely to win that way.  The only catch is that to enjoy the good odds, you have to learn the proper strategy.  If you just guess then you could easily do worse than with slots.  But you came to the right place, because we'll cover strategy here.

The play is simple:  You're dealt five cards.  You decide which ones to keep by tapping the pictures on the screen or pressing buttons on the console. Then you hit the DRAW button and you get replacement cards for the cards you didn't keep. You win if you wind up with a traditional poker hand like two pair, straight, flush, etc. (We'll explain these below for those new to poker.)  The amount you win per hand depends on the paytable of the machine you're playing.  Here's a sample paytable.

 

There are five columns in the paytable because your winnings depend on whether you played 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 coins.  Note that there's a bonus for the Royal Flush.  Instead of winning 1250 coins (5 coins x 250), you win 4000 coins.  So you should always play five coins ("Max Bet") when playing video poker.  If you can't afford to play five coins at a time, switch to a lower-denomination machine.  (Yes, this is opposite of our advice about slots, and that's because the penalty for not playing max coins in video poker is greater.)


Paytables & Returns

One nice thing about video poker is you can know the return of the machine even before you start playing.  On a typical video poker game, the casino's average profit on each play is about 3%.  That's called the house edge.  The return is the part that's returned to the player.  So if the casino gets 3% of all money bet, the players get back 97% of all money bet.  The return on a video poker machine is determined by the paytable.  Just compare the paytable to the list at Wizard of Odds and you'll see that, for example, the Jacks or Better paytable above means that the return on that machine is 99.54%.  If the paytable showed only 8 coins for the full house and only 5 for the flush, it would be a 97.3% machine.

Compare this to slot machines, where you have no clue as to what payout you're getting.  And even if the return were listed, it would be lousy.  The slot machine is the only game in the casino where your odds are a total mystery.  Why would you let the casino do that to you?  Play video poker instead.

Right after learning the proper strategy, the most important thing about playing video poker is to choose a machine with a good paytable!  Here are some pictures I just took in the same casino, same style game, same denomination.  The only thing that's different is the paytables.  The first one pays 9 & 6 for the full house and flush respectively, and the second one pays only 8 & 5 for those hands.

99.54% return 97.29%

If you choose the machine on the right, you'll lose your money six times faster!  And your chances of winning will be far less.  If the reason isn't obvious then consider this:  If the player is getting back 99.54% and 97.29%, that means the casino is keeping 0.46% and 2.71%.  The casino profit on the second machine is 2.71 0.46 = 5.9 times higher.

So it really pays to hunt out the good machines!  But it's actually pretty easy, because the readers of a website called VPFree2 scout out the best machines and post their locations on the site.  Using that site you can see that you can there are 9/6 Jacks or Better machines on the Strip at Cosmopolitan, New York New York, Riviera, Treasure Island, and others.  And in downtown and off-strip casinos, the good games are more common, and available at lower denominations.

Despite the importance of finding the best machines, most players don't.  That's why casinos can offer both decent and lousy machines in the same casino and be confident that gamers will still play the lousy ones.  They have to keep some good machines, otherwise they'd lose all the players who know what they're doing.  But most of the machines will be bad, and most gamers will play them anyway.  Heck, in Vegas even casinos and supermarkets have video poker, with absolutely terrible paytables, but people will still play them rather than going across the street to a casino where they can get seven times better odds.  Go figure.

Some games actually have a return of over 100% with proper play, such as a special flavor of Deuces Wild which pays out 100.77%.  There are a few caveats, though:

  • Those machines are hard to find.  Casinos don't like to put games on the floor that potentially lose money.  Your best bet for finding these games is in downtown Vegas (not on the Strip) and at locals casinos, which have to be more competitive than Strip casinos in order to lure customers there away from the Strip.  Here again, VPFree2 can help you find good-paying machines.
  • Proper play is essential. If you just guess at the strategy, you won't do much better than you would at a slot machine.
  • You won't get rich from video poker even if a machine pays 100%+.  At a fast 600 hands per hour, and $1.25 per hand ($0.25 x 5 coins), that's $750 wagered per hour.  If you play perfectly (no mistakes) and realize your 0.77% advantage, that's $5.78/hr. on average.  You'll also need several thousand dollars of capital to fund the losses you'll suffer while waiting to hit the royal flush.  Yes, if you were capitalized you could play at higher denominations, except 100%+ machines are rarely found at anything but quarters and below.

Whether you seek out the 100%+ machines or the 99%+ machines, I can't stress strongly enough that it's essential to learn the proper strategy.  If there are only two things you take from this page, it's to find the games with the best paytables, and play those games according to the published strategies.


Getting started with Video Poker

  1. Pick a game.  There are dozens of varieties of video poker.  I recommend Jacks or Better because it's the original VP game, it's widely available, and most importantly, the strategy is pretty easy.

