If you want to get the best odds in the casino, you really only have 2 choices-blackjack and video poker. When it comes to blackjack, you're basically looking at a single game with a few rules variations. But with video poker, you have multiple games to choose from.
But which of these games offer the player the best odds?
I should start by explaining why video poker games are such a good choice for the casino gambler, especially when compared to their not-so-distant cousins, slot machines. The rest of this introduction explains that, then I'll explain which games you should look for and how you should play them.
The first thing you should understand about video poker compared to slot machines is transparency. When you play a slot machine, you know how much the payoffs are for the various symbol combinations.
What you don't know are the odds of getting any particular symbol.
This is what makes the math behind a slot machine opaque to anyone except the designers and the casinos.
But a video poker game uses the same probabilities as a 52 card deck of playing cards. Everyone knows the probabilities related to a deck of cards. You have a 1/52 chance of getting any particular card, a 1/13 chance of getting a card of any particular ranking, and a 1/4 chance of getting a card of any particular suit.
Since you also know the payoffs for the various combinations-in video poker games, they're called "hands"-you can calculate the game's expected return.
That's not as complicated a calculation as you might think, either. You just list all the possible outcomes. Then you multiply the probability of winding up with each of those outcomes with how much it pays off. Add all those numbers up, and you have the overall expected return for the game. This is also sometimes called the game's payback percentage.
When you're talking about the math behind a table game in a casino, you usually discuss the game's edge or the "house edge". But when we discuss the math behind a gambling machine, we talk about the game's "payback percentage". Both numbers are different ways of expressing the same concept.
The house edge is the amount of each bet that a casino expects to win over the long run. It's an average that applies to tens of thousands of bets.
The payback percentage is the amount of each bet that a casino expects to pay back to the player over the long run. It's also an average over tens of thousands of hands.
If you know a game's payback percentage, you can subtract it from 100% to get the house edge.
Here's an example:
When you're playing blackjack, the house edge might be 0.5% That means that over time, the casino has a mathematical expectation that you'll lose 50 cents out of every $100 you bet.
When you're playing Jacks or Better video poker, the payback percentage might be 99.54%. That means that over time, the casino has a mathematical expectation that you'll win $99.54 for every $100 you bet.
You could convert that 0.5% into a 99.5% payback percentage. You could also convert that 99.54% into a 0.46% house edge.
Both bets offer similar odds. The main difference is the way in which each game plays out.
Here's the 2nd thing you need to understand about video poker games:
Your decisions matter.
This is a major difference between video poker games and slot machines. With a slot machine, you just put your money in and pull the lever and hope for the best.
You do the same thing in video poker games, but you have an extra step:
You get to decide which cards to keep and which cards to throw away.
Since there are 32 different ways to play each hand, you have a significant number of choices facing you on every video poker hand. Only one of those choices offers the highest expected return.
Here's an example:
You're dealt a hand that consists of the jack of clubs, the jack of hearts, the queen of hearts, the king of hearts, and the ace of hearts.
So you have a pair of jacks, and you could hold those 2 cards and guarantee yourself an even money (1 for 1) payoff. That's a 100% chance of getting a 1 unit payoff, which is an expected value of 1.
But you also could throw away the jack of clubs and hope to hit a royal flush. The royal flush pays off at 800 to 1. Since the odds of filling your hand are 1 in 47, you're looking at a roughly 2% chance of winning 800 coins. That's an expected value of 16.
16 is clearly better than 1, so that's the correct play in this situation. That's obviously an overly simplified look at this decision, since there are several other potential decisions and outcomes. But those are the 2 most obvious ways to play the hand.
You can find strategy charts for most video poker games online-including on specific pages on this site. These charts are organized as lists of hands. The hands with the best expected return are listed at the top, so you start from the top and work your way down. You keep the first hand that matches what you're holding.
Finally, you want to be familiar with how a pay table for a video poker game works. Even though a game shares a name with another game, the pay table might be different. The differences in the pay tables make a significant difference in the payback percentage.
Here's an example:
A 9/6 Jacks or Better game has a 99.54% payback percentage. The 9/6 in the title of the game refers to the payoff for a full house and a flush. The former pays off at 9 to 1, while the latter pays off at 6 to 1. They don't list this on the title of the game on the machine, by the way. You have to read the pay table.
