Picking a Good Video Poker Game

By Jerry "Stickman"

One of the reasons for the popularity of Video Poker is they generally have a higher payback – sometimes even more than 100 percent for a skilled player – than slot machines. And more importantly, a knowledgeable player can tell the payback of the game by looking at the paytable that is displayed right on the machine. The same cannot be said for slot machines. Slot machines display payoffs for hitting certain combinations of symbols, but unless you know total number of possible combinations, you cannot figure the machine’s payback.

A Video Poker game, however, is played using one deck of cards – 52 or 53 cards, depending on whether there is a Joker is included in the game. In a randomly dealt game the odds of drawing to the winning hands can be calculated. Once the odds are compared to the actual payoffs for these hands the payback of a game can be figured.

The actual calculations depend on several factors – including perfect play by the video poker player. Strategy cards for perfect play as well as information about payback percentages for the most common games are readily available from most gambling supply, book stores and online sites.

But how do you choose the game that you play? It should be the game with the highest payback – right?

The answer is – not necessarily.

There are two reasons for this non-committal answer.

First, in order to get the best payback from any Video Poker machine you have to play perfect strategy. The strategy can vary greatly for different games. The first Video Poker game was Draw Poker which is also commonly referred to as Jacks or Better. The reason for the name is it takes a pair of Jacks or something better in order to win something from the machine. It is a nice solid game to play. The strategy is fairly simple and you can learn it fairly easily. The "full pay" version of this game is called "9/6 Jacks or Better" because it pays 9 for 1 for a full house and 6 for 1 for a flush. With perfect play "Full Pay Jacks or Better" pays back 99.54%.

After Draw Poker had been around for a while, gaming manufacturers wanted to add some additional zing to their games so they started creating games that had bonuses for certain hands. One popular bonus game is Double Bonus Poker. The standard Draw Poker game pays 25 for 1 for any four of a kind. Double Bonus Poker pays at least double that amount for four’s of a kind: 50 for 1 for four 5’s through Kings, 80 for 1 for four 2’s, 3’s or 4’s, and a huge 160 for 1 for four Aces. In order to fund that kind of payback, two pair pays only 1 for 1 instead of the 2 for 1 on Jack or Better. It turns out that two pairs are so common that the manufacturers were able to pay 10 for 1 for a full house, 7 for 1 for a flush and 5 for 1 on a straight (instead of 4 for 1 for a straight in Draw Poker) and have a 100.17 percent payback. This version of Double Bonus Poker is called "Full Pay Double Bonus Poker" or "10/7 Double Bonus Poker."

If Jacks or Better and Double Bonus Poker had similarly simple strategies, it would be a no-brainer to select Double Bonus Poker as the preferred game. Unfortunately the strategy for Double Bonus Poker is more complex than the strategy for Jacks or Better making it more likely mistakes will be made – mistakes which will cost you money. Unless you are willing to practice regularly, it may make sense to play Jacks or Better because the more complex strategy of Double Bonus Poker can cause mistakes that reduce your payback below 99.54 percent.

There is another reason that bonus games like Double Bonus Poker may not be a better game to play and that is something called variance. Variance is simply an indication of how results "vary" from the average. For example, if you played a game where you have an equal chance of losing 1, breaking even (lose 0), or winning 1 variance would be very small (0.67). By comparison the variance for a 9/6 Jacks or Better machine is about 19.5. What this means is practical terms is your bankroll will vary a lot more playing Jacks or Better than a game where you only win or lose one unit and therefore requires a larger bankroll.

As more of the winning amount is paid in fewer large wins, variance increases. The extra large wins in "10/7 Double Bonus Poker" increase the variance to 28.26. The higher the variance, the larger the bankroll must be because it will "vary" more. A safe bankroll for Full Pay Jacks or Better might be about three times a royal (4,000 credits times three or 12,000 credits). A safe bankroll for a Full Pay Double Bonus Poker game might be about 3.5 to 4 times a royal or 14,000 to 16,000 credits – not a small difference.

Playing Video Poker instead of slot machines is a smart move. Using payback percentage, strategy complexity and variance to determine which Video Poker game you choose to play is an even smarter move because a bankroll is too precious to waste.