  2. Learn the strategy.  You can't just guess or you'll lose money hand over fist.  Use the simple strategy listed below to get started.

  3. Practice!  Practice on your computer withp play money before you risk real money in a casino.  The Wizard's practice game is nice because it tells you when you make a strategy mistake.  But if you want a game with sound then you'll prefer Bodog's practice game.

  4. Find the good games.  The VP games with the best paytables are findable, but they're rare.  Naturally the casinos prefer that you play the stingier machines.  In general, the Strip casinos have the worst machines, and everywhere else it's better -- off-strip, downtown, and locals casinos.  But while good machines are rare on the Strip, some do exist.  VPFree2 can help you find the good-paying machines.

Video Poker probabilities

Chances of making a good hand
Actual results of my last session

Dealt
Hand
Desired
Hand
Probability
Actual
Results
Two pair
Full House
8.5% (4/47)
5.1% (4/79)
4 to a straight
Straight
17.0% (8/47)
17.5% (7/40)
4 to a flush
Flush
19.1% (9/47)
19.7% (15/76)

Your odds of hitting a royal flush (the top jackpot) are about 1 in 40,000.  At 600 hands an hour and 8 hours a day, you can expect to hit a royal once every 8.3 days on average.  But I estimate the odds of hitting a slot jackpot to usually be at least 1 in 262,000, so you're far more likely to hit the jackpot with video poker.

Elsewhere on this site I show you how to figure your expected loss for an hour of play.  In summary, you multiply the house edge by the bet size by the number of rounds per hour.  On a 9/6 quarter Jacks or Better machine with proper strategy, that would be 0.5% x $1.25 (remember we're playing 5 coins at a time) x 400 hands per hour = $2.50 per hour.  Not bad.  Except that the formula doesn't work for video poker in the short term.  That's because you'll hit the royal only once every 66 hours on average, and while you're waiting for the royal, the return on the game isn't ~99.5%, it's ~97.5%.  So you're more likely to lose 2.5% in the short term rather than 0.5%.  So we can expect our hourly loss to be closer to $6.25/hour than $1.25/hour while we're waiting for the royal.  Still, $6.25/hour is pretty cheap.  On a slot machine your loss would be closer to $40 an hour.  So you can see why I'm so eager to switch you from slots to VP.

Incidentally, a Four of a Kind happens about once per hour.

Recently I played a bunch of video poker and recorded the results,
which you can see in the table at right.

Often when you hold four cards and throw away one, the new card is the same value as the one you threw away.  For example, let's say you have 9, 9, 2, 2, 5, you throw away the five, and then you get another five.  This might seem to happen way more often than it should.  But that's an illusion caused by the human tendency to look for patterns.  A good example of how easily our perception can be fooled is to take the awareness test, where you watch a short video and count the number of passes the white team makes.  Most people fail.  I did.

Once I hit two 4 of a Kinds back to back.  The probability of hitting it once is 0.24%.  The chances of hitting it back to back are 0.24%2 = 0.0006%, or 1 in 179,000.  That's four times less likely than hitting a royal flush.  And I would have preferred the royal!  (By the way, purists will note that after you've hit a 4 of a Kind, the chances of hitting another four of a kind is just 0.24%, not 0.0006%, but I'm considering the probability of getting two back-to-back before I get the first one.)

Once I put $100 into a $0.25 machine and played it for a while.  I played it down to zero credits, and then I hit Four of a Kind, which saved me.  I played that down to zero again, and then I hit Four of a Kind again.  I played it down to zero credits a third time, and then hit Four of a Kind a third time!  But that was the end of my luck.  I didn't get it a fourth time, I just went bust.  Still, that was pretty unusual.

Learn the poker hands

If you're new to poker, here's what the names of the poker hands mean.  If you know this already then skip to the next section.

  • A full house is a pair and a three of a kind, like 3 3♣ 9♠ 9♣ 3♠.  Notice that it doesn't matter what order the cards are in.  This is true for all of the different kinds of winning hands -- the cards can be in any order.  As long as you could rearrange them to be in order, then it's a winning hand.
  • A flush is a hand where all the cards are the same suit, like 9♣ Q♣ 10♣ 4♣ 6♣.
  • A straight is a hand with consecutive ranks, like 9♠ 7 10 8♠ 6♣.  Notice again that the cards don't have to appear in order.  The order of face cards, from lowest to highest, is Jack, Queen, King, Ace, which we abbreviate J, Q, K, A.  An ace can also count as 1, to complete a straight where the other cards are 2, 3, 4, and 5.  But it can't count as both a low and a high card, e.g., Q K A 2 3.
  • An outside straight is a set of cards that can be made into a straight with another card on either end. 9♠ 7 10 8♠ 3♣ is an outside straight because either a 6 on the low end or a Jack on the high end will turn it into a straight.
  • An inside straight is a would-be straight with a hole in the middle. 9♠ 2 10 8♠ 6♣ is an inside straight because only a 7 will turn it into a straight.  The distinction between outside straights and inside straights is important because in Jacks or Better we will never try to turn an inside straight into a straight.  It's too hard, since we have only one chance of completing the straight.
  • A straight flush is a hand that is both a straight and a flush, like 9 7 10 8 J.
  • A royal flush is a straight flush composed of the highest cards, such as 10 J Q K A.  But of course they don't all have to be in order. Q 10 A J K is still a royal flush.  The Royal Flush is the jackpot in video poker, and comes around about once out of every 40,000 or so hands -- or a week and a half of full-time play.  Hey, it could be worse:  The jackpot on a typical slot machine only hits about one out of every 262,144 spins.

