7 Steps to Becoming a Better Video Poker Player

by Jeff Harris
on October 23, 2017

Every gambler wants to leave the game with more money than they began with, but when it comes to negative expectation games, that can be a tough task.

Indeed, the very concept of casino gaming involves wagers that put players at a distinct disadvantage over the long run. Sure, we’ve all hit a number on the roulette wheel or scored a sweet double-down on blackjack, but those are the exceptions to gambling’s oldest rule: the house always wins.

In the case of video poker, players face a far less steep uphill climb to profitability, simply because most variants and pay tables create quite favorable conditions. When you compare the 94.74 percent payback rate offered by double zero American roulette to the 99.54 percent payback found on a full-pay Jacks or Better machine, the difference is about as self-evident as it gets.

For the most part, video poker provides one of the most player-friendly wagers on the casino floor, with most full-pay versions running between 97 percent and 99 percent payback. And in some rare cases – such as full-pay Deuces Wild and its 100.76 percent payback rate – video poker can actually create a positive expectation experience.

Combine those favorable numbers with the skill and strategy needed to succeed, and video poker is surely a “sharp” player’s game. Unlike pure games of chance like roulette or craps, you can actually get better at video poker, improving your abilities and understanding of the game over time.

With that in mind, the following list highlights seven steps anybody can take to help themselves become a better video poker player

1. Memorize and Master Basic Strategy

This one is a no brainer… but you’ll definitely need some brainpower to make this tip happen.

For every form of video poker – Jacks or Better, Deuces Wild, Double Double Bonus, and so on –expert analysts have cracked the code to create a comprehensive basic strategy.

This works just like basic strategy in blackjack, so for every possible five-card starting hand situation you’ll face, there’s a hold/draw play that provides the highest possible expected return.

For the majority of hands you’ll be dealt, those decisions are straightforward and simple: hold your pat hands, hold a big draw, etc.

But in many cases, a five-card starting hand presents several seemingly viable options. You might hold a small pair along with a four-card flush draw, or perhaps three of a kind plus a three-card royal flush draw.

In these instances, the margins between the optimal play and the others are razor thin. It takes high level mathematical analysis to determine the exact expected return rates for each drawing decision you’re faced with.

And if you consistently make the incorrect play, your long-term expected return as a video poker player will be severely diminished.

This is where basic strategy comes into play. By memorizing the basic strategy chart for your preferred video poker variant, you’ll be armed with the perfect play for every possible scenario. Over time, as you continually make the correct play, you’ll derive the game’s maximum expected return – which separates you from the vast majority of players.

Take a look below to see how the concept of a basic strategy chart works:

JACKS OR BETTER BASIC STRATEGY

Rank Pre Draw Hands Optimal Decision
1 Four of a kind, straight flush, royal flush Hold pat hand
2 Four cards to a royal flush Draw one card
3 Three of a kind, straight, flush, full house Hold pat hand
4 Four cards to a straight flush Draw one card
5 Two pair Draw one card
6 One high pair (jacks or better) Draw three cards
7 Three cards to a royal flush Draw two cards
8 Four cards to a flush Draw one card
9 One low pair (tens or lower) Draw three cards
10 Four cards to open ended straight Draw one card
11 Two suited high cards (jack or higher) Draw three cards
12 Three cards to a straight flush Draw two cards
13 Two unsuited high cards* Draw three cards
14 Suited J 10, Q 10, or K 10 Draw three cards
15 One high card Draw four cards
16 Five unconnected low cards Draw five cards

*With three unsuited high cards, hold lowest two

To put this information into practice, your job is simply to assess your five-card starting hand, determine which hands and/or draws you currently hold, and locate them on the list.

Whichever hand or draw is ranked the highest represents your optimal play, and from there, simply follow the drawing instructions to ensure you’re playing perfectly.

Every video poker variant out there today has a similar basic strategy chart, so your job is to locate them and study until the plays become second nature. And don’t worry if you don’t have it memorized yet, as you’re perfectly free to bring the actual chart with you right to the machines. Most casinos even sell handheld basic strategy charts for beginners to learn with.

Eventually, you’ll know exactly what to do with any five-card starting hand, and from there, playing video poker profitably becomes eminently easier.

2. Train Yourself to Play Perfectly

Now that you know all about basic strategy advice, the time has come to put that information to use.

But instead of heading out to the casino and plunking down a portion of your bankroll for the sake of practice, I advise a much more financially sound strategy.

