Video Poker for Beginners
Last update: October 2020
Video poker offers some of the best odds in the casino.
It's a good alternative to slot machines since you still have the
chance of hitting a big jackpot, but you're about five times more
likely to actually get it. Slot players should seriously
consider graduating to video poker, because they're much more
likely to win that way. The only catch is that to enjoy
the good odds, you have to learn the proper strategy. If you
just guess then you could easily do worse than with slots. But
you came to the right place, because we'll cover strategy here.
The play is simple: You're dealt five cards. You decide which ones to keep by tapping the pictures on the screen or pressing buttons on the console. Then you hit the DRAW button and you get replacement cards for the cards you didn't keep. You win if you wind up with a traditional poker hand like two pair, straight, flush, etc. (We'll explain these below for those new to poker.) The amount you win per hand depends on the paytable of the machine you're playing. Here's a sample paytable.
There are five columns in the paytable because your winnings depend on whether you played 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 "coins". (Machines don't use physical coins any more, but the language persists.) Note that there's a bonus for the Royal Flush. Instead of winning 1250 coins (5 coins x 250), you win 4000 coins. So you should always play five coins ("Max Bet") when playing video poker. If you can't afford to play five coins at a time, switch to a lower-denomination machine. (Yes, this is opposite of my advice about slots, and that's because the penalty for not playing max coins in video poker is greater.)
Paytables & Returns
One nice thing about video poker is you can know the return of the machine even before you start playing, unlike slots where you're always flying blind. On a typical video poker game, the casino's average profit on each play is about 3%. That's called the house edge. The return is the part that's returned to the player. So if the casino gets 3% of all money bet, the players get back 97% of all money bet. The return on a video poker machine is determined by the paytable. Just compare the paytable to the list at Wizard of Odds and you'll see that, for example, the Jacks or Better paytable above means that the return on that machine is 99.54%. If the paytable showed only 8 coins for the full house and only 5 for the flush, it would be a 97.3% machine.
Compare this to slot machines, where you have no clue as to what payout you're getting. And even if the return were listed, it would be lousy. The slot machine is the only game in the casino where your odds are a total mystery. Why would you let the casino do that to you? Play video poker instead.
Right after learning the proper strategy, the most important
thing about playing video poker is to choose a machine with a good
paytable! Here are some pictures I just took in the same
casino, same style game, same denomination. The only thing
that's different is the paytables. The first one pays 9 &
6 for the full house and flush respectively, and the second one pays
only 8 & 5 for those hands.
If you choose the machine on the right, you'll lose your money
six times faster! And your chances of winning will be
far less. If the reason isn't obvious then consider
this: If the player is getting back 99.54% and 97.29%, that
means the casino is keeping 0.46% and 2.71%. The casino profit
on the second machine is 2.71 ÷ 0.46 = 5.9 times higher.
So it really pays to hunt out the good machines! But it's actually pretty easy, because the readers of a website called VPFree2 scout out the best machines and post their locations on the site. Using that site you'll see that there's slim pickings on the Strip for 9/6 Jacks or Better except at very high minimums. To find the good machines at lower limits, you have to go downtown or to a locals casino (which is one of my tips on How to Be a Smart Gambler), or play online at a casino like Bovada, which has offered 9/6 at low limits for years.
Despite the importance of finding the best machines, most
players don't. That's why casinos can offer both decent
and lousy machines in the same casino and be confident that gamers
will still play the lousy ones. They have to keep some good
machines, otherwise they'd lose all the players who know what
they're doing. But most of the machines will be bad, and most
gamers will play them anyway. Heck, in Vegas even casinos and
supermarkets have video poker, with absolutely terrible paytables,
but people will still play them rather than going across the street
to a casino where they can get seven times better odds. Go
Some games actually have a return of over 100% with proper play, such as a special flavor of Deuces Wild which pays out 100.77%. There are a few caveats, though:
- Those machines are hard to find.
don't like to put games on the floor that potentially lose
money. Your best bet for finding these games is in downtown
Vegas (not on the Strip) and at locals casinos, which have to be
more competitive than Strip casinos in order to lure customers
there away from the Strip. Here again, VPFree2
can help you find good-paying machines.
- Proper play is essential. If you
just guess at the strategy, you won't do much better than you
would at a slot machine.