Video Poker Lessons

Each VP variety and paytable has its own strategy.  The strategy for Jacks or Better is different from that for Deuces Wild, and within each style of machine, each paytable can have its own strategy.  Learning all those strategies is tedious, so I recommend you figure out which video poker game you like best, and then learn the strategy for it.  If you get bored with that game then you can learn another strategy at that time.  For now, let's start out with an lesson on Full-Pay Jacks or Better. I chose this game because:

  • Jacks or Better was the original video poker game.
  • It's still widely available and easy to find.
  • The Full-Pay version returns a very nice 99.54%, and can still be found on the Vegas Strip.
  • The strategy is one of the easiest among video poker varieties.

The strategy below is the Wizard's simplified strategy for Jacks or Better.  You give up just a tiny part of the return (99.46% instead of 99.54%) and in exchange you get a strategy that's much, much easier to learn and remember than the perfect strategy.  The 0.08% penalty costs you only $0.60 per hour of play on average, assuming a quarter machine played at 600 hands per hour.

With this strategy, you play the highest hand in the list that matches your cards. Here's the list, and for reference, here's the paytable again, based on one coin played.

The Wizard's Simple Strategy

  1. Full house or better
  2. 4 to a royal flush
  3. Straight, three of a kind, or flush
  4. 4 to a straight flush
  5. Two pair
  6. High pair
  7. 3 to a royal flush
  8. 4 to a flush
  9. Low pair
  10. 4 to an outside straight
  11. 2 suited high cards
  12. 3 to a straight flush
  13. 2 unsuited high cards (if more than 2 pick then pick lowest 2)
  14. Suited 10/J, 10/Q, or 10/K
  15. One high card
  16. Discard everything

9/6 Jacks or Better Paytable

Royal Flush

800

Straight Flush

50

Four of a Kind

25

Full House

9

Flush

6

Straight

4

Three of a Kind

3

Two Pair

2

Jacks or Better (meaning a pair of Jacks, Queens, Kings, or Aces)

1

Remember that if you use this strategy for anything other than 9/6 Jacks or Better you're playing wrong, and that will cost you!

Let's go through some examples.

 

1.

The minimum hand you need to win is a pair of Jacks. So in this hand we'll hold the Jack, hoping that we'll draw another Jack. We hold the Jack by tapping the picture of the Jack on the screen, or pressing the button for it on the console.  Then we'll tap the DRAW button to get four new cards, hoping that one of them is a Jack to match the Jack we held.

We could get even luckier.  We might draw two more Jacks, and then we have a Three of a Kind.  Or three more Jacks, and then we have a Four of a Kind.  But those are unlikely; our most likely win would be a draw just one more Jack to make a pair of Jacks.

Okay, so how did we know that this was the proper play? Simple: We looked it up on the strategy list above. "One high card", #15, was the best hand we had on that list.


2.

This is similar to the previous hand. There's one high card -- a queen -- so that's what we'll hold.


3.

Oh boy, we have two high cards! We'll hold both of them, because then we can make a pair by drawing either a Jack or a Queen. True, we're only gonna get three more cards for a potential match rather than four this way, but our odds are still better for making our pair. We might also get a full house if we're lucky.  This was play #13 in our list above.


4.

Wow, three high cards!  Well, hold your horses there, cowboy.  We don't hold all three. That's because if we did then it would be impossible to get a full house.  When we have three unsuited high cards, we'll take the lowest two -- in this case the Jack and the Queen.  This is #13 on our list above.


5.

Three more high cards.  But there's a big difference vs. last time:  This time two of them are the same suit.  When you have multiple high cards you hold the ones of the same suit, because they can turn into a Flush, or even into a Royal Flush, which is the jackpot.  So in this case we hold the Jack and the Ace.  This is #11 on our list above.


6.

Let's mix it up a little with a hand very different from the rest.  I hope this one is easy for you.  You have three 5's.  This is a winning, paying hand, even before you draw for replacements!  Hold the three 5's, and hope you're dealt another 5 for Four of a Kind.