The internet is a wonderful place for gamblers looking to learn, and among the many resources out there created by true video poker experts is the Video Poker Trainer tool (

As the title implies, this website is setup to provide direct training on many of the most popular video poker games.

The main screen can be configured by game type and pay table, and from there, you’ll simply be playing games like Jacks or Better, Bonus Poker, or Joker Poker exactly as you would on a real machine. The trainer comes with two modes – Random and Difficult – but we advise using the randomized version to begin your training.

After loading the game screen and setting it to your preferred game settings, Random mode will spit out a randomized five card starting hand. At this point, you’ll have nothing to work with but your own wits, based on your previous studies of basic strategy.

Assuming you’re playing Jacks or Better, you might receive a five-card starting hand like this:

  • Jh – 8h – 6d – Kh – 3h

Based on these five cards, you have two main hands to choose from: a four-card flush draw in hearts, or a two card royal flush draw in hearts.

Without knowing basic strategy, a rookie player may opt to go for the gusto here and try for that elusive royal flush. And why not, with a massive 4,000-coin jackpot awaiting you if you beat the odds?

Well, using the training tool, you can input that decision – holding the Kh and Jh while discarding the other three cards – to see what happens.

When you do, the game will deal out replacement cards as per usual, but winning or losing one hand isn’t really the point here. Instead, the idea is to see whether or not you made the mathematically optimal play.

After holding the two-card royal flush draw, the trainer offers the following message:

“Incorrect, you were dealt J♥8♥6♦K♥3♥ and held J♥K♥ for an expected return of 2.882.

Holding J♥8♥K♥2♥ would give a higher expected return of 6.383.”

In this case, holding the two-card royal flush draw offers an expected return of 2.882 coins. This takes into account the other hands you might make – such as a straight, a standard flush, or various one pair/two pair/three of a kind combinations – along with the royal you’re shooting for.

But as the trainer’s results indicate, you’d have a much higher expected return of 6.383 coins by holding the four-card flush draw. This is because the odds of hitting a basic flush are 1.10 percent, while landing a royal flush represents a miniscule 0.0025 percent shot.

I advise using the Random mode for a few hundred hands and using the results to test your natural instincts against true basic strategy.

From there, take a shot at the Difficult mode, which turns the training on its head.

When using Difficult mode, the trainer will cease to be random, instead dispensing carefully crafted five-card starting hands that create some of the most difficult decisions in the game. These are the close calls, the hands that seem to offer two or more equally viable plays.

During a training session on Difficult mode, your skills will be tested with a stream of incredibly thin spots, where true mastery of basic strategy is needed to consistently make the correct play.

Once you’ve turned yourself into a video poker machine, one capable of making the best possible play over and over again on Difficult mode – the time has come to up the ante and play for real money.

3. Hit the Player’s Club for Comps and Credit

This rule holds true for every gambler (especially slot machine specialists), and at this point, it’s become common knowledge.

Even so, I’ll provide a brief primer on the importance of joining the Player’s Club at your favorite casinos.

Before hitting the machines, signing up for a Player’s Card provides a safety net of sorts. These promotional tools allow casinos to track a player’s activity, as venues are always looking to reward their high-volume players with lavish gifts in the hopes of keeping their business in the building.

Once you’ve signed up for a Player’s Card, use it every time you sit down for a video poker session.

Eventually, as the casino tracks your play and labels you a “regular,” you’ll begin receiving a steady stream of generous offers.

Everything from free buffet vouchers, discounts on the in-house entertainment, and complimentary stays are provided to players who put in their time. Now, it goes without saying that these aren’t necessarily “free” offers, as you’ll need to play – and ostensibly lose – quite a bit before earning the rewards.

Even so, these offers act as rebates of a sort, with a $100 loss on the session easily mitigated by two $40 buffet coupons and a $20 ticket to the comedy club.

You can also earn Player’s Points over time, which can be converted to cash for use at Starbucks, shopping outlets, and other necessities within the property.

By taking full advantage of these offers, a savvy video poker specialist can easily subsidize entire trips to Las Vegas through comps and freebies.

Finally, many casinos also offer regular players something known as “free play,” which is exactly what it sounds like. If you’ve been tracked as a high-volume player, the casino may deposit a free play credit on your Player’s Card. The next time you show up to play, your first few spins won’t require any actual cash or coin – just that account credit.