You can compare that to an 8/5 Jacks or Better game, which has a 97.3% payback percentage. The 1 unit difference in payoffs for those 2 hands has a significant effect on your odds.
Think about the average hourly loss on a gambling machine. You calculate this number by multiplying the number of hands per hour you're playing by the average you're betting per hand. That's the total amount of action you're getting in per hour.
Multiply the total hourly action by the house edge, and you get your average expected hourly loss.
On a full pay (or 9/6) Jacks or Better game, the house edge is 100% - 99.54%, or 0.46%.
On the 8/5 Jacks or Better game, the house edge is 100% - 97.3%, or 2.7%.
If you're playing for $5 per hand, and you're playing 600 hands per hour, you're putting $3000 into action each hour.
0.54% of $3000 is $16.20 per hour in expected losses. Keep in mind that this is over the course of tens of thousands of hands. In any single hour, you might be doing much better or much worse than this. But if you play long enough, your results should come pretty close to resembling this number.
2.7% of $3000 is $81 per hour in expected losses. That's 5 times as much money in the casino's pocket and out of yours.
So it's easy to see why you should educate yourself about the various pay tables and their payback percentages.
Luckily, you don't have to work out the calculations with a pencil and paper every time you play. You can look these numbers up online. In fact, I can give you the 10 best games to look for-which is what the rest of this post is all about.
I have multiple reasons for listing Jacks or Better as the #1 video poker game you should play. It's not because this is the game with the best odds, although if you can find a game with a 9/6 pay table, you are looking at one of the best games in the house. Mostly it's because Jacks or Better is the foundation upon which knowledge of all other video poker games rests.
Jacks or Better is pretty straightforward. It's based on 5 card draw. You're dealt 5 cards, you get to choose which ones to keep and which ones to throw away, and then you get paid off based on the poker hand ranking of your end result. The lowest-paying hand is a pair of jacks or higher. A pair of tens or less doesn't pay out anything. The highest-paying hand is a royal flush, which pays off at 800 to 1 if you bet 5 coins per hand. (If you bet 4 coins or fewer, it only pays out 250 to 1, so always play max coins.)
One of the reasons I like this game so much is because it's also easy to spot the better pay tables. I discussed earlier that game designers and casinos normally only adjust the payoffs on 2 hands for this game-the full house and the flush. When they pay off at 9 and 6, then you're looking at a game with a 99.54% payback percentage. Those are some of the best odds in the house.
The other thing I like about Jacks or Better is that strategy is more or less straightforward. You can find strategy charts for this game at any number of websites, and it isn't that hard to learn. In fact, you can find simplified strategy charts that you can memorize in a few minutes that only give up 0.1% in payback percentage when compared to the complete strategy.
And once you know how to play Jacks or Better, almost every other video poker game in the casino becomes easy to learn. The only video poker game I can think of that doesn't mimic Jacks or Better in almost every particular is Pick'em Poker, which is also called Pick a Pair Poker. It's on this list, too, and it's a simplified version of video poker-more about that later.
The 2nd most common video poker variation is Deuces Wild. This game plays almost exactly like Jacks or Better, but there's one big difference-all the 2s in the deck act as wild cards. This means they can stand in for any card you need to fill your hand. Since there are 4 of these cards in the deck, the difference in the value of your average final hand is significant.
Of course, a casino would have to be insane to offer the same pay table for this game that they offer for Jacks or Better. The odds of getting a pair skyrocket with the addition of the wild cards. And in fact, they offer VERY different pay tables for this game. In Deuces Wild, the lowest-paying hand is a 3 of a kind, in fact.
The highest-paying hand is still a royal flush, but Deuces Wild distinguishes between a natural royal flush and a wild royal flush. A natural royal flush still pays off at 800 to 1, because the odds are still the same. You'll see a natural royal flush roughly once every 40,000 hands or so.
But the other big difference between Deuces Wild and Jacks or Better is how the pay tables are structured. In Deuces Wild, you don't have just 2 hands with different payoffs to keep up with. The designers and the casinos change up multiple payoffs on multiple hands, which makes it a little bit harder to choose a pay table.
