A Crash Course in Video Poker

Video Poker Machines

Video poker is a truly modern game. While video poker games may not be as well-known as slot machines, they share many of the same features and much of the same history. Video poker is a surprising game to learn about for many gamblers - since it is a machine game, they expect it to be a lot like a slot. Hidden inside video poker is a game less likely to rip you off than a slot. In fact, we think video poker is one of the best games on the casino floor. The trick is to learn how to play it.

If you've never played a video poker game before, you're not likely to play very well if you just walk right up to the machine and start inserting coins. This page is much more than a description of a video poker game - it's a crash course in how to play video poker like a pro. We believe that if you read every word on this page, you'll play the game like a seasoned veteran within a half hour or so.

Included on this page is a brief FAQ about the game, some notes on its history, a guide to video poker variants, a step-by-step list of playing instructions, and a breakdown of basic game strategy.

An FAQ for Video Poker Beginners

What is video poker?

Video poker is a type of casino game combining the rules of five-card draw poker with machine-style gaming. Think about the various forms of poker in the casino - at the top-end are the head-to-head poker games in the casino's poker room. These are often high-stakes games, always played between gamblers with no participation on the part of the house. Then there is casino-style poker, played like a table game in the same section of the casino as blackjack, craps, and roulette. Video poker is the third type of poker you'll usually find in a casino.

The video part of video poker is a reference to the fact that the game has a display screen. This display screen is where the video poker game itself takes place. The specific type of poker (and the specific rules for that poker game) depend on which video poker machine you're playing. We cover video poker variants and rules further down on the page.

The goal of video poker is to form the best-possible poker hand out of the cards you're dealt. The vast majority of video poker games deal you five cards, ask you to hold between none and all of them, then deals a second round of cards based on the number you withheld. The ultimate goal is to form a royal flush hand, which is normally the most-valuable hand in any video poker game. A royal flush can be worth thousands of credits, or maybe even a progressive payout.

Are video poker games rigged?

As full-time gambling experts and writers, we've dealt with rumors of games being rigged before. Any time you bring up a casino game, some chump in the crowd you're talking to is going to claim that casino games are rigged. Here's a line you can pull out and use on that person the next time you meet them - every casino game is "rigged," by the rules of the game, to give the casino more money than it pays out to players. Video poker games don't have to be set up in such a way as to rip customers off, because the rules of the game include a built-in edge for the house.

Video poker is one game where our standard answer isn't 100% accurate. It turns out, not every game of video poker is designed to return a profit to the house. A very few games are designed in such a way that, if you follow basic game strategy, you actually enjoy a tiny edge over the casino hosting the game. Don't worry - these games are easy to recognize, and we'll give you a crash course in finding them further down the page.

Do rogue casinos and rogue gambling website operators exist?

Yes. But you don't need to worry about them. For one thing, the Internet is a remarkable force for good in the gambling business. People regularly report rip-off sites, and several blacklists exist for the purpose of informing people to stay away from certain websites. For another thing, state regulators do a great job of shutting down live venues that aren't playing by the rules. In other words, there are actually several forces at work wiping out rip-off games. But also, once you read this crash course, you'll be prepared to recognize and avoid scam games, and stick only to legit low-odds games of video poker.

Why is video poker so popular?

We think the reason behind video poker's popularity is three-fold. For starters, video poker is fun to play. It's based on the rules of poker, which is one of the most popular gambling games in the world. Second, video poker is a solo game that moves at whatever pace you want to play. No need to worry about the slow bettors at the other end of the table or the dealer with an attitude problem. Finally, some versions of video poker exist with great odds, solid payouts, and a gorgeous design. When you've got all three of those factors working together, you've got a popular game of skill on your hands. Though video poker is one of the newest games in the casino, it's already one of its most favored, a testament to its high degree of replay value.

A Crash Course in Video Poker History

The history of poker is a colorful and fascinating look at human psychology and cultural traditions. The history of the video version of the game isn't as sexy, but we think it's still pretty fascinating. An understanding of the history of the game will make it easier for you to wrap your head around some of the concepts discussed below. Video poker is a huge presence in the US gambling market, from the smoky halls of California card rooms to the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas casino floors, these games are here to stay. Now that video poker is widely-available online, it's clear that the game is a standard part of any gambling venue. Video poker is here to stay.