It’s a rare feat, but there’s nothing quite like landing a jackpot deal for a sizable hand pay while using the casino’s money to play. And even if you don’t score the big one, free play offers are a great way to get some practice time in on a variant you’re only now beginning to learn.

Player’s Clubs and similar promotions are one of the best ways to reduce the inherent variance associated with gambling games. Sure, you’ll win some and lose some on the machines, but you’ll never lose a dime when it comes to Player’s Club offers.

4. Patience Is a Virtue

Once again, this piece of advice applies to all gamblers, as impatience can lead a player down the road to ruin.

These are negative expectation games, after all, so losing more than you win during a short-term stretch is to be expected. If those losses cause you to play irrationally – by moving up to higher stakes, playing games you haven’t perfected, or even heading to the table game pits to blow off some steam – you’ll sacrifice all of the hard work and training you’ve put in.

And with machine-based games like video poker and slots, the specter of impatient play becomes even more ominous. These games don’t have dealers or fellow players to slow things down, so a video poker player who is “steaming” can start clicking buttons maniacally, parting ways with massive portions of their bankroll in a matter of minutes.

Rather than fall into that trap, I advise taking the opposite approach.

Slowing the game down by taking your time with each decision serves two main purposes.

First, you’ll have a few extra seconds to run through your memory banks and find the correct play for that scenario. Playing with optimal strategy can be tough, even for experts, so it’s always best to think things through and be sure before making a draw/hold decision.

Second, and most importantly, thinking for a spell stretches the session out, thereby reducing your hands per hour rate. Video poker may be one of the most player-friendly games on the floor, but it’s still spread on the casino floor, which means it’s almost always a negative expectation wager.

Speeding things up when gambling on negative expectation only serves one purpose: compounding the small losses you’ll inevitably incur.

By slowing the pace and stretching a session out to last longer, you’ll absorb less of those inevitable losses – which pads your expected return over the long run.

5. Hunt for the Best Games

Within the world of video poker, games can be divided into different variants such as Jacks or Better, Bonus Poker, Joker Poker, and Deuces Wild.

Each of these unique setups offers the player a different payback percentage, based on the payouts for each hand in the game, and the probabilities of hitting those hands. Jacks or Better traditionally pays out at a 99.54 percent rate, but full-pay Double Bonus Poker increases that to 100.17 percent, and full-pay Deuces Wild rises even higher to 100.76 percent.

But with dozens of video poker variants out there today, and more launched every year, keeping track of every full-pay table out there can be a demanding task.

To make things far less difficult, I always make use of the handy vpFREE2 website – and especially the Video Poker Games and Machines Search tool.

Using this convenient search function allows anybody to locate the full-pay machines in a given region. You can search through Las Vegas, the Midwest, both coasts, or even Canada, and vpFREE2 will provide an accurate listing of every video poker machine in that area.

Play around with this tool and see what you can find, and before long, you’ll be one of the few video poker players out there today who knows exactly where to find the full-pay versions of every game.

6. Hunt for the Best Pay Tables

Along the same lines, every video poker variant offers several slightly different versions of its pay table.

The most popular game of them all, Jacks or Better, traditionally used a 9/6 pay table – with the 9 referring to the 9-coin payout on a full house, and 6 to the 6-coin payout for a flush. This pay table creates a payback rate of 99.54 percent, and because that’s the best possible rate for Jacks or Better, the 9/6 games are known as “full-pay.”

But other Jacks or Better machines might reduce the payout for a full house to 8 coins, or the flush payout to 5 coins. By making these seemingly minor adjustments, the game’s designers are able to create different payback percentages within a given variant.

Obviously, anything less than the full-pay table offers inferior odds, so your job is to locate the full-pay games whenever possible.