But you can find Deuces Wild games with better payouts than Jacks or Better if you know what to look for. In fact, full pay Deuces Wild offers a payback percentage of 100.76%. This is called full pay Deuces Wild, and it's not the easiest game in the world to find. But it's not extinct or impossible to find, in spite of what some other gambling writers on the Internet might tell you.
Your best chance of finding Deuces Wild in its full pay format is to visit some of the casinos on Boulder Highway in Las Vegas. They cater to video poker players and offer the best pay tables in the industry.
But how much of an edge is 0.76%? Could you make a living playing this game?
As it turns out, probably not.
Remember when I calculated the average hourly loss in the introduction? The math for calculating the average hourly win when you have an edge is the same. In this case, you take the amount of hourly action and multiply it by YOUR edge, in this case, 0.76%.
Assuming you can find a game with the right pay table and you can play it with perfect strategy, you might be able to make a little bit of money playing this game. Let's say you can find a game where you can play for a quarter, or $1.25 per hand. (You're betting 5 coins per hand, remember.)
That's $750 in action per hour. You expect to win $5.70 per hour on this game.
That's a far cry from losing an average of $16 per hour, but you'd have a hard time making a living at that wage. We're talking less than $240 per week if you played for 40 hours per week.
But what if you found a dollar machine, you ask? Couldn't you make over $20/hour on such a game?
I'm confident that a game with this pay table is not going to be available in that denomination. The casinos are too smart for that-even the ones on Boulder Highway.
And that's not a common pay table, even there.
A more common Deuces Wild pay table is called "not so ugly" Deuces Wild. This game has a payback percentage of 99.73%. This is still better than full pay Jacks or Better, but it's still a long term winner for the casino.
Something else to keep in mind about Deuces Wild is that the game has a completely different strategy for playing than Jacks or Better. One aspect of this strategy is easy to remember though:
Never discard a deuce.
Another aspect of the correct strategy is this:
Never hold 2 pairs.
I always thought it was funny that Bonus Poker was considered a different game from Jacks or Better. The differences are minimal in terms of gameplay. It's still a video poker game with no wild cards. The lowest-paying hand is still a pair of jacks or better. And it still pays off 800 to 1 for a royal flush.
In fact, the only difference between Bonus Poker and Jacks or Better is the payoffs for the 4 of a kind. And depending on the cards making up the 4 of a kind, you might get a much bigger payoff than you'd expect in Jacks or Better.
Here's the difference:
In a Jacks or Better game, the payoff for 4 of a kind is consistent from game to game. It pays off 25 to 1.
But in Bonus Poker, it pays off based on the rank of the cards:
The payback percentage on a full pay Bonus Poker game is 99.17%. They pay for the bonuses on the 4 of a kind hands by adjusting the payoffs on the full house and the flush, by the way-a full pay Bonus Poker game only pays off at 8 to 1 and 5 to 1 on those hands, respectively. If you were paying attention to the section on Jacks or Better, you already know that such a difference in pay tables on Jacks or Better reduces the payback percentage to under 98%. You get some of that back with the bonus payouts for the 4 of a kind in this game.
But this is a more volatile game as a result. Since the extra percentage points come from the 4 of a kind hands, you won't see them very often. In fact, you'll only see 4 aces 00.02% of the time. That's not very often at all.
Still, any game where you can get a payback percentage of 99%+ is worth looking at. In fact, I recommend that you ONLY play video poker games where you can get such a payout. Bonus Poker is one of them.
Here's one other observation about Bonus Poker. It's a good demonstration of how video poker differs from traditional poker.
When you're looking at a 4 of a kind at a traditional poker table, the higher the rank of the cards, the better the hand. A 4 of a kind made up of 5s beats a 4 of a kind made up of 4s, for example.
But in Bonus Poker, you get paid almost twice as much for a 4 of a kind made up of 4s as you do for a 4 of a kind made up of 5s.
Double Bonus Poker, along with Deuces Wild, is your best chance of finding a game where you can get an edge over the house at video poker. It's a small edge, though-smaller than full pay Deuces Wild, in fact. The payback percentage on Double Bonus Poker is 100.17% with the right pay table.