This section of our crash course in video poker is designed to look at the game's progression from its birth to the game's spread across the Internet gambling industry. No, you won't suddenly be a better video poker player from understanding the game's past - but we think any additional information you learn about a game you're unfamiliar with enriches your understanding of that game.

Video Poker: The Early Years

The first device we can identify as a video poker machine is the poker machine of the early 20th century. Poker machines were to video poker what mechanical slots of the past were to modern slot games. These were mechanical games much like slots, except replacing fruit and number symbols with playing card symbols. Little more than slot machines with poker-like props, these games never caught on as much as the Liberty Bell and other early slot machines.

It's not clear why the company Nevada Electronics released the game "21" in 1964. This was the first electronic gaming machine that closely resembles today's video poker games. The main difference? 21 was based on the rules of blackjack, not poker. Still, using thousands of electronic switches, the game produced a decent version of blackjack without the need for a human dealer. By the 1970s, all sorts of awful electronic casino games were appearing on casino floors, with electro versions of everything from craps and roulette to horse race betting available in a crude machine. One of these games, called Poker-Matic, would become the godfather to the modern video poker industry. Created by a small company called Dale Electronics, Poker-Matic would be basically familiar to today's video poker gamblers.

Poker-Matic was a crude electronic poker game using basic switches and lights to produce something resembling a game of poker playable by a single person. This game would never fly in a modern gaming environment - but it did serve as the inspiration for a bunch of much better games, many of which are recognizable as video poker machines.

The True Invention of Video Poker

As electronic machines were coming into vogue in Las Vegas, something even more important was happening a few hundred miles to the west. Modern computers were being designed, refined, and developed at a rate much faster than electrical engineering could keep up. Computer brains and gadgets were growing smaller by the day, increasing in speed and computing ability, and even threatening to become available to personal users in their homes and offices.

A man named Si Redd would contribute more to the video poker industry than any other individual. While working as a distributor for Bally, he'd learned personal computing as a hobby, and began suggesting changes to Bally's new electro-mechanical games. Redd's ideas were so solid, he eventually scored a meeting with Bally executives, during which he tried convincing them that fully-electronic and computer-controlled video poker was the next logical step in the gambling industry's rapid development.

Unconvinced (and who could blame them - video poker was in no way a big revenue producer at this point in time), the Bally execs agreed to give Mr. Redd the patent on his game idea. This would turn out to be a huge win for Redd, and an epic failure on the part of Bally. Just a few months after earning the patent from his skittish employers, Redd hooked up with Reno, Nevada's Fortune Coin Company. They created a company together called Sircoma - Si Redd's Coin Machines. By the end of the year, Sircoma was mass-producing the world's first legit video poker games.

The company's first game was simple. Called Draw Poker, it was a much tougher game than modern versions, requiring a hand of two pair or better to earn even the smallest payout. By the year 1981, Sircoma had several machines in production, and gamblers had stepped up to the plate, creating a legitimate modern gaming phenomenon. One of the ways the game's inventors improved its performance was to offer a small payout for a hand as small as a pair of jacks.

You may have heard of Sircoma under a different name. When Si Redd took the company public, he decided on a rebranding effort to improve his chances of a rebirth. Called International Game Technology, or IGT for short, the company rose to meteoric success, all on the back of Redd's amazing idea. IGT is now one of the leading gaming software and hardware design companies, with offices in countries all over the world and thousands of employees.

A Crash Course in Video Poker Rules

While each video poker game is a little different, with slightly-different rules for play, pay tables, and winning hands, they all operate on the same basic principle, and require the same basic five steps:

1. The Ante

The first step for video poker players is to determine how many coins to wager. Every video poker machine is set-up to accept a certain range of bets, from its minimum to its maximum. The player's job is to decide both which denomination to play and how many coins of that denomination to risk per round of play. Video poker games are available in a wide range of betting sizes, from as little as a nickel per credit all the way up to several hundred dollars per credit, for games in the VIP or high-roller section. As for the number of coins to bet, video poker games allow bets of between one and five coins per round. Since most games only pay out the biggest prizes for max-coin bets, we recommend further down in the Strategy section that players always wager the maximum number of coins per round.

2. The Deal

Once the denomination and number of credits per round is determined, video poker players press the "Deal" button. Once that happens, five cards are dealt from a virtual deck. We've heard of some video poker games that use more or less cards than five, though the vast majority of video poker variants use five cards, so you should prepare for that as a standard.

