Learning Video Poker: 5 Steps to Getting Started in 2017

A Guide for Learning Video Poker

Learning video poker is easier if you have any experience with traditional poker or slot machines. But even if you're unfamiliar with both those other games, VP is still worth learning how to play. Like blackjack, video poker offers some of the best odds in the casino.

This tutorial covers everything you need to know to get started as a video poker player in 2017. The game doesn't change much, but the information in this post is the most up-to-date on the Internet.


How Video Poker Works

Video poker looks like a slot machine game, and it does have a lot in common with the one-armed bandits. In both games, you insert coins into a machine, get randomly chosen symbols on a "payline", and win amounts based on the combinations of symbols on those paylines.

Here's the big difference:

On a slot machine game, the symbols are random. They could be anything-fruit, bars, pictures, etc.

But on a video poker game, the symbols correspond to playing cards.

The odds of getting a card on the screen are the same as they would be if you drew a card from a standard 52 card deck (in some games there's a joker, so sometimes it might be a 53 card deck).

You have no way of knowing the probability of getting any specific symbol on a slot machine stop, so it's impossible to calculate the house's edge. It's also impossible to come up with any other strategy for slots besides putting your money in, crossing your fingers, and hoping for the best.

But with a video poker game, you get to choose which game to play based on the pay table. Since you can calculate the probability of getting a particular hand, you can determine which pay tables are better than others. For example, a 9/6 Jacks or Better video poker game has a payback percentage of 99.54% when played with perfect strategy.

Also, you get to make decisions about how to play the hands in video poker. You're dealt 5 cards to start with. You can choose to keep or discard any card in your hand, making for 32 possible decisions about how to play each hand.

Smart players who like to feel a sense of agency when they gamble prefer video poker because they have the option to improve their odds by making the right decisions.


Denominations, Max Coin, Pay Tables, and Payback Percentages

Video poker games, like slot machines, come in various denominations. Slots can be found where you can play for a penny per line per spin, but the lowest denomination I've ever seen for a video poker game is 25 cents.

You can also play between 1 and 5 coins on every hand. You should always play the max coin on a video poker game. That's because you get a higher payout on a royal flush if you're playing for 5 coins. The payoff for the hand is 250 for 1 if you're playing between 1 and 4 coins, but if you play all 5 coins, the hand pays off at 800 for 1.

There's never a good reason for playing anything less than the max coin on a video poker machine. That bonus payout makes a lot of difference to your bottom line.

The overall payback percentage for a video poker game is determined by the probability of winding up with a certain hand multiplied by the payoff for that hand. Add all those paybacks up, and you get the overall expectation for the machine.

Here's an example, from the most common video poker game of all, Jacks or Better:

The probability of having a hand that pays nothing is 54.5%. 0 multiplied by 54.5% is 0.

The probability of having a pair of jacks or higher is 21.5%. This hand pays off at even odds, so the expected value for this hand is 0.215.

The probability of ending up with two pair is 12.9%. This hand pays off at 2 for 1, so the expected value is 2 X 12.9%, or 0.258. Notice that this hand has a higher expected value than a single pair, even though it's less likely to show up.

These probabilities continue all the way to a royal flush, which shows up 0.0025% of the time. The payoff is 800 for 1. Multiply the two, and you get an expected value for this hand of 0.2.

When you do that with every possible hand, you get a total-a percentage. This is the overall expected value for a random hand of video poker in that game.

It's also the payback percentage for the game.

If you're familiar with the concept of the house edge, payback percentage will be easy to understand. The payback percentage is just the 100% minus the house edge.

On a so-called "full pay" Jacks or Better game, the payback percentage is 99.54%, which is the same as saying the game has a house edge of 0.46%.

You can use this information to calculate how much money you can expect to lose over time playing a particular game.

Let's assume you're playing this Jacks or Better game, and your strategy is perfect. You're playing for 25 cents and making the max bet on each hand, which means you're wagering $1.25 on each hand.

The average video poker player gets in 600 hands per hour. That's $750 in action per hour.

The house edge represents how much of that you expect to lose. You might lose more than this or more than this in any given hour. But if you play long enough, your results should start to mirror the expectation.

In this example, the expected loss per hour is $750 X 0.46%, or $3.45.

An hourly cost of $3.45 for some entertainment isn't bad.

But when you compare it to the cost of playing slot machines, it's downright impressive.

Even the best slot machines have a payback percentage of 95% or less.

If you're playing with a 5% house edge and wagering $750/hour, your expected loss is $37.50 per hour.

And your odds of walking away a winner are better the higher the payback percentage is.


Types of Video Poker Games Available

Video poker is obviously an electronic, house-banked version of 5-card draw, but you might be surprised at how many variations there are.

The most basic version is Jacks or Better. These video poker games are characterized by having no wild cards and using an electronic 52 card deck. They pay off on any poker hand that's ranked at a pair of jacks or higher.

Tens or Better is a variation of Jacks or Better that loosens up on the hand required to get the minimum payout.

This is the variation of VP most people start with-Jacks or Better. The hands to look at the payoffs for are the full house and the flush. Your goal is to find a game which pays off at 9 for 1 on the full house and 6 for 1 on the flush. Such a machine has that 99.54% payback percentage we talked about.

But even a lower paying Jacks or Better game is better than most slot machine games. An 8/5 Jacks or Better game (one that pays off 8 for 1 on a full house and 5 for 1 on a flush) has a payback percentage of 97.3%. Most slot machine games have a lower than 95% payback percentage-much lower.

