Video Poker Lessons
A Beginner's Guide to Jacks or Better
Last update: October 2020
If you didn't see my intro to video
poker article, check that out first. If you
don't read that, you'll pick the wrong machine and lose five times
as much money. I'll still be here when you're done with that
other article. Go on, off with you.
Learn the poker hands
If you're new to poker, here's what the names of the poker hands
mean. If you know this already then skip to the next
- A full house is a pair and a three of a kind, like ️3❤️
3♠️ 9♠️ 9
♦️ 3 ♦. Notice that it doesn't matter what order the cards are in. This is true for all of the different kinds of winning hands—the cards can be in any order. As long as you could rearrange them to be in order (in your head), then it's a winning hand.
- A flush is a hand where all the cards are the same suit, like 9♠ Q♠ 10♠ 4♠ 6♠.
- A straight is a hand with consecutive ranks, like 9♠ 7
♦10❤️️ 8♣️ 6♠. Notice again that the cards don't have to appear in order. The order of face cards, from lowest to highest, is Jack, Queen, King, Ace, which we abbreviate J, Q, K, A. An ace can also count as 1, to complete a straight where the other cards are 2, 3, 4, and 5. But it can't count as both a low and a high card, e.g., Q K A 2 3.
- An outside straight is a set of cards that can be made
into a straight with another card on either end. 9♣ 7
♦10❤ 8♣ 3♣ is an outside straight because either a 6 on the low end or a Jack on the high end will turn it into a straight.
- An inside straight is a would-be straight with a hole in
the middle. 9♠ 2
♦10 ♦8♣ 6♠ is an inside straight because only a 7 will turn it into a straight. The distinction between outside straights and inside straights is important because in Jacks or Better we will never try to turn an inside straight into a straight. It's too hard, since we have only one chance of completing the straight.
- A straight flush is a hand that is both a straight and a flush, like 9❤ 7❤ 10❤ 8❤ J❤.
- A royal flush is a straight flush composed of the
highest cards, such as 10
♦J ♦Q ♦K ♦A ♦. But of course they don't all have to be in order. Q ♦10 ♦A ♦J ♦K ♦is still a royal flush. The Royal Flush is the jackpot in video poker, and comes around about once out of every 40,000 or so hands—or a week and a half of full-time play. Hey, it could be worse: The jackpot on a typical slot machine only hits about one out of every 2 million spins!
Simple strategy for Jacks or Better
Each VP variety and paytable has its own strategy. The strategy for Jacks or Better is different from that for Deuces Wild, and within each style of machine, each paytable can have its own strategy. Learning all those strategies is tedious, so I recommend you figure out which video poker game you like best, and then learn the strategy for it. If you get bored with that game then you can learn another strategy at that time. For now, let's start out with an lesson on Full-Pay Jacks or Better. I chose this game because:
- Jacks or Better was the original video poker game.
- It's still widely available and easy to find.
- The Full-Pay version returns a very nice 99.54%, and is widely available in Vegas at low denominations (but not on the Strip)
- The strategy is one of the easiest among video poker varieties.
The strategy below is the Wizard's simplified strategy for Jacks or Better. You give up just a tiny part of the return (99.46% instead of 99.54%) and in exchange you get a strategy that's much, much easier to learn and remember than the perfect strategy. The 0.08% penalty costs you only $0.60 per hour of play on average, assuming a quarter machine played at 600 hands per hour.
With this strategy, you play the highest hand in the list that matches your cards.
Remember that if you use this strategy for anything other than 9/6 Jacks or Better you're playing wrong, and that will cost you!
Let's go through some examples using the simple strategy.
The minimum hand you need to win is a pair of Jacks. So in this hand we'll hold the Jack, hoping that we'll draw another Jack. We hold the Jack by tapping the picture of the Jack on the screen, or pressing the button for it on the console. Then we'll tap the DRAW button to get four new cards, hoping that one of them is a Jack to match the Jack we held.
We could get even luckier. We might draw two more Jacks, and then we have a Three of a Kind. Or three more Jacks, and then we have a Four of a Kind. But those are unlikely; our most likely win would be a draw just one more Jack to make a pair of Jacks.
Okay, so how did we know that this was the proper play? Simple: We looked it up on the strategy list above. "One high card", #15, was the best hand we had on that list.
