Tackling common video poker questions
By John Grochowski
Video poker players love to raise questions about their games, and the questions aren’t limited to strategy puzzlers.
Often, questions from readers focus on how the games and odds work and why.
Why don’t royal ﬂushes pay more when they’re so rare? How are best strategies calculated? Is a royal rarer than any other ﬁve-card hand?
Let’s tackle the questions as they arrived from video poker-playing readers.
Royal ﬂushes come up about once in 40,000 hands or so in video poker, but the payoﬀ is only 800- for-1, and you only get that with a maximum bet. If you bet less, it’s only 250-for-1.
Shouldn’t the payoﬀs be a lot higher? Maybe payoﬀs don’t have to be 40,000-1, but it seems like they should be in the tens of thousands. I’ll bet a lot more people would play with a jackpot like that.
ANSWER: If you called the game Royal Mania and paid oﬀ ONLY on royal ﬂushes then yes, the payoﬀ would have to be a lot higher.
But that’s not how video poker works. You’re paid on a wide variety of hands, usually starting at a pair of Jacks.
A game such as 9-6 Jacks or Better returns 99.5 percent with expert play, but only about 2 percent of that return comes from royal ﬂushes. The vast majority of your return comes from high pairs, two pairs, three of a kind, straights, ﬂushes, full houses, four of a kind and straight ﬂushes.
To pay more on royals while retaining a house edge would require adjusting the rest of the pay table. A combination of turning winning hands into losers and reducing returns on other hands would dramatically change the game.
Concentrating too much of the return into rare hands would turn video poker into an all-or-nothing game in which your rare big wins would be oﬀset by no-win, big-loss sessions.
I’ve been thinking about a Joker’s Wild Kings or Better strategy where the chart says to hold Queen-10 of diamonds instead of discarding everything when the other cards are 2 and 4 of spades and 5 of clubs. A long shot at a natural royal is part of the reason, I’m sure. Does the chance at a wild royal also ﬁgure into it? How is the strategy determined?
ANSWER: All possible outcomes are considered.
Per ﬁve coins wagered, the speciﬁc Joker’s Wild version Jody asked about pays 4,000 for a natural royal ﬂush, 1,000 for ﬁve of a kind, 500 for a royal ﬂush with Joker, 250 for a straight ﬂush, 85 for four of a kind, 35 for a full house, 25 for a ﬂush, 15 for a straight, 10 for three of a kind and 5 for two pairs or a pair of Aces or Kings.
If you hold Queen-10 of diamonds, there are 17,296 possible draws in a 53-card deck that includes a Joker. Of those, 14,807 are losing draws that bring no payback.
Among the paying hands, there are 645 high pairs, 711 two pairs, 584 with three of a kind, 294 straights, 210 ﬂushes, 27 full houses, eight with four of a kind, six straight ﬂushes, three wild royals and one natural royal.
The paybacks on all those possible winners are added, then divided by the number of draws to get an average return of 1.79 coins per ﬁve coins wagered.
If you discard all ﬁve cards, there are 1,712,304 possible draws, including 1,344,068 losers. Among possible winning hands, there are 187,431 high pairs, 71,802 two pairs, 85,400 with three of a kind, 12,840 straights, 4,733 ﬂushes, 3,942 full houses, 1,940 with four of a kind, 122 straight ﬂushes, 15 wild royals, eight with ﬁve of a kind and three natural royals.
When the payoﬀs on all those winners are added and divided by the number of draws, the average return is only 1.65 coins.
That’s the way strategy evaluations work for every hand in every video poker game. All possible draws and payoﬀs are considered, and the average return per hand indicates our best strategy.
I’ve been practicing video poker on my laptop, and I looked at some statistics. They say that there are 2,598,960 possible hands. Only four are royal ﬂushes, so 1 in 649,740.
I get that royals come up a lot more often because of the draw; 1 in 40,000 or so. What I’m wondering is if the 2,598,960 are unique hands. It sure seems like I get something like 3 of clubs, 4 of diamonds, 7 of clubs, 9 of spades, 10 of hearts a lot more than a royal ﬂush.
If you designated something like that as the big hand, would it be as rare as a royal?
ANSWER: Each hand in that 2,598,960 total is unique. Only one of those hands is 3 of clubs, 4 of diamonds, 7 of clubs, 9 of spades and 10 of hearts.
I’d point out that card order doesn’t matter in poker hands. If the order is 9 of spades, 10 of hearts, 3 of clubs, 7 of clubs and 4 of diamonds, it’s still the same hand as the one you listed and is counted in the total only once.
There are a lot more no-pay hands than winners. More than half the total—1,302,540 hands—have no pair or better. That’s not even diﬀerentiating between high and low pairs. A pair of 2s is a better start than more than half of the initial deals.
Would the hand you designated be as rare as a royal? It would be as rare as a royal in any given suit. With 3 of clubs, 4 of diamonds, 7 of clubs, 9 of spades and 10 of hearts, you have a hand as rare as Ace-King-Queen- Jack-10 of spades. It just doesn’t pay as well.
I have recently started playing free online video poker (VideoPoker.com) and would like to know what percentage of payback these online machines are set to. Maybe I haven’t played enough yet (about 40 hours), but it seems to me that these devices are set to a much higher payback than casino machines. As we all know, casino video poker machines can wipe out a $500–$600 bankroll (playing quarters) in a couple of hours, but it seems that you can play much, much longer on these online machines.
If these online machines are set to a much higher payback percentage, wouldn’t that lead some of the people playing them to “assume” that these online machines represent the same payoﬀs as the machines in the casinos, which would not be good when the people play the same types of machines in a casino and reality sets in?
Answer: The payback of any video poker machine (online or in the casino) depends on the pay schedule of the game. (Casinos and online casinos do not change the odds of getting a winning hand; they only change the payoﬀ odds.) Therefore, the expected return for, say, a 9/6 Jacks or Better game is 99.54% with expert play, regardless if the game is played in a brick-and-mortar casino or an online casino. The software used on videopoker.com is similar to the software used in video poker machines in casinos; namely, every card in the virtual 52-card deck has the same chance of being selected.
When playing video poker where four aces and a 2, 3 or 4 pays 2,000 credits and you are dealt three aces and the kicker, are the odds better to hold three aces and the kicker or draw to the three aces since four aces without a kicker pays 800 credits?
Answer: We assume the video poker game is Double Double Bonus (DDB), which pays $2,000 for four aces accompanied with a 2, 3 or 4 kicker (with max coins wagered). The Expected Value for holding only the three aces is greater than holding the three aces with a kicker; therefore, you should discard the kicker and only hold the three aces.