You'll also find variations of Jacks or Better called "Bonus Poker". These games offer bonus payouts on the 4 of a kind hand. The rankings for these bonus hands vary based on the variation. You'll find Double Bonus and Triple Bonus Poker, among others. The strategy for these variations resembles the strategy for Jacks or Better, but the strategy accounts for the bigger payoff for the 4 of a kind.

Then you have multiple wild card variations. The most common of these is Deuces Wild, a game in which any 2 counts as a wild card. The pay table for this variation differs dramatically from that of Jacks or Better. The strategy changes significantly, too.

Another common wild card variation is Joker Poker (sometimes called Jokers Wild). This variation uses a 53 card deck where the joker acts as a wild card. It resembles Jacks or Better more than Deuces Wild.

Newer video poker variations feature all kinds of bells and whistles to keep the player interested. These usually involve multipliers or bonus games. Most of these bonus features have 0 effect on the payback percentage. In some cases, the bonus features might have a negative effect on the payback percentage. But almost always they're a try by the designer to capture some of the sizzle and excitement of a slot machine game.


Video Poker Strategy Advice and Tips

Every possible hand in a video poker game has a single way of playing it that has the highest expected value. Making that play provides you with the highest possible payback percentage.

Here's a simplified example:

You've been dealt the ace, king, queen, and jack of spades. You also have the queen of hearts.

You have multiple choices here, but the most pertinent are almost certainly to keep the pair of queens to get the sure payout of even money on the pair and to keep the draw to the royal flush.

Which of those two choices makes the most sense mathematically?

Let's ignore the possibility that you'll improve your hand in both instances. It's possible to get something other than what you expect in either case, but the math is easier if we pretend that you're choosing between a 100% chance of winning even money and a 1/47 chance of winning 800 for 1.

The expected value of the first option is simple. It's 1.

The expected value of the second option (drawing to the royal flush) is not as simple. You multiply the potential payoff by the probability of winning. In this case, it's 1/47 X 800, which amounts to about 17.

Most of the time, you won't hit the royal flush. But the payoff is so high that it's worth going for it.

You have a staggering number of potential hands in video poker, but they can all be boiled down to certain types. Mathematicians and computer programs have run millions of simulated hands to create strategy charts for these games.

You read one of these charts by starting at the top and working your way down. You stop when you get to a hand that matches what you have. Then you hold those cards.

Some VP writers distinguish between perfect strategy and "optimal play". The idea is that no human is going to play perfect strategy. We're not computers.

Instead, we should shoot for optimal play. This means we're making the right decisions almost all the time, while we're still enjoying the game and getting a good return on our wagers.

Perfect strategy on a full pay Jacks or Better game might result in a 99.54% payback percentage. Optimal play might make that slightly lower, say 99.4%. Either way, you're still getting way better odds than you would playing a slot machine game.


Playing VP Online

One of my favorite things about slot machines online is that they usually offer some of the best payback percentages in the casino gambling industry. You'd think in this environment that finding full pay video poker pay tables at online casinos would be easy.

You'd be wrong.

You can find great VP games online, but not with any kind of consistency from casino to casino-especially if you're a player in the United States. The primary software provider for casinos on the Internet catering to US players is Realtime Gaming (RTG).

RTG offers the casinos leasing their software the option of choosing which pay tables they want to use. Some RTG casinos offer full pay Jacks or Better, for example. But others might only have 8/5 games.

It's also common for online VP games to have great pay tables in the single hand version, but when you switch to the multi-hand versions of the game, the pay tables are less optimal. My best advice is to stick with the single hand games.

As far as I know, you won't find a full pay Deuces Wild game online anywhere. Finding full pay Jacks or Better is easier.

But the best video poker game available online is Pick'em Poker. With the right pay table, the payback percentage for this game is 99.95%. It's also the easiest version of video poker in the world. Instead of having to decide which cards to keep and which ones to throw away, you choose from one of two stacks which cards are better.

Play that game with perfect strategy, or close to it, and you can enjoy hundreds of hours of enjoyment for next to nothing.

Finally, keep in mind that most online casinos offer signup bonuses. These bonuses come with strings attached. You must make a certain number of wagers before being allowed to cash out.

At all online casinos, slot machine play counts 100% toward fulfilling those wagering requirements.

But video poker games are NOT slot machines.

Most online casinos just ignore wagers on video poker for these purposes. Some online casinos count these wagers, but they count them at a discounted rate-usually every dollar wagered on video poker only counts as 10 cents wagered.

Your best bet if you take a bonus from a casino is to go ahead and fulfill the wagering requirements playing the online slots. Whatever you have left over, take to the video poker games and go to town.


Learning video poker is one of the savviest moves a savvy gambler can make. It's a great game where your decisions affect your outcomes. It also has the lowest house edge of any game besides blackjack-at least if you find a game with the right pay table.

A little time spent researching individual games and their pay tables is well spent. You can reduce your expected losses playing VP games to almost nothing if you just learn some simple things to spot on the games' pay tables.

I recommend starting with Jacks or Better. Look for the full pay version, which is also called 9/6 Jacks or Better (or 9/6 JoB). Mastering the strategy for that game will give you a head start toward understanding the strategy for almost any other game available in the VP universe.

Just keep in mind my warnings about online casinos and their bonuses and wagering requirements and how video poker players are affected by such restrictions.