3. The Hold Round

This is the skill round of video poker. This round is where video poker players earn their bread and butter. In the hold round, players are asked to pick which cards to keep and which to discard and exchange for new cards. You hold cards by pressing their corresponding "hold" button. You can hold any number of cards from zero to five. Be sure any cards you want to keep are marked "Held" or "Hold" before you move on to the next round.

4. The Draw Round

Press the button labeled "Draw" in order to discard any cards you didn't choose to hold, and earn replacement cards to complete your hand. The computer that runs the game you're playing will automatically handle all the discarding and dealing for you.

5. The Conclusion

The player is a winner if he forms a hand that is listed on the machine's pay table. Depending on the game you're playing, this may include hands as low as a specific pair, or you may need to hold a better hand to earn a win. The higher value hand you can form, the more money you'll win as a payout. Below is an example of a pay table for a basic game of Jacks or Better that you might find in a Vegas casino:

Hand 1 Coin 2 Coins 3 Coins 4 Coins 5 Coins
Royal Flush 250 500 750 1,000 4,000
Straight Flush 50 100 150 200 250
4 Aces 80 160 240 320 400
4 2's, 3's, 4's 40 80 120 160 200
4 5's - Kings 25 50 75 100 125
Full House 10 20 30 40 50
Flush 8 16 24 32 40
Straight 5 10 15 20 25
3 Of A Kind 3 6 9 12 15
2 Pair 1 2 3 4 5
Jacks or Better 1 2 3 4 5

Notice a few things - this version of Jacks or Better includes special payouts for four of a kind. Also notice the difference between playing with four coins and playing with five. You'll notice right away why we recommend in the Strategy section that you play with max coins, sticking to a machine you can afford to bet five coins per round on.

A Crash Course in Video Poker Games

The five games described below are by no means the only video poker variants that are commercially available. Many casinos pride themselves on having a wide variety of video poker variants available for play. Others host just a few variants. Eventually, once you've become an expert video poker player, you'll have experience with even more variants than the four games described below. For now, understanding the differences between these four is enough to get you playing a variety of video poker games in just a few minutes. Below is a brief description of the four most popular video poker games:

1. Jacks or Better

Jacks or Better is the original version of video poker. Si Redd's first legit video poker game attracted crowds by virtue of its "Jacks or Better" setup, by which all you had to do was build a pair of Jacks (or better) in order to earn a payout. Many modern Jacks or Better games include special bonus payouts for specific four-of-a-kind combinations, though the original game didn't include this feature. Basic Jacks or Better doesn't offer any sort of wild card or bonus game. A standard Vegas rules version of Jacks or Better gives the casino an edge of around 2%, depending on the specific rules of the game in question.

2. Deuces Wild

Deuces Wild was the first video poker game to include wild cards - that is, cards that can substitute for any other card to form a winning hand. In Deuces Wild, all 2's are wild cards. Because these wild cards create more possible winning hands for the player, the game's designers raised the minimum requirement for a win. On most Deuces Wild games, you have to form a three-of-a-kind or better to win any kind of payout. Though the inclusion of wild cards makes it seem like you're more likely to win, most games of Deuces Wild give the house a slightly larger advantage against the player than a standard game of Jacks or Better. The return percentage for most games of Deuces Wild is around 97%.

3. Aces & Eights

Once a hugely-popular video poker variants, Aces & Eights has fallen out of favor in recent years, due in part to the increase in other available game variants. Aces & Eights is really just a slightly different version of Jacks or Better, following an almost identical pay table, except for bonus payments for forming certain hands. Most games of Aces & Eights reward you for putting together specific two pair combinations, with two pair of aces and eights paying out a huge bonus. This game generally has a return percentage in line with standard Jacks or Better rules. We know of just a few casinos in America that still host Aces & Eights games, and the variant has a much larger online presence than you might expect.

4. Bonus Poker

The "Bonus Poker" series of video poker games has been expanded time and time again, to the point that we now have games called "Double Bonus Poker" and "Double Double Bonus Poker." Bonus poker is a video poker game based on the rules of Jacks or Better, but with bonus payouts for specific hands. The pay table for Bonus Poker rewards specific four of a kind hands at a higher rate than Jacks or Better. However, the game's manufacturers pay for this difference in payouts by reducing the payback percentage. The best versions of Bonus Poker give the casino an edge of 0.8%, though most games grant the casino an edge of 3 or 4%. You'll find this game in multiple variations, with the difference between various iterations focused entirely on the varying bonus payouts.

