Video Poker Machines
Video poker machines look like slot machines, but the differences are major. This page focuses specifically on the machines and their variations, rather than on individual gameplay rules and strategies.
We've included sections about how the inner workings of video poker machines operate, a detailed list of misconceptions about how they work, some insights into the number of games available, and a buying guide for collectors.
How the Random Number Generator in a Video Poker Machine Works
The first thing to understand about video poker machines is how the random number generator works. The random number generator is the computer program that determines the results of each hand. Video poker machines are obviously computerized, but how do those computers work?
You'll Find Two Kinds of Video Poker Machines in Casinos in the United States:
- 1Class II Video Poker Machines
- 2Class III Video Poker Machines
Understanding the difference between the two kinds of machines involves a little history. The different classes of gambling were established in 1988 when Congress passed the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. This law governs what kinds of casino games tribal casinos can offer.
You'll notice that I didn't list "Class I" video poker machines. That's because Class I games are "traditional Indian gaming and social gaming for minimal prizes". In other words, Class I games aren't commercial. They're of little interest to readers of this page.
Class II gaming, on the other hand, is pertinent. Gambling games are considered Class II games if they're related to bingo. This would include games like pull-tab machines and lottery-style games that are played in the same location. Even card games that aren't house-banked count as Class II games.
Bingo would seem to have little to do with video poker, and to an extent, that's true. We'll get into that more soon, but let's discuss Class III gaming first.
Class III gaming is what we think of as Las Vegas casino gambling. All the traditional casino games are included in this category, including table games like blackjack and roulette, traditional slot machines, and video poker games.
According to federal law, Native American casinos can conduct Class II gaming under their own authority. They can only conduct Class III gaming if they first negotiate an agreement with the state.
What most people think of when they think of video poker machines are Class III video poker machines.
The difference between Class II video poker and Class III video poker couldn't be more dramatic
The outcome of any Class II gambling machine is determined by an electronic bingo game. If you know how bingo works, you can understand the implications of this. In bingo games, the prizes are determined and limited by the number of entries and the entry fees.
When you're playing a Class II gambling machine, you're participating in an electronic bingo game with multiple other players. The spinning reels on a Class II slot machine or the cards on a Class II video poker game are just for show. The results are determined by a networked computer in the back which is powering the results on multiple machines nearly simultaneously.
The odds of such a video poker machine are based on the odds of hitting a certain bingo pattern. In fact, on a Class II video poker machine, the big screen displays the playing cards. But you'll also have a smaller, subtle screen showing an electronic bingo card. That smaller, electronic bingo card is the clue you need for what's going on mathematically.
We feel like Class II video poker machines are so different from traditional Class III video poker machines that they shouldn't even be allowed to offer them. Everyone knows that the odds on a slot machine are entirely random, but most people assume that a video poker machine uses the same logic and probability as a deck of cards.
And, in fact, with Class III machines, that's exactly what happens. The random number generator generates 5-card hands using the same odds and probability you'd find in a standard deck of 52 cards. (Some games use 53 cards, as they have a wild card - a joker).
The implications here are important, too.
Video poker plays like 5-card draw most of the time. The machine deals you a 5-card hand. You then get to decide which cards you want to keep and which cards you want to discard. The random number generator deals your new cards from a randomized, virtual 52-card deck.
In Class III games, the decisions you make matter. Some decisions are mathematically superior to other decisions.
Here's a Simple Example:
You're dealt a royal flush. That hand pays off at 800 for 1. It's the best hand in the game.
But you still have the option of discarding one or more cards from that hand and drawing. Even though doing so would be an obvious mistake, you still have that option.
Other correct and incorrect decisions are less obvious, of course. Suppose you have 4 cards to a royal flush, but you also have a pair of aces?
The pair of aces is a sure thing - you get paid off even money.
But if you discard the ace that doesn't fit the royal flush, you have a 2% or so chance of winning 800 coins.