This is similar to the previous hand. There's one high card -- a queen -- so that's what we'll hold.
Oh boy, we have two high cards! We'll hold both of them, because
then we can make a pair by drawing either a Jack or a Queen.
True, we're only gonna get three more cards for a potential match
rather than four this way, but our odds are still better for making
our pair. We might also get a full house if we're lucky. This
was play #13 in our list above.
Wow, three high cards! Well, hold your horses there, cowboy. We don't hold all three. That's because if we did then it would be impossible to get a full house. When we have three unsuited high cards, we'll take the lowest two -- in this case the Jack and the Queen. This is #13 on our list above.
Three more high cards. But there's a big difference vs. last time: This time two of them are the same suit. When you have multiple high cards you hold the ones of the same suit, because they can turn into a Flush, or even into a Royal Flush, which is the jackpot. So in this case we hold the Jack and the Ace. This is #11 on our list above.
Let's mix it up a little with a hand very different from the rest. I hope this one is easy for you. You have three 5's. This is a winning, paying hand, even before you draw for replacements! Hold the three 5's, and hope you're dealt another 5 for Four of a Kind.
This isn't quite as good as our previous hand. We have a pair of 5's, but by themselves it's not enough to win. We'll hold the pair and hope to get another 5 to make a Three of a Kind. This is play #9 on our list.
Here we have four to an outside straight -- 5, 6, 7, 8. Either a 4 or a 9 will turn it into a straight. We hold the four to an outside straight and draw a replacement for our useless 2.
This is an inside straight -- 4, 5, 7, 8. There's a gap in the middle. Remember that we never draw to an inside straight with Jacks or Better.
So what do we hold here? Nothing. We don't have even the minimum hand in our strategy list. So we don't hold anything, we just draw five new cards. This isn't an uncommon occurrence -- you'll often get just plain bad hands where you have to throw the whole thing away.
At first glance this might look like a junk hand, but look closer. Four cards are the same suit -- we have four to a flush. That's what we hold, throwing away the 5. This is play #8 on our list.
|9/6 Jacks or Better Paytable|
|25||Four of a Kind|
|3||Three of a Kind|
|1|| Jacks or Better
(meaning a pair of Jacks, Queens, Kings, or Aces)
Another seemingly-junk hand, but not. We have three to a straight flush -- the 5, 6, and 9, which is what we hold. We know that we'll never draw to an inside straight, but this is different because we're drawing to a straight flush. Take a look at the paytable and see how hefty a payout we'd get if we made the straight flush.
We probably won't make the straight flush, but all the occasional times with a hand like this that we turn it into a regular flush, regular straight, or three of a kind -- along with the infrequent straight flush -- make holding the three to a straight flush a better play than throwing everything away and hoping for a miracle from five brand-new cards.
Here we have two choices: Hold the four to an outside straight and go for the straight, or hold the two 7's and go for a three of a kind or four of a kind. What to do?
Here's where our strategy list comes in. Notice that a low pair is #9, while four to an outside straight is #10. The low pair is higher on the list, so we hold the pair. In fact, you almost always hold pairs in Jacks or Better. We'll discuss exceptions below, but in general, always lunge for a pair, and then do a quick check to see if you have anything better, since you probably won't.
Here's one of those cases where something beats a pair. Namely, four to a flush. We'll hold those four cards and go for the flush.
Here's the way to remember it: A pair beats a would-be straight, but not a would-be flush.
Another toss-up. Do we go with the pair or with the high cards? Remember what we said earlier: Always lunge for the pair. In this case we hold the pair. It's #9 on our list, vs. #11 for the two suited high cards.
Decisions, decisions! Our possibilities are to:
- Go for the straight (10, J, Q, K)
- Go with the high pair (K, K)
- Go with the three to a royal flush (10, J, Q)
Strategy list to the rescue. The high pair wins at #6 (vs. #7 for the three to a Royal, and #10 for the four to an outside straight.)
Strategies. The Wizard of Odds has come up with simplified strategies that are very easy to play and remember, and which work almost as well as professional strategies. He's also got a bunch of other useful stuff on video poker.
Bob Dancer's site. Bob is the most famous professional video poker player around, and his site shares his insights. He also sells useful VP-related software on the site.