Basics of Video Poker

by Steve Bourie  Learn more about the author read more »

Okay, who knows the main difference between video poker and slot machines? C’mon now, raise your hands if you think you know it. If you said "a slot machine is a game of luck and video poker is a game of skill" then you are correct! When you play a slot machine there is no decision you can make which will affect the outcome of the game. You put in your money; pull the handle; and hope for the best. In video poker, however, it is your skill in playing the cards which definitely affects the outcome of the game.

Okay, who knows the other major difference between video poker and slot machines? Well, you’re right again if you said "you never know what percentage a slot machine is set to pay back, but you can tell a video poker machine’s payback percentage just by looking at it." Of course if you knew that answer then you also knew that video poker machines almost always offer you better returns than slot machines (provided you make the right playing decisions).

Now for those of you who didn’t know the answers to those two questions, please read on. You others can skip the rest of this story as I am sure you’re eager to get back to your favorite video poker machine.

First, let’s cover the basics. Video poker has virtually the same rules as a game of five card draw poker. The only difference is that you have no opponent to beat and you can’t lose more than your initial bet. First, you deposit from one to five coins in the machine to make your bet. You are then shown five cards on the video screen and your goal is to try to make the best poker hand possible from those cards. Since it is a draw game, you are given one opportunity to improve your hand. This is done by allowing you to discard from one, up to all five cards from your original hand. Of course, you don’t have to discard any if you don’t want to. After choosing which cards you want to keep (by pushing the button below each card), you then push the deal button and the machine will replace all of the other cards with new cards. Based on the resulting final hand the machine will then pay you according to the pay schedule posted on the machine. Naturally, the better your hand, the higher the amount the machine will pay you back.

That’s pretty much how a video poker machine works from the outside, but what about the inside? Well, I had three specific questions about that so I contacted International Game Technology, which is the world’s largest manufacturer of video poker machines (as well as slot machines), to see if they could provide some answers. Here’s what they said:

#1: Are the cards dealt to you on a random basis?

IGT: Gaming regulations require that gaming devices must have random outcomes of game play results. In order to satisfy this requirement, games of all types use a random number generator (RNG) software algorithm to determine game outcome. While the game is in the idle state, i.e. waiting for someone to deposit a coin or push a play credit button, the RNG algorithm is called hundreds of times every second. The RNG has approximately 16,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible outcomes and, depending on the game type, there will be many billions of outcomes that map into any set of cards, or keno balls, or slot machine symbols. This ensures that all IGT games are completely random, just as if the cards were dealt from a perfectly shuffled deck.

#2: When does the shuffling actually stop?

IGT: On all game types, when the start, deal or bet button is pushed, the randomly selected outcome is determined. This result is determined solely by the RNG and is not dependent on any factors of game play, such as how many coins are bet, or on what happened in the last game played or on how many seconds you wait before deciding what cards to draw.

#3: Is there a draw card assigned to each dealt card?

IGT: No, IGT games operate as follows: the first five cards dealt are displayed and additional cards are taken from the top of the deck as needed. So, if you discard one card it doesn’t matter which card you discard, the draw card will be the same.

According to IGT’s first answer we know that all of the hands are generated randomly. Some people believe that the machine knows what cards it initially deals you and then it gives you bad draw cards so you won’t have a winning hand. This isn't true. The deck is shuffled randomly and then all cards are dealt and drawn in order. By the way, the number with all the zeros is 16 quintillion. Don’t feel ignorant if you didn’t know it because neither did I. Of course, when our national debt gets that high, we’ll all be familiar with it!

One other point must be made here regarding random outcomes in video poker machines. Please notice that the above answer stated gaming regulations require that the machines must have random outcomes. You should be aware that there are casinos operating in places that do not have gaming regulations. Examples are cruise ships which operate in international waters and some Indian reservations that are not subject to state regulations. You should also be aware that the technology exists for machines to be set so they do not act randomly. These machines are actually programmed to avoid giving the players better hands and they wind up giving the house a much bigger advantage. These machines are illegal in Nevada, New Jersey, Colorado and all other states that pattern their gaming regulations after those states. You may, however, come across them in unregulated casinos.