Thankfully, I’ve done some of that legwork already, so take a look below for pay table comparisons across several of video poker’s most widely played variants

JACKS OR BETTER

Pay Table Payback Percentage
*9 / 6 Jacks or Better 99.54 percent
9 / 5 Jacks or Better 98.45 percent
8 / 6 Jacks or Better 98.39 percent
8 / 5 Jacks or Better 97.30 percent
7 / 5 Jacks or Better 96.15 percent
6 / 5 Jacks or Better 95.00 percent

*Full pay

ACES AND EIGHTS

Pay Table Payback Percentage
*25 (Four of a Kind) / 8 (Full House) 99.78 percent
20 / 7 97.72 percent

*Full Pay

BONUS DEUCES WILD

Pay Table Payback Percentage
*10 (Straight Flush) / 4 (Four of a Kind) 99.86 percent
9 / 4 99.45 percent
8 / 4 99.06 percent
13 / 4 / 3 98.80 percent
7 / 4 98.69 percent
12 / 4 / 3 98.28 percent

*Full Pay

BONUS POKER

Pay Table Payback Percentage
*8 (Full House) / 5 (Flush) 99.17 percent
7 / 5 98.01 percent
6 / 5 96.87 percent

*Full pay

DEUCES & JOKER WILD

Pay Table Payback Percentage
*9 (Five of a Kind) / 6 (Straight Flush) 99.07 percent
8 / 6 98.52 percent
9 / 5 98.35 percent
7 / 6 97.97 percent
9 / 9 / 1 96.06 percent

*Full pay

DEUCES WILD

Pay Table Payback Percentage
*25 / 15 / 9 / 5 100.76 percent
25 / 16 / 10 / 4 99.73 percent
25 / 15 / 9 / 4 98.91 percent
20 / 4 / 4 97.97 percent
20 / 12 / 10 / 4 97.58 percent
16 / 13 / 4 96.77 percent
12 / 4 / 4 96.01 percent
20 / 10 / 8 / 4 / 4 95.96 percent

*Full pay

DOUBLE BONUS POKER

Pay Table Payback Percentage
*10 (Full House) / 7 (Flush) 100.17 percent
9 / 7 Double Bonus 99.11 percent
9 / 6 Double Bonus 97.81 percent
9 / 4 Double Bonus 97.74 percent
9 / 6 / 4 Double Bonus 96.38 percent
8 / 6 Double Bonus 96.23 percent
9 / 5 / 4 Double Bonus 95.27 percent

*Full pay

DOUBLE DOUBLE BONUS

Pay Table Payback Percentage
*10 (Full House) / 6 (Flush) 100.07 percent
40 / 10 / 6 99.96 percent
9 / 6 98.98 percent
8 / 6 97.89 percent
9 / 5 97.87 percent
8 / 5 96.79 percent
7 / 5 96.38 percent
6 / 5 94.66 percent

*Full pay

JOKER POKER

Pay Table Payback Percentage
*20 / 7 / 5 100.64 percent
18 / 7 / 5 98.94 percent
16 / 8 / 5 98.59 percent
17 / 7 / 5 98.44 percent
20 / 6 / 5 98.41 percent

*Full pay

LOOSE DEUCES

Pay Table Payback Percentage
*15 (Five of a Kind) / 10 (Straight Flush) 100.97 percent
12 / 11 100.47 percent
12 / 10 100.02 percent
15 / 7 99.78 percent
15 / 6 99.42 percent

*Full pay

TENS OR BETTER

Pay Table Payback Percentage
*25 / 6 / 5 99.14 percent
20 / 6 / 5 97.96 percent

*Full pay

Using the information above – and the wealth of additional pay table comparisons for dozens of other variants – you can easily safeguard yourself from those inferior pay tables.

And when in doubt, simply fire up that vpFREE2 search tool I mentioned earlier, which will provide you with a comprehensive listing of all machines – and their pay tables – in a particular area.

7. Just Have Fun

I saved the most important tip on the list for last, so take this one to heart.

Video poker, and any other form of gambling for that matter, should always be a source of entertainment above all else. Sure, everybody wants to win, and that’s the motivation for putting the first six tips into practice.

But when winning money is your sole objective at the casino, you’ll invariably walk away disappointed. That’s just the nature of the beast known as negative expectation.

On the other hand, if you accept the fact that losing sessions are inevitable, and simply enjoy your time playing video poker for the entertainment it provides, you’ll always walk away with a smile, if nothing else. And when those big winners do come in, you’ll be able to enjoy the thrill of the moment without lingering thoughts of earlier losses.

So have a drink, bring a friend, or make a new one while sitting at your favorite machine. Try your best, use the skills you learned today, and hope that fortune smiles on you when you play. Sometimes it will, and sometimes it won’t – video poker is that simple.

When you take this relaxed approach to the game, you’ll be surprised at how your overall play improves.

Conclusion

If you want to win more, simply follow these 7 steps to becoming a better video poker player. This step-by-step guide is designed to quickly and easily improve your results.

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