Mathematically, that's the better decision. You measure the quality of decisions in video poker based on their expected value.
Expected value is calculated by multiplying the probability of winning by the size of the prize if you win.
That example doesn't account for the other ways you might improve your hand, but they prove insignificant considering the huge jackpot for the royal flush.
While we're discussing the random number generator, it's a good idea to address the differences between video poker and slot machines. In a lot of respects, the games have much in common.
Both use a random number generator to display symbols on a screen along a payline. The symbols on slot machines vary based on the theme of the game. Many symbols are traditional, especially fruits and bars. The probability of getting any of those symbols on a reel stop on a slot machine are impossible for the casual gambler to ascertain, though.
Both games pay based on the combination of symbols along the payline. When we discussed expected value earlier, we explained that to calculate this number, you need both the probability and the payoff. On a slot machine, you know the payoff, but not the probability.
On a video poker machine, though, the probability of getting a specific card is 1/52. The probability of getting a card of a specific suit is 1/4. And so on.
You can use this information to inform your decisions at the game, and you can also use this information to compare the expected value (EV) for the games.
This is impossible with slot machines.
Misconceptions about How Video Poker Machines Work
Once you have some understanding about how the random number generator inside these games work, many of the common myths and misconceptions related to the game sound silly.
A hot video poker machine supposedly is more likely to pay out; a cold video poker machine is supposedly less likely to pay out. This is based on the belief that luck runs in streaks, which, to an extent, is true.
Luck, though, simply represents short term variance. This short-term variance is the reason that players can sometimes win in the short run against the casino, but casinos remain profitable in the long run.
The thing about short-term variance is that it can't be predicted. All the patterns and trends on any gambling game in a casino are only visible in hindsight. The probability on each individual event remains the same.
The odds of getting a royal flush are the same regardless of what happened on the previous hand or on the previous 100 hands. Every deal of the cards in a video poker game is an independent event. Previous results have no effect on subsequent events.
Further to this, video poker games don't become "due" just because they haven't paid out in a while. That's not how probability works. Grasping this seeming paradox is the beginning of gambling wisdom.
When you sign up for the slots club at a casino, they give you a plastic card to insert into the machine as you play. This card tracks how much you wager on average per hour.
The casino uses this information to reward you for your play. They don't account for your actual losses, though. They base these rewards on the amount of action you bring. They assume that over a lot of bets, the house edge will take care of their winnings. You can be a net winner and still get rebates and comps from the casino.
But the random number generator in a video poker game doesn't communicate with the card reader to see whether you've been winning or losing. It's not programmed to make you start losing if you've been on a winning streak.
Such deception isn't necessary. The payouts and the probability of winning ensure that the casino will make a long-term profit. It's in the casino's best interest to keep you playing as long as possible, and the random number generators and payback tables are designed with that in mind.
They think they have some ability to predict the future. Such gamblers might ignore the mathematically correct strategy in a situation because they feel lucky.
It's been our experience that this kind of thinking is folly.
Doing otherwise ensures that your results won't be as good as you'd like them to be.
This isn't to say that someone with a hunch is always wrong. Sometimes they'll get the results they expected from their hunch. They'll point to these examples as reasons why you should pay attention to your hunches.
But if you read anything about confirmation bias, you'll understand in short order that the human brain looks for confirmation of its irrational beliefs. The brain also ignores or downplays the number of times these hunches are wrong.
Some people think that if you switch from a cold video poker machine to a hot video poker machine, you might change your luck. This is only true if you switch from a video poker game with an inferior pay table to a video poker game with a better pay table. If hot and cold machines are just illusory, the switching of machines makes no sense.
In fact, certain machines and casinos are tight rather than loose. But when it comes to video poker, you can see the difference based on their pay tables.
The Vast Number of Video Poker Games Available
When we first learned about video poker games, we read about Jacks or Better and Deuces Wild. These were presented to us as the main variations available. They are, in fact, good examples of two of the major categories.