A Crash Course in Video Poker Strategy

There are some who will never accept that gambling games can involve strategy. We admit that it occasionally seems silly to be strategizing about games that give the casino an advantage. Games which the casino can never (over the long term) lose. At the same time, we think any activity that humans take part in can involve an element of strategy.

When we talk about video poker strategy, we're not necessarily referring to things you do to make it more likely to win money. Because of the game's design, and that built-in house advantage, this just isn't possible. However, if the purpose of reading this article is to have more fun while playing video poker, we think we can point out some strategy tips that will make that goal easier.

At the same time, there are things you can do as a video poker player to make it more likely for you to win, and to win more often. Part of the reason for this is the fact that video poker games are already fairly easy to beat, with relatively-low payback percentages compared to some casino games. In some cases, we can erase little pieces of that house edge by playing according to basic video poker strategy.

In this section, we'll start by showing you two video poker strategy charts and teaching you how to read them. Then we'll discuss some basic tips for the game that are bound to improve your overall performance.

Jacks or Better Strategy

Below is an example of a video poker strategy card. This strategy chart reduces the casino's edge on basic Jacks or Better games to 0.54%.

Using this strategy chart is simple. Once the game has dealt you your five cards, examine that starting hand and work out the various ways that it can be played to form a poker hand. Your objective when using this strategy chart is to find the highest-ranking possibility you can form on this list and play with a mind toward forming it.

Bonus Poker Strategy

This strategy chart works just like the one above for Jacks or Better, except for the game Bonus Poker:

Video Poker Strategy Advice

These tips, combined with the use of a good strategy chart like the ones described above, will turn you into the best video poker player you can be. We share these tools with you to help you increase your confidence in front of the video poker machine.

  1. Always place maximum bets. On most video poker games, that means wagering five credits per hand. You will only be able to win the game's biggest and best payouts if you place the max bet per round. We see no reason to play a single round of the game with anything but five coins. Adjust your chosen denomination in order to be able to afford a max-credit bet per round of play. If the $1 machine is too rich for your bankroll, switch to a quarter or nickel machine. So long as you're placing a max bet, you're betting the right way.
  2. Review the rules and pay table of a game before you play. No matter how comfortable you get with video poker, remember that the game is designed to separate you from your money. You should always know the rules and basics of the pay table for any video poker game you play.
  3. Refuse to play if you don't find a game you like. You should be prepared to walk away from the video poker section of the casino if you can't find the right game. That requires dedication. Playing at a sub-par video poker game is just asking for the casino to take all your money. In some cases, you can research before your casino trip, but if the casino doesn't list its games or their payback percentages, you'll have to do your research on the fly after you arrive for your gaming session.
  4. Follow a basic video poker strategy chart. We described two video poker strategy charts above. There's no reason for you to play a single round of video poker without a strategy chart to help you along. Casinos sell these things in their gift shops. You can download them for free from the Internet. You can memorize them before you arrive. Whatever you do, just make sure you're armed with a strategy chart every time you play the game. You're already spending a little time researching which game is the most advantageous - you may as well increase your odds with a strategy chart.
  5. Join the casino's player's or VIP club. This one is a no-brainer - if you don't join the VIP club, the casino can't track your play and reward you with comps and other freebies. Combine this step, which shaves away a bit of the house's edge with comps, with the additional edge you get from basic game strategy, and roll it all together with these basic strategy tips, and you can't go wrong on your next trip to play video poker in the casino.


Video poker is the perfect casino game. It involves a large element of skill, but just enough luck to keep things light and interesting. It offers the ease of play of a slot machine, but the complexity of a casino-style poker layout. Many of the world's most popular video poker games give the casino a tiny edge - that means you'll lose less of your money over the course of a video poker session than just about any other game on the casino floor. Besides all that, video poker is a blast. It's like Poker Lite, rewarding basic knowledge of the game without requiring any of the complex strategy, bluffing, or psychology of legit poker games.

Now that you know how to play video poker like a casino regular, it's time to put your new real-world gaming skills to the test. The good news is that every American casino (and many US-based game rooms and gaming websites) hosts video poker, usually in multiple variations. You'll have plenty of opportunities to test your new video poker skills in the modern American gaming landscape.