With the second answer we know that the RNG stops when you deposit the first coin, or when you push the bet or deal button. This means that the results will be the same whether we deposit one coin or the maximum coins. Some people think that the outcome will be different depending on how many coins are deposited. This is not true. If you put in one coin and get a royal flush, you would have gotten that same royal flush if you had put in five coins.

The last answer clears up some confusion about how the draw cards are dealt. Some people believe that the machine initially deals 10 cards: five up cards that you see, plus one other card under each of those cards as a draw card. This is not true. The draw card you receive is in the same order as if it were being dealt off the top of the deck. Example: You are dealt (10§,J§,Q§,6¨,6©). You discard (6¨,6©) and draw (6§,6ª). Had you kept (6¨,6©) and discarded (10§,J§,Q§) you would have had four sixes.

One final point you should keep in mind - IGT is not the only manufacturer of video poker machines. There are quite a few others and they may engineer their machines to work in a different manner. Their RNG may not stop in the same way and their draw cards may be dealt differently. IGT, however, is by far the largest and it is the type of machine you will most often encounter in a casino.

Now that you understand how a video poker machine works let’s learn how to pick out the best paying ones. In the beginning of this story it was mentioned that "you can tell a video poker machine’s payback percentage just by looking at it." That’s true, but it takes a little bit of knowledge to know the difference among all the different types of machines. An example of some of the different machines available are: Tens or Better, Jacks or Better, Two Pairs or Better, Joker Poker and Deuces Wild. To make it even more confusing, not only are there different machines, but each of those machines can have a different pay schedule for the same hand. Fortunately, every video poker machine’s payback percentage can be mathematically calculated. Not only does this let you know which machines offer you the best return, but it also tells you the best playing decisions to make on that particular machine based on the odds of that combination occurring. The bad news, however, is that it’s fairly impossible to do on your own so you’ll have to either buy a book that lists all of the percentages and strategies or buy a computer program that does the work for you. Take a look at the tables on the next few pages and you'll see some different types of video poker games and their payback percentages (when played with maximum coin and perfect strategy).

(Sorry, but you'll have to buy the book to see the 14 different tables!)

Fortunately, every video poker machine’s payback percentage can be mathematically calculated. Not only does this let you know which machines offer you the best return, but it also tells you the best playing decisions to make on that particular machine based on the odds of that combination occurring. The bad news, however, is that it’s fairly impossible to do on your own so you’ll have to either buy a book that lists all of the percentages and strategies or buy a computer program that does the work for you. Take a look at the tables on the next few pages and you'll see some different types of video poker games and their payback percentages (when played with maximum coin and perfect strategy). For those of you with a computer, Bob Dancer Presents Win Poker can determine the exact payback percentage for any video poker machine. It retails for $29.95 and besides calculating percentages it will also allow you to play video poker on different types of machines and analyze hands to show you the expected return for each play. You can set the game to automatically show you the best decision each time or you can set it to just warn you if you make a wrong decision on your own. It’s so simple that my 11-year-old son plays it and I’m confident he can play better than the average Las Vegas visitor. "I’m going for the flush, dad!"

(These video poker programs can be bought at a discount at our store)

If you have no desire to get quite that serious about learning video poker then I’ll try to provide some general tips to help you out. First, you’ll need to find the machines that offer you the highest returns. One of the best is the 9/6 Jacks or Better machine. Of course, you’re probably wondering "what exactly is a 9/6 Jacks or Better machine?" Well, the Jacks or Better part refers to the fact that you won’t win anything from the machine unless you have at least a pair of Jacks. The 9/6 part refers to the payback schedule on this kind of machine. As stated earlier, each machine can have a different payback schedule and there are at least 20 different kinds of payback schedules available on Jacks or Better machines. In Las Vegas the two most common Jacks or Better machines you will find are 8/5 and 9/6. Here’s a comparison of their pay schedules (per coin, for five-coin play):




Royal Flush




Straight Flush








Full House
















Two Pairs




One Pair J’s




As you can see, the schedules are identical except for the better payoffs on the 9/6 machines for Flushes and Full Houses. The payback on a 9/6 machine is 99.5% with perfect play, while the 8/5 machines return 97.3% with perfect play. Of course, it doesn’t make any sense to play an 8/5 machine if a 9/6 machine is available. Yet, in Las Vegas you’ll see lots of people playing an 8/5 when a 9/6 can often be found in the same casino. The reason they do that is because they don’t know any better; you do. Always look for the 9/6 machines. They can be found in every downtown Las Vegas casino and most, but not all, strip casinos. In other states, including New Jersey, they won’t be found as easily. On a trip to Mississippi I found a few, but it took some searching and not every casino had them. If you can’t find one be sure to double check with the Slot Host to see if they’re offered.