But there seems to be a countless number of video poker games available, and slot machine manufactures continue rolling out new variations. In this section, we look at the most common video poker games and their variations.
Jacks or Better is the first game we should mention. It's the most standard video poker games available. The game uses a 52-card deck with no wild cards. Payoffs start on any hand with a pair of jacks or higher, hence the name. You'll find variations of this game like Tens or Better, which increases the possible range of hands slightly.
Bonus Poker is an example of a variation of Jacks or Better that's based on a change in pay tables. The payoff for some hands is reduced, but the payoff for various 4 of a kind hands is increased. Bonus Poker is popular and has spawned numerous variations, including Double Bonus Poker and Triple Bonus Poker. These variations have additional payoffs for additional ranks in the 4 of a kind hand. Some games even increase your payoff on one of these hands based on the kicker.
Joker Poker is an example of a game resembling Jacks or Better, but with a simple variation. This game is played using a 53-card deck that includes a joker. The joker is used as a wild card, which means it can substitute for any card you need to complete a hand. The pay table is adjusted accordingly, and payoffs start with two pairs or with a pair of kings or better, depending on the game and location.
Deuces Wild is a game where all the 2s are wild. As you can imagine, this has a huge impact on the game's strategies and pay table. To make sure the house still has a built-in edge, the payoffs on a Deuces Wild game only come for higher-value hands, which makes for a strikingly different playing experience. After all, there are 4 wild cards in this game, even though you're still using a 52-card deck.
Multi-play Video Poker games are based on other variations, but they give you the option of playing multiple hands at the same time. Multi-play games are commonly available where you can play 3, 5, 50, or even 100 hands at a time. The initial hand for all the hands is the same, but during the drawing phase, the replacement cards are dealt out of a different deck. You'll usually wind up with multiple winning hands, but your net loss and net win are probably of more interest.
A wide variety of newer video poker games also offer multipliers, which are awarded according to a certain logic depending on the game. Barnyard Poker is a good example of this kind of game, and it's fun to see the different animated farm animals. In many cases, game variations with multipliers offer better payback percentages than the games they're based on. This is only one of the ways that video poker manufacturers tack a feature on top of existing games with existing pay tables.
Wheel Poker is one of the best examples of this. If certain criteria are met, you get to spin a wheel or get some other kind of bonus game which increases your payoff. Fans of slot machines tend to like these games, especially fans of Wheel of Fortune slots.
Pick'em Poker is one of the more interesting video poker variations we've seen. With the right pay table, Pick'em Poker has an excellent payback percentage - 99.95%--and it's easier to play than most video poker variations. Instead of deciding to keep or discard each of 5 different cards, you only have to decide on two cards.
Video Poker Games Based on Other Poker Variations - All the video poker games we've mentioned so far are based on 5-card draw. But that's obviously not the only poker game in the world. In fact, it's not even the most popular poker game in the world. Recent video poker games take advantage of this by offering video poker games based on Texas holdem or stud poker.
Used Video Poker Machines for Sale on eBay and Elsewhere
You can buy used video poker machines on eBay or other sites online - we recommend checking Craigslist, too. Many antique slot machine dealers offer video poker machines for sale, too. You can expect to pay at least $500 for such a game, but the better the machine, the more expensive it is.
This is usually determined by state laws. Many states have laws regarding how old a game has to be before it's considered an antique. Other states have blanket restrictions and don't allow private individuals to own any such machine.
Connecticut, Hawaii, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Tennessee all forbid private ownership of slot machines and video poker games.
Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia all allow slot machine or video poker ownership with no legal restrictions. (This doesn't imply that you can allow people to gamble on your machines, though - individuals can't just open casinos because they own a slot machine or two.)
Most other states allow slot machine or video poker machine ownership provided the game is at least 25 years old. The age of the machine varies in some states. Colorado, for example, only allows games that were manufactured before 1984. Georgia and Idaho allow ownership of games that were manufactured before 1950. Since video poker is a little more recent of an invention than that, you can't legally buy or own such a machine legally there.
