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Video Poker: Why People Lose More Than They Should

Ask any casino executive and they'll tell you that video poker is a real money maker for the house. Yet, many video poker games feature a house edge of less than one percent, and others still can actually yield over a 100% payback if the player uses an optimal playing strategy. Thus, the question needs to be asked: How can these to seemingly contradictory facts be reconciled?

The answer lies in the fact that the optimal strategy for many video poker games is counter-intuitive. Sure, there are plenty of hands that everyone plays optimally; if someone is dealt the As Ks Qs Js 3h, for instance, you will search long and hard before you find a video poker player who would insist on discarding four and keeping the three of hearts. But there are are myriad hands where what would appear to be the correct strategy actually costs the player money. And in some cases this loss can be significant.

To better illustrate let's look at a game that most of us are familiar with; Jacks or Better. At first glance this game looks like a breeze to play. There are only nine hands that qualify for a payback, and it's usually pretty easy to tell when you have a draw to one of those nine hands. Yet everyday video poker players across the nation are throwing money away by making poor (yet 'intuitively correct') playing decisions. Let's look at a few different hands, and see how the optimal strategy varies from the intuitively correct strategy.

Mistake 1) Keeping 'Ace-face card-face card' instead of just holding the two face cards.

You see this play made all the time, and yet few players know what a disaster it really is. The idea behind keeping the ace is that you have a better chance of making an ace-high straight, and you also have three high cards that you can try to pair up on the draw. However, by keeping the ace you're eliminating your chances of making four of a kind or a full house, and reducing your chances of making two pair. The slight gain you receive through your increased chances of making a straight don't begin to compensate for these other significant losses.

Mistake 2) Not trying enough long shot draws at the straight flush.

The straight flush may be the most misunderstood hand in Jacks or Better. It doesn't come around very often, and it doesn't have the sex appeal of the royal flush, and as a result most players neglect it. When dealt a hand like the 9c 7c 5c 3s 2d many players will simply discard all five and redraw. The assumption here is that the straight flush will almost never come in, so they would rather 'cut their losses' and try to pick up a big pair on the redraw.

Again, this makes sense at first glance. Yet what is forgotten in this kind of analysis is that by keeping the 9c 7c 5c the player also has a chance at a straight or a flush. Now it's true that a draw like this isn't a real moneymaker. But it will still pay more, in the long run, than drawing five new cards.

Mistake 3) Keeping a suited AT as opposed to just keeping the ace.

This is one of the most common mistakes made by video poker players at Jacks or Better. Now I'll be the first to admit that holding the ace and the ten is far more fun then just drawing to the ace. After all, when you hold the ace and the ten you have at least a small chance of something really good happening; namely, hitting the royal on the draw. You also have a better chance of making a straight or a flush. Yet as with the hand we examined in Mistake #1 these gains do not outweigh your decreased chances of making four of a kind, three of a kind or a big pair. If you want to play optimally you'll have to discard that ten; I know it's tough, but it must be done!

These are three of the most vivid examples of poor play, although there are plenty of other mistakes that a video poker player frequently makes in the course of a playing session. If your goal is to reduce the house edge as much as possible I recommend picking up a book that contains charts detailing the finer points of optimal play. There are a number of books like this out on the market, and they're definitely worth the sticker price. Pore over the charts, and compare the plays they recommend with the plays you're currently making. I guarantee it will be a real eye-opening experience.

Guy Downs has been an advantage gambler for eight years. You can find more of his video poker advice at


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