One other common machine you will come across is an 8/5 Jacks or Better progressive. These feature the same 8/5 pay table as above except for the royal flush which pays a jackpot amount that is displayed on a meter above the machine. The jackpot will continue to build until someone hits a royal flush; then it will reset and start to build again. If the jackpot on a 25¢ machine is above $2,240 (for five coins) then you should play it. If it’s below $2,240 then stick to the regular 9/6 machines.

Another good tip is to restrict your play to the same kind of machine all the time. Each video poker machine has its own particular strategy and what works best on a Jacks or Better machine is definitely much different from what works best on a Deuces Wild machine. I only play 9/6 Jacks or Better machines because that is what I practice on and I automatically know the best decision to make all the time. Keep in mind that when you calculate the payback percentage for a video poker machine the number you arrive at is based on perfect play. As an example, a 9/6 Jacks or Better video poker machine has a 99.5 percent payback with perfect play. This means that, theoretically, it will return $99.50 for every $100 played in the machine, but only if the player makes the correct decision every time. If you make mistakes, and most players do, the return to the casino will be higher. If you play several different kinds of machines it becomes increasingly harder to remember the correct play to make and you will make mistakes. Therefore, it only makes sense to memorize the correct decisions for one kind of machine and to always play on that same kind of machine (of course, in order to learn those proper strategies, you may want to buy that book or software).

Now that you’ve decided which machines to play, you’ll need some help with your playing strategy. Reproduced on the next two pages are charts that will give you an excellent simple strategy for both 9/6 and 8/5 video poker machines. These charts were derived from computer calculations using the VP Tutor program and will give you a near-perfect strategy for playing your hands. They aren't 100% perfect but they are close to it and will only be fractionally incorrect in some situations. The only difference between the two tables is shown in the poker hands that have been italicized in the 8/5 strategy tables.

(Sorry, but you'll have to buy the book to see the two strategy charts!)

When looking at the 9/6 chart there are a few things that should seem rather obvious:

1) A low pair is relatively good. Of the 36 possible hands, a low pair is #16 which means there are 20 hands worse than a low pair. If you look at the 15 hands that are better than a low pair eight of them are pat hands that require no draw. Of the other seven hands, six of them are four card hands and the remaining hand is a three-card royal flush.

2) Don't hold three cards trying to get a straight or flush. Nowhere on the chart do you see that you should hold three cards to try for a straight or flush. In some instances you should hold three cards to try for a straight flush, but never a straight or flush.

3) Rarely draw to an inside straight. Inside straights (6,7,_,9,10) appear only twice on the chart and only in rather bad positions: #30 (with three high cards) and #25 (with four high cards). It is much easier to draw to an outside straight (_7,8,9,10_) where you can complete your straight by getting the card you need on either end. Open end straights appear four times on the chart and in much higher positions than inside straights: #21 (with no high cards), #18 (with one high card), #17 (with two high cards) and #15 (with three high cards).

4) Don't hold a kicker. A kicker is an unpaired card held with a pair. For example (8,8,K) or (K,K,9) are examples of hands where an extra card (the kicker) is held. Never hold a kicker because they add no value to your hand!

Keep in mind that the strategy tables shown here are only for Jacks or Better and are not valid for games played with wild cards such as Joker Poker, Deuces Wild, Double Joker, etc. Those games employ a completely different strategy and it would be wrong to use these strategies for those kinds of machines.