Free Video Poker Machines Online (and Real Money Games, Too)
You can play video poker machines online for free or for real money online. Almost any video poker game that's available in land-based casinos can be played online for free. But a lot of newer video poker variations are not available at online casinos for real money.
Of course, the legalities of playing casinos games for money online are tricky, too. In the United States, it's illegal to offer online casino games for real money unless you operate the business in one of the three states where such activities have been legalized and regulated.
In most states, no specific law forbids gambling at an online casino - so plenty of offshore companies offer such games to players in those states. Even in states where playing at an online casino might be specifically illegal - like Washington - arrests and prosecution of players are unheard of. The only arrests and prosecutions in the USA for online gambling that we're aware of have involved operators, with a couple of exceptions.
Both of those exceptions were related to sports betting, not video poker.
Our best advice is to always obey the law of the land no matter where you live. But we also understand that some of our readers are interested in risk assessment. To those readers, we're happy to say that playing video poker for real money at an online casino is probably one of the lowest risks possible from a legal perspective.
But other software providers, like Realtime Gaming and Rival Gaming, offer realistic real money video poker games in a wide variety of variants.
If you're looking for a specific variation and can't find a real money version of it online, you might try looking for a free version at a site like VideoPoker.com, which has the widest variety of free video poker machines online.
Playing at a free games site like that has pros and cons, though. The biggest pro, of course, is that you can't lose any money at such a site. These sites make their money from subscriber fees and advertisers. As such, they're mostly concerned with offering a big enough variety of quality games to keep people returning to their site and staying on their site for a long time.
The biggest con, of course, is that you can't win money, either. We're not fans of free-money gambling. We just don't see much point in it. If we wanted to play a game with no money on the line, we'd go with something more robust, like World of Warcraft. The fun of gambling comes from the opportunity to win or lose. That's where the activity gets its meaning.
But we do see the value in being able to get familiar with these games and practice them online before playing for real money in a land-based or virtual casino. Doing so can prevent costly mistakes.
Some of these free games also offer built in strategy trainers. Those games do offer significant value to players. If you can find such a game, it might cost money. If you're serious about video poker, though, it might be well worth your while.
How to Beat Video Poker Machines
It's impossible to beat most gambling games. Casino games have a built-in advantage for the casino and against the player.
Some variations of video poker are an exception to this truism.
Video poker games offer you the opportunity to choose a game based on how good or bad its payback percentage is. We discussed that at some length in the section on random number generators.
Our recommendation to players who want to learn how to beat video poker is to first learn which variations and which pay tables offer a payback percentage of more than 99%. You can find most of this information on our pages about the specific games.
The next step is to learn the appropriate strategy for such a game. 9/6 Jacks or Better is a good place to start. The payback percentage for that game is 99.54%. The lessons you learn memorizing the correct strategy for Jacks or Better will serve you well when learning the strategies for other games, too.
Once you've done this, you can find information about where to find these games online or in land-based casinos. We include some information about where to find these machines on our site in the specific games sections.
Once you've found these games, the next step is to join the slots club. The combination of a low house edge along with the small rebates from being a slots club member combine to make many of these games positive EV for the player.
Knowing when the casino offers double or triple rebates for your play is a big step in the right direction, too.
Being able to beat video poker machines in the long run also means having a large enough bankroll that you can last long enough for your small edge to kick in. If you only have $200 to gamble with, you can only get in a few hours of play on a dollar machine before you go broke - unless you get lucky and hit your royal flush early.
But since that hand only turns up once every 40,000 hands or so, that kind of luck is hard to count on.
Video poker machines offer significant differences from slot machines - at least in most jurisdictions. When dealing with Class II video poker machines, though, you might as well be playing a slot machine. Such games don't offer the opportunity to use any skill, because the random number generators don't offer the same odds as a deck of cards.
You can easily spot a Class II video poker game - just look for the small video screen with the bingo card on it.