Non-wild card video poker games like Jacks or Better have particular strategic principles players must learn to maximize their payouts.
The main way to categorize video poker games is whether or not they include wild cards. The very first titles in this genre included no wild cards whatsoever, and games without wild cards have a specific style of play to them. In short, it’s more about maximizing your value with hands on the weaker end of the spectrum than it is trying to make massive hands or big draws with several different ways to win, like what you get when you incorporate wild cards.
We’re going to explore non-wild card video poker strategy here through the lens of the most basic game in the genre: Jacks or Better. Because virtually every single style of video poker is based on this game in one way or another, it’s an absolute must for fans to learn to play.
The Elements of Non-Wild Card Game Strategy
There are a few key elements of non-wild card game strategy. The following is the order that we recommend players learn these elements:
- The types of basic starting hands.
- The general rules for ranking the different types of starting hands.
- How to play high-card hands, with an in-depth focus on accuracy.
- Finally, exceptions to the general rules in #2 above.
The basic starting hands are the fundamental building block of strategy for playing non-wild card video poker hands, and that’s what we’re going to start with. These aren’t just the poker hands themselves (pair, two pair, three of a kind, etc.), but they’re about the different ways that you could play a hand based on trying to maximize your average return.
Video Poker Hand Types
When we talk about the types of poker hands, there are essentially three groups that matter: made hands, draws and high-card hands. High-card hands make up their own group of strategic principles, which have to be learned separate from playing all of the major made hands and draws, so we’re going to skip over those and leave them until later.
We’re going to break this up into the top tier of made hands, middling hands and high-card hands. In terms of how hard it is to play accurately, made hands are the easiest to play, middling hands will give you some trouble, and high-card hands will give you a lot of trouble.
The Top Tier of Made Hands
On the discussion of the hand types, let’s start with our first general rule:
If you have a made hand that’s two of a kind or better, all you’ll need to do is keep the hand and discard any card that isn’t a part of it.
That covers about 7.6 percent of all hands, since that’s your chance of being dealt two of a kind or better. There are exceptions to this rule, however, which we’ll cover now.
If you have a made straight or flush, then you should break it up and go for the draw when you have four to a royal flush in your hand. This is extremely difficult for players to commit to mentally because you’re essentially giving up a guaranteed payout for something that you don’t know will pay off.
To change your mind on this, we’ll show you that the proof is in the puddling. Suppose you have the hand AsQsJsTs6s. If you keep this hand, then you get a 6x payoff since that’s the win for a flush. However, suppose you discard the 6 of spades and go for the royal flush draw. The average payout for this draw is a whooping 18.4x. That’s more than three times the value of keeping the flush.
Because your object in any type of video poker is to maximize your average win, it’s clear that breaking up the made flush is the correct play.
Playing Middling Hands
So if we take away all made hands two of a kind or better, and if we take away all of what we are going to consider high-card hands, then we only have a few hand types left to work with: a low pair (a pair that doesn’t get a payout), a high pair (a pair that does get a payout), four to a flush, four to a straight (open-ended), four cards to a straight flush and three to a royal flush. These are what we will be calling our middling hands.
There are only six hands in this category, but this will actually make up a significant portion of the difficult spots you find yourself in. Let’s explain how this works.
If you’re dealt five cards that make up one of these middling hands, then you have a very easy hand, and it’s obvious what your play should be. If you have AsAc8h7s4d, then it’s obvious you have a pair of aces that you should play and discard everything else. Likewise, if you have AsJs9s4s3h, it’s clear that you should play towards your flush draw by discarding the 3 of hearts.
The difficulty comes in when you have a middling hand that matches two or three of these types. That’s when you have to decide which way to commit to playing the hand, and that’s where mistakes can happen.
Ranking System for Middling Hands
To help you evaluate these situations where you can play with two or more types of middling hands, you can use the following simple evaluation system as a set of rules. There are exceptions to these rules, which we’ll cover below, but this will steer you correctly the majority of the time.
- Four to a straight flush
- High pairs
- Three to a royal flush
- Four to a flush
- Low pairs
- Four to an open-ended straight (eight ways to make the hand)
Here’s how to use this evaluation ranking. The higher the hand is on the list, the more value you’ll get from it. We’ll look at a few examples here to drive this method home.
Example 1: Suppose you hold AsAhTh6h3h. Your two options are to play four to a flush or a high pair. A high pai ranks higher, so you should take it. The math of the situation backs up this decision since the pair will average a payout of 1.54x, but the four to a flush only pays 1.19x on average.