For your information there are exactly 2,598,960 unique poker hands possible on a video poker machine (when played without a joker). On a 9/6 Jacks or Better machine a royal flush will occur about once every 40,000 hands; a straight flush about every 9,000 hands; four-of-a-kind about every 425 hands; a full house about every 87 hands; a flush about every 91 hands; a straight about every 89 hands; three-of-a-kind about every 14 hands; two pairs about every 8 hands; and a pair of Jacks or better about every 5 hands. The interesting thing to note here is that both a flush and a straight are harder to get than a full house, yet a full house always has a higher payback than either of them. The majority of the time, about 55% to be exact, you will wind up with a losing hand on a 9/6 machine.

The next bit of advice concerns how many coins you should bet. On a machine with a 100% or more return you should always bet the maximum amount because it will allow you to earn bonus coins when you hit the royal flush. Example: For a royal flush on a 9/6 machine with one coin played you receive 250 coins; for two coins you get 500; for three coins you get 750; for four coins you get 1,000 and for five (maximum) coins you get 4,000 coins. This translates into a bonus of 2,750 coins! A royal flush can be expected once every 40,400 hands on a 9/6 machine; once every 40,200 hands on an 8/5 machine; and once every 32,700 hands on an 8/5 progressive. The odds are high, but the added bonus makes it worthwhile. If you can’t afford to play the maximum coins on a positive machine then move down to a lower denomination machine.And, if you absolutely insist on playing less than the maximum, be sure to play only one coin at a time. It doesn’t make any sense to play two, three or four coins, because you still won’t be eligible for the bonus.

One important thing to keep in mind when you look at the total payback on these video poker machines is that those numbers always include a royal flush and the royal flush plays a very big factor in the total return. As a matter of fact, the royal flush is such a big factor on video poker machines that you are actually expected to lose until you get that royal flush. Yes, even by restricting your play to video poker machines with a more than 100% payback you are still expected to lose money until you hit a royal flush. Once you hit that royal flush it will bring your cash back up to that 100% level but until it happens you should be fully aware that you are statistically expected to lose money.

According to video poker expert Bob Dancer, "on a 25¢ Jacks or Better 9/6 machine you will lose at a rate of 2.5% while you are waiting for the royal to happen. Another way to look at this is quarter players who play 600 hands per hour can expect to lose about $18.75 per hour, on average, on any hour they do not hit a royal." You really have to keep in mind that there are no guarantees when you play video poker. Yes, you are expected to get a royal flush about once every 40,000 hands but there are no guarantees that it will happen and if you don't get that royal flush it could cost you dearly.

A final tip about playing video poker concerns slot clubs. Every major casino has a slot club and you should make it a point to join the slot club before you insert your first coin. It doesn’t cost anything to join and as a member you will have the opportunity to earn complimentaries from the casinos in the form of cash, food, shows, drinks, rooms or other "freebies." When you join the club you’ll be issued a card (similar to a credit card) that you insert in the machine before you start to play and it will track how much you bet, as well as how long you play. Naturally, the more money you gamble, the more freebies you’ll earn. Just make sure you don’t get carried away and bet more than you’re comfortable with just to earn some extra comps. Ideally, you want to get comps for gambling that you were going to do anyway and not be pressured into betting more than you had planned. Many clubs will also give you cash back for your play and that amount should be added into the payback percentage on the kind of machine you'll be playing. For example: at Treasure Island in Las Vegas, the slot club rebates .67% in cash for your video poker play. By only playing 9/6 Jacks or Better machines with a return of 99.54% you can add the .67% rebate to get an adjusted figure of 100.21%. This means that you are, theoretically, playing at a game where you have a slight advantage, plus you're still eligible for other room and food discounts on top of your cash rebate.

The story you are reading was originally written in 1994 and is updated each year. The only major difference between 1994 and 1999 is that it's getting a little harder to find the 9/6 machines in Las Vegas. Many of them have been replaced by new machines called Bonus Poker, Double Bonus Poker, Double Double Bonus Poker or Triple Bonus Poker. Casinos are always introducing new machines and these particular ones are now very popular. The perfect strategy for these machines is much more complicated and the two strategy tables in this book don't apply to them. If you have a computer you can use the Stanford Wong Video Poker or the Bob Dancer Presents Win Poker programs to practice the strategy for the newer machines. Otherwise, keep an eye out for the 9/6, full pay deuces wild or 10/7 double bonus machines. They're harder to find but they're still out there - especially in the numerous "locals" casinos.