7.

This isn't quite as good as our previous hand.  We have a pair of 5's, but by themselves it's not enough to win.  We'll hold the pair and hope to get another 5 to make a Three of a Kind.  This is play #9 on our list.


8.

Here we have four to an outside straight -- 5, 6, 7, 8.  Either a 4 or a 9 will turn it into a straight.  We hold the four to an outside straight and draw a replacement for our useless 2.


9.

This is an inside straight -- 4, 5, 7, 8. There's a gap in the middle.  Remember that we never draw to an inside straight with Jacks or Better.

So what do we hold here?  Nothing.  We don't have even the minimum hand in our strategy list.  So we don't hold anything, we just draw five new cards. This isn't an uncommon occurrence -- you'll often get just plain bad hands where you have to throw the whole thing away.


10.

At first glance this might look like a junk hand, but look closer.  Four cards are the same suit -- we have four to a flush.  That's what we hold, throwing away the 5.  This is play #8 on our list.


11.

Another seemingly-junk hand, but not.  We have three to a straight flush -- the 5, 6, and 9, which is what we hold.  We know that we'll never draw to an inside straight, but this is different because we're drawing to a straight flush.  Take a look at the paytable and see how hefty a payout we'd get if we made the straight flush.

We probably won't make the straight flush, but all the occasional times with a hand like this that we turn it into a regular flush, regular straight, or three of a kind -- along with the infrequent straight flush -- make holding the three to a straight flush a better play than throwing everything away and hoping for a miracle from five brand-new cards.


12.

Here we have two choices:  Hold the four to an outside straight and go for the straight, or hold the two 7's and go for a three of a kind or four of a kind. What to do?

Here's where our strategy list comes in.  Notice that a low pair is #9, while four to an outside straight is #10.  The low pair is higher on the list, so we hold the pair.  In fact, you almost always hold pairs in Jacks or Better.  We'll discuss exceptions below, but in general, always lunge for a pair, and then do a quick check to see if you have anything better, since you probably won't.


13.

Here's one of those cases where something beats a pair.  Namely, four to a flush.  We'll hold those four cards and go for the flush.

Here's the way to remember it: A pair beats a would-be straight, but not a would-be flush.


14.

Another toss-up.  Do we go with the pair or with the high cards?  Remember what we said earlier: Always lunge for the pair.  In this case we hold the pair.  It's #9 on our list, vs. #11 for the two suited high cards.

 


15.

Decisions, decisions!  Our possibilities are to:

  • Go for the straight (10, J, Q, K)
  • Go with the high pair (K, K)
  • Go with the three to a royal flush (10, J, Q)

Practice video poker with fake money or real money at
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Strategy list to the rescue.  The high pair wins at #6 (vs. #7 for the three to a Royal, and #10 for the four to an outside straight.)


Getting started with Video Poker

  1. Pick a game.  There are dozens of varieties of video poker.  I recommend Jacks or Better because it's the original VP game, it's widely available, and most importantly, the strategy is pretty easy.

  2. Learn the strategy.  You can't just guess or you'll lose money hand over fist.  Use the simple strategy listed above to get started.

  3. Practice!  Practice on your computer withp play money before you risk real money in a casino.  The Wizard's practice game is nice because it tells you when you make a strategy mistake.  But if you want a game with sound then you'll prefer Bodog's practice game.

  4. Find the good games.  The VP games with the best paytables are findable, but they're rare.  Naturally the casinos prefer that you play the stingier machines.  In general, the Strip casinos have the worst machines, and everywhere else it's better -- off-strip, downtown, and locals casinos.  But while good machines are rare on the Strip, some do exist.  VPFree2 can help you find the good-paying machines.


More Resources

Practice video poker.  The Wizard's practice game will tell you when you make strategy mistakes.  If you prefer sound (like I do), then try Bodog's practice game.

Strategies.  The Wizard of Odds has come up with simplified strategies that are very easy to play and remember, and which work almost as well as professional strategies.  He's also got a bunch of other useful stuff on video poker.

Jeff Lotspiech's Video Poker. Strategies, risk of ruin calculator, practice on the web, more.

Bob Dancer's site.  Bob is the most famous professional video poker player around, and his site shares his insights.  He also sells useful VP-related software on the site.

See also how to play:
a d v e r t i s e m e n t s

Online Casino Guide
Guide to gambling online features casino reviews, game guides, payout percentage information and a guide to online casino bonus offers
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Gambling Problem?
Call the 800-522-4700 hotline, and read this.

Also, know that Parkinson's drugs encourage gambling


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Gambling Problem?
Call the 800-522-4700 hotline, and read this.

Also, know that Parkinson's drugs encourage gambling.