As you might have gathered from the game's name, Double Bonus Poker is most similar to Bonus Poker. Here's the difference:
The payoffs for the 4 of a kind hands are literally doubled:
But full pay Double Bonus Poker has another significant and surprising difference-the payouts for the full house and the flush are even higher than in Jacks or Better. On a full pay Double Bonus Poker game, those hands pay out at 10 to 1 and 7 to 1.
How can the casino afford to offer such generous payouts on all these hands?
They've reduced the payoff for 2 pairs from 2 to 1 to even money. Since that hand comes up about once in every 8 hands, cutting the payoff for it in half frees up a lot of money to add to those other hands.
What does this do to the texture of the game?
It makes it even more volatile than Bonus Poker.
Like full pay Deuces Wild, Double Bonus Poker is hard to find, and it's almost impossible to find at higher denominations.
But it's out there if you look-especially if you look at the casinos on Boulder Highway.
Loose Deuces Wild has about as much claim to being a "different" game from Deuces Wild as Bonus Poker does to being a different game from Jacks or Better. The only real difference is the extra payoff amount on the 4 of a kind hand consisting of 2s.
The standard payoff for a 4 of a kind made up of deuces is 200 to 1.
In Loose Deuces, it's 500 to 1.
That's a huge difference, but keep in mind that every time you get something extra from a video poker game, you're losing something somewhere in order to pay for it.
In the most common versions of Loose Deuces, though, the major difference is in the payoff for the straight flush. In a more-or-less standard Deuces Wild game, that hand pays off at 9 to 1. On most Loose Deuces games, it pays off at 8 to 1.
The other thing to keep in mind is that even though a 500 to 1 payoff is great, the odds of getting a 4 of a kind made up of all deuces is relatively small. It's still about 10 times as likely as a natural royal flush, though.
If you can master the correct strategy for this game-which is actually pretty close to the correct strategy for full pay Deuces Wild-you can enjoy a game with a large payback percentage that's comparable to some of the other positive expectation games on this list. I've seen sites listing pay tables for Loose Deuces Wild games where the expected return was 101.60%, but you're a lot more likely to find a game with a 100.15% payback percentage or even 99.2%.
Any of those games are worth playing-it's just that some of them are better than others.
Double Double Bonus Poker is another game on the very short list of games where a video poker player can get an edge over the house. But don't think you're going to make a fortune playing this game-at least not in the long run. The payback percentage for Double Double Bonus when played with perfect strategy is 100.07%, so your edge is tiny.
But what's the difference between Double Double Bonus Poker and Double Bonus Poker?
If you guessed that certain hands get paid off at better odds, then give yourself a gold star.
This game offers higher payoffs for 4 of a kind hands, but it also takes into account the kicker. This makes it unusual, because the kicker in video poker almost never matters.
Here's what the payouts look like on the 4 of a kind hands in Double Double Bonus Poker:
As you can see, the lower ranked cards are rewarded in the 4 of a kinds in this game. (Most people don't think of an ace as a low card most of the time, but it is in this case. In fact, you can think of this as a game that rewards 4 of a kind hands that have cards lower than 5 in them.)
I mentioned in the section above about how traditional poker and video poker differ in terms of hand rankings. This is an even more prominent example of this.
As with many of the other games I recommend on this page, Double Double Bonus Poker is more volatile than some games (like Jacks or Better). But it's still well worth learning how to play.
You'll like the gimmick behind Triple Bonus Poker. It's the same game as Bonus Poker, but instead of doubling the payoffs for 4 of a kind, like Double Bonus Poker does, Triple Bonus multiplies the payoffs by 3.
So here are the payoffs for 4 of a kind in Triple Bonus:
If you can find a Triple Bonus game with the right pay table, the payback percentage is right up there with any of the other big boys on this list-99.94%, in fact. Of course, like most of the games on this list, there are other pay tables available which aren't as generous. You can find Triple Bonus with a payback percentage between 94% and 95%, but once you get to that point, you might as well play the slots.