- You won't get rich from video poker even
if a machine pays 100%+. At a fast 600 hands per
hour, and $1.25 per hand ($0.25 x 5 coins), that's $750 wagered
per hour. If you play perfectly (no mistakes) and realize
your 0.77% advantage, that's $5.78/hr. on average. You'll
also need several thousand dollars of capital to fund the losses
you'll suffer while waiting to hit the royal flush. Yes, if
you were capitalized you could play at higher denominations,
except 100%+ machines are rarely found at anything but quarters
Whether you seek out the 100%+ machines or the 99%+ machines, I can't stress strongly enough that it's essential to learn the proper strategy. If there are only two things you take from this page, it's to find the games with the best paytables, and play those games according to the published strategies.
Video Poker probabilities
of making a good hand
Actual results of my last session
|4 to a straight
|4 to a flush
Your odds of hitting a royal flush (the top jackpot) are about 1 in 40,000. At 600 hands an hour and 8 hours a day, you can expect to hit a royal once every 8.3 days on average. But I estimate the odds of hitting a slot jackpot to usually be at least 1 in 262,000, so you're far more likely to hit the jackpot with video poker.
Elsewhere on this site I show you how to figure your average loss for an hour of play. In summary, you multiply the house edge by the bet size by the number of rounds per hour. On a 9/6 quarter Jacks or Better machine with proper strategy, that would be 0.5% x $1.25 (remember we're playing 5 coins at a time) x 400 hands per hour = $2.50 per hour. Not bad. Except that the formula doesn't work for video poker in the short term. That's because you'll hit the royal only once every 66 hours on average, and while you're waiting for the royal, the return on the game isn't ~99.5%, it's ~97.5%. So you're more likely to lose 2.5% in the short term rather than 0.5%. So we can expect our hourly loss to be closer to $6.25/hour than $1.25/hour while we're waiting for the royal. Still, $6.25/hour is pretty cheap. On a slot machine your loss would be closer to $40 an hour. So you can see why I'm so eager to switch you from slots to VP.
Incidentally, a Four of a Kind happens about once per hour.
Recently I played a bunch of video poker and recorded the results, which you can see in the table at right.
Often when you hold four cards and throw away one, the new card
is the same value as the one you threw away. For
example, let's say you have 9, 9, 2, 2, 5, you throw away the five,
and then you get another five. This might seem to happen way
more often than it should. But that's an illusion caused by
the human tendency to look for patterns. A good example of how
easily our perception can be fooled is to take the awareness
test, where you watch a short video and count the number of
passes the white team makes. Most people fail. I did.
Once I hit two 4 of a Kinds back to back. The
probability of hitting it once is 0.24%. The chances of
hitting it back to back are 0.24%2 = 0.0006%, or 1 in
179,000. That's four times less likely than hitting a royal
flush. And I would have preferred the royal! (By the
way, purists will note that after you've hit a 4 of a Kind, the
chances of hitting another four of a kind is just 0.24%, not
0.0006%, but I'm considering the probability of getting two
back-to-back before I get the first one.)
Once I put $100 into a $0.25 machine and played it for a
while. I played it down to zero credits, and then I hit
Four of a Kind, which saved me. I played that down to zero
again, and then I hit Four of a Kind again. I played
it down to zero credits a third time, and then hit Four of a Kind a
third time! But that was the end of my luck. I
didn't get it a fourth time, I just went bust. Still, that was
Getting started with Video Poker
Pick a game. There are dozens of varieties of video
poker. I recommend Jacks or Better because it's the original
VP game, it's widely available, and most importantly, the strategy
is pretty easy.
- Learn the strategy. You can't just guess or you'll
lose money hand over fist. See my video
poker lessons to get started.
- Practice! Practice on your computer with play money
before you risk real money in a casino. The Wizard's
practice game is nice because it tells you when you make a
strategy mistake. But if you want a game with sound then
you'll prefer Bovada's
- Find the good games. The VP games with the best
paytables are findable, but they're rare. Naturally the
casinos prefer that you play the stingier machines. In
general, the Strip casinos have the worst machines, and everywhere
else it's better—off-strip, downtown, and locals casinos.
Find the best games in Vegas at VPFree2.
Lessons. See my page on how to play the proper strategy for Jacks or Better.
Best video poker on the strip. This is kind
of a misnomer, like trying to pick the tastiest of all the various
mud sandwiches. For the best video poker, you really have to
leave the Strip and go downtown, to off-strip, or to locals
casinos. But for what it's worth, here's a good list of the best
video poker on the strip.
Other 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.