Example 2: Let’s say we hold 7c7d6d5h4d. Clearly our options are the pair of sevens or the open-ended straight draw. The low pair ranks higher on our list, so it’s no surprise that the low pair pays 0.82x on average, while the straight draw only averages 0.68x.
Example 3: This example is an exception to the rule. In fact, it’s the only main exception to this set of rules in Jacks or Better specifically, but you’ll find other exceptions in some of the other non-wild card games.
We hold KsQhJdTdTs. Our ranking system would tell us that we should keep the low pair of tens instead of the king-high open-ended straight draw. However, in this particular situation, that straight draw also includes three ways to make a high pair (the king, queen and jack). That adds enough value to push it ahead of the small pair in a scenario that we don’t see in Jacks or Better anywhere else.
To drive this point home, the average win for the straight draw is 0.87x here, and it’s just 0.68x for the pair of tens.
Introduction to Strategy for High-Card Hands
Everything that we’ve discussed before this point can probably be learned by a person of average intelligence in an afternoon. However, from this point on, we’re going to be dealing with information that can take several weeks, or even months, to master.
The simple fact of the matter is that there is an overwhelming number of high-card hand situations that you have to learn to be able to play super accurately. While we’re not going to cover every single one of them, we’re going to cover enough that you’ll be very close to playing perfectly if you learn them all.
With all of that having been said, if you do put the work in to learn how to play these hands here, you’ll be given the added benefit that this part of strategy does not change at all for virtually every non-wild card game out there. You’ll be learning an essential part of tons of different video poker games all at the same time, which is a major comfort to a lot of players.
Classifying Straight Flush Draws
To begin with, we need to learn the difference between the types of three-card straight flush draws. What we’re going to call a major straight flush draw is when there is at least one high card for every “gap” between the cards that make up the draw. See these examples:
- 8s7s6s has no gap, so it doesn’t need a high card to be a major straight flush draw.
- JhTh8h has one gap (there’s no nine), and it has one high card (the jack) to make up for it, so it’s a major straight flush draw.
- QcJc8c has two gaps (the nine and the ten), and it has two high cards (the jack and the queen), making it a major straight flush draw.
If you have three cards to a straight flush draw, and it’s not a major straight flush draw, then we’re going to call it a minor straight flush draw. Keep in mind that these are labels for three-card flush draws. This gives us the following rule:
For the hands that we’re going to consider high-card hands, which means you don’t have at least one of the six middling hands listed above, a major straight flush draw is the best you can get.
Minor flush draws fall into a lower category, as you’ll see in the next section.
Top-End High-Card Video Poker Hands
We’re going to split things up into two groups. For the top end of high-card video poker hands, a major straight flush draw is the best you can get, and it’s slightly better than AKQJ that are all of different suits. That hand gives you 12 ways to hit a high pair and four ways to make a straight, so it’s probably stronger than it initially appears.
AKQJ of different suits is a better hand than two suited high cards (jacks or better), which in turn is better than a gut-shot straight draw with three high cards. Those are the only hands that are better than a minor straight flush draw. In short, there are three types of high-card hands that fall between the major straight flush draws and the minor straight flush draws in value. In order from strongest to weakest, they are: AKQJ of different suits, two suited cards J or higher, and a gut-shot with three high cards.
These five hands, with the two types of straight flush draws included, will show up relatively often. However, they represent the best that you’ll find in terms of high-card hands, and they’ll be a minority of the high-card hands that you encounter.
Classifying and Identifying Low-End High-Card Hands
Before we can continue discussing these hands, we have to give you a classification system. All of the rest of these hands are based on groups of two or three cards and whether or not they are of the same suit or not. For a short-hand convention, we’ll identify cards of the same suit with an “s” and cards of different suits with an “o.” Along these lines, QTs would mean a queen and ten of the same suit, and AKo would mean an ace and king of different suits.
What we’re going to do for you here is offer a list of hands in order of strength from strongest to weakest. The hands at the top of the list are the strongest, and they will be grouped together according to similar type.
- KQJo, QJo, JTs
- KQo, KJo, QTs
- AKo, AQo, AJo
- KTs, a single high card
If you can’t make even a single high card or either of the types of three-card straight flush draws, then you simply fold in non-wild card games.
We’ll be the first to tell you that there’s a lot to learn here. However, if you learn the strategy that we have outlined for you here, then you will be extremely close to playing absolutely perfect Jacks or Better video poker and many other types of non-wild card games. If you’re getting started, we suggest that you start at the top and work your way down with the high-card hands being the last thing that you work on.