Pick'em Poker is also sometimes called Pick a Pair Poker. This is one of the most interesting games on the list, as it actually has different gameplay than any of the other games here. It's actually a simplified version of video poker with fewer decisions to make. If you find the right version with the right pay table, the payback percentage is exceptional, too-99.95%.
Here's how the game works:
You start with 2 cards. These are the foundation of your hand.
You also get 2 more cards. These are the ones where you have a decision to make-you choose to keep one of these 2 cards.
Then the machine deals 2 more cards and you get a final hand.
You'll notice that you only have 2 cards to choose from when you're deciding which card to keep and which one to throw away. The first 2 cards, you're stuck with. Then with the next 2 cards, you're stuck with one of them. And in terms of the final 2 cards, well-you don't get to discard either of them, either.
In fact, this game might be considered a video poker version of stud poker. All of the other video poker games that I know of are basically video game versions that sort of combine solitaire with 5 card draw.
One of the advantages that Pick'em Poker offers over the other games on this list is that the strategy is much easier to learn. In fact, most Pick'em Poker games have a great pay table available-it's harder to find a bad pay table for Pick'em Poker than it is to find a good one.
I remember when I first started studying video poker strategy. I bought all of the strategy guides from Bob Dancer and Liam Daily. Most of these books are pretty thick, but the thinnest of them was the strategy guide for Pick'em Poker. When I read it, I realized the strategy for the game was simple enough that a book was almost superfluous.
If you can find this game, you should give it a try. It moves a little faster than the other video poker games on this list, too.
Jokers Wild actually has a legitimate claim to being a different game from Jacks or Better and/or Deuces Wild. Not only does it have a different pay table, it's dealt from a different kind of deck. But it's not a deck that's significantly different-the main difference is that there are 53 cards instead of 52. The additional card is a joker, which acts as a wild card.
But there's a big difference between Joker Poker and Deuces Wild. That's because there's a big difference between having 4 out of 52 cards being wild and 1 out of 53 cards being wild.
The pay table for this game is similar to that for Jacks or Better, but there are some differences. For one thing, a pair of jacks or higher isn't good enough-the payoffs in Jokers Wild start with a pair of KINGS or better. That's significant, because out of all the possible pairs, you're only looking at 2 of them which pay-kings or aces.
The payoff for 2 pairs is reduced, too. In Jacks or Better, it's 2 to 1, but in Jokers Wild, it's reduced to even money.
Of course, since there's a wild card, you have another hand available that's not available in games without wild cards-the 5 of a kind. This hand pays off at 200 to 1.
The game also distinguishes between a natural royal flush and a wild royal flush. As always, the natural royal flush pays off at 800 to 1. The wild royal flush only pays off at 100 to 1.
With the right pay table and correct strategy, Joker Poker has a payback percentage of 100.64%, making it almost as good a game as full pay Deuces Wild.
ACE$ Bonus Poker is one of my favorites on the list just because I like the name of the game so much. It also has a legitimate claim to being significantly different from the other games on the list, although really it's just a variation of Bonus Poker. But it's at least an interesting variation.
ACE$ Bonus Poker is played just like Bonus Poker, but there's a difference. The aces are each marked with the following letters:
Normally in a video poker game, the position of the cards doesn't matter. A 10JQKA is a straight, but so is an AQ10JK.
But since the aces in this game have an extra designation, the game can pay an extra bonus on certain 4 of a kind hands.
If you get 4 aces in the right order-ACE$--you get an 800 to 1 payout.
This is one of the only other video poker games I know of which has a bonus jackpot comparable in size to the jackpot you get when you hit a royal flush.
But don't think this is going to come up very often. It's actually even less likely to come up than a natural royal flush.
That doesn't mean this is a bad game-on the contrary. The full pay version of this game has a payback percentage of 99.4%
I recommend sticking with video poker games where you can get a payback percentage of no less than 99%. If you stick with the 10 games on this list, you'll achieve your goal, but only if you get familiar with the pay tables. The other trick is to raise your standards-simply refuse to play video poker games with a lower payback percentage.
Keep in mind, too, that all of these payback percentages are theoretical long term results. They're also based on the assumption that you're going to play each hand with perfect strategy. You might or might not be that good at video poker. But you can get that good if you're willing to put in the study and practice.