Why Video Poker Players Lose More Than They Should
Casino executives admit that video poker players contribute heavily to the casinos bottom line. Yet, many video poker games feature a house edge of less than one percent, and others still can actually yield over 100% payback if the player uses optimal playing strategy. Thus, the question needs to be asked: How can these to seemingly contradictory facts be reconciled?
The answer lies in the fact that the optimal strategy for many video poker games is counter-intuitive. Sure, there are plenty of hands that everyone plays optimally; if someone is dealt the As Ks Qs Js 3h, for instance, you will search long and hard before you find a video poker player who would insist on discarding four and keeping the three of hearts. But there are myriad hands being played according to what appears to be the correct strategy, but they actually cost the player money. And in some cases this loss can be significant.
To better illustrate let’s look at a game that most of us are familiar with, Jacks or Better. At first glance this game looks like a breeze to play. There are only nine hands that qualify for a payback, and it’s usually pretty easy to tell when you have a draw to one of those nine hands. Yet everyday video poker players across the nation are throwing money away by making poor (yet ‘intuitively correct’) playing decisions. Let’s look at a few different hands, and see how the optimal strategy varies from the intuitively correct strategy.
Mistake 1): Keeping ‘Ace – face card – face card’ vs holding the two face cards
You see this play made all the time, and yet few video poker players know what a disaster it really is. The idea behind keeping the ace is that you have a better chance of making an ace-high straight, and you also have three high cards that you can try to pair up on the draw. However, by keeping the ace you’re eliminating your chances of making four of a kind or a full house, and reducing your chances of making two pair. The slight gain you receive through your increased chances of making a straight don’t begin to compensate for these other significant losses.
Below are some Typical Video Poker Mistakes:
Mistake 2): Not trying enough long shot draws at the straight flush
The straight flush may be the most misunderstood hand in Jacks or Better. It doesn’t come around very often, and it doesn’t have the sex appeal of the royal flush, and as a result most video poker players neglect it. When dealt a hand like the 9c 7c 5c 3s 2d many players will simply discard all five and redraw. The assumption here is that the straight flush will almost never come in, so they would rather ‘cut their losses’ and try to pick up a big pair on the redraw.
Again, this makes sense at first glance. Yet what is forgotten in this kind of analysis is that by keeping the 9c 7c 5c the player also has a chance at a straight or a flush. Now it’s true that a draw like this isn’t a real moneymaker. But it will still pay more, in the long run, than drawing five new cards.
Mistake 3): Keeping a suited AT as opposed to just keeping the ace
This is one of the most common mistakes made by video poker players at Jacks or Better. Now I’ll be the first to admit that holding the ace and the ten is far more fun then just drawing to the ace. After all, when you hold the ace and the ten you have at least a small chance of something really good happening; namely, hitting the royal on the draw. You also have a better chance of making a straight or a flush. Yet as with the hand we examined in Mistake #1 these gains do not outweigh your decreased chances of making four of a kind, three of a kind or a big pair. If you want to play optimally you’ll have to discard that ten; I know it’s tough, but it must be done!
These are three of the most vivid examples of poor play, although there are plenty of other mistakes that video poker players frequently make in the course of a playing session. If your goal is to reduce the house edge as much as possible I recommend picking up a book that contains charts detailing the finer points of optimal play. There are a number of books like this out on the market, and they’re definitely worth the sticker price. Pore over the charts, and compare the plays they recommend with the plays you’re currently making. I guarantee it will be a real eye-opening experience.
The author of this article, Guy Downs, was an advantage gambler for eight years when he wrote it.