There are dozens of different styles of video poker, but learning to play the games in this genre well requires knowing the fundamental principles.
In the online casino world, video poker is one of the two genres of games that gets the most attention for its strategic aspects and skill-oriented play. One of the main reasons why the game has maintained such popularity over the decades is that it includes a tremendous amount of strategy, and players can learn to play stronger strategies that give them better payouts on average. There is a lot to learn to get good at the games in this genre, but it all starts with learning the basic principles.
The Strategic Thought Process
There are five cards in your hand at the beginning of each hand of video poker, and you have 32 different ways you can play the discard round, including not discarding anything at all. Your thought process starts with narrowing those 32 ways to play the hand down to just a few options that are the most obvious. Sometimes there will only be one obvious way to play the hand, and sometimes you will be torn between two or three options.
Along these lines, the process of learning video poker strategy comes down to the following steps:
- Start by learning the poker hands and the most basic principles of strategy like keeping pairs when you have them or going for four-card draws, both of which usually seem obvious when you first learn the hand. This will help you to learn all of the situations where there is only one real way to play the hand.
- Learn to identify the types of situations where you will have two or three options that all seem reasonable. Being able to point out these situations is a critical step you must take before learning to play them.
- Memorize the critical match-ups and situations where you will have to pick between two or three options. This involves learning a few basic rules of thumb and practicing them enough that they are internalized.
- Finally, you’ll learn the few exceptions to the rules so that you’re playing almost perfectly.
If you go all the way through this process of learning to play video poker, then you will find that it’s not particularly easy. However, the rewards are worth it in the end.
The Basic Principles of Making Hands
The basic principles of making hands in video poker comes down to knowing and understanding the four basic groups of hands that you can make. Consider the following chart for reference:
|Grouping Name||Hands Types in That Group|
|High-card Hands||Hands that don’t contain pairs or draws to flushes or straights|
|Pair-based Hands||One pair, two pair, three of a kind, full house, four of a kind|
|Order-based Hands||Gutshot straight draws, open-ended straight draws, straights, straight flushes, royal flushes|
|Suit-based Hands||Flush draws, flushes, straight flushes, royal flushes, three to a royal flush*|
* Three cards to a royal flush is a sort of specialty hand that could be considered a crossover between the high-card hands, order-based hands and suit-based hands. They gain a little bit of value from three different categories, which adds up to enough value to be important in a number of situations.
The first thing you should do when you are dealt a hand is to identify what your options are in terms of how you can play the hand. Here are four examples, one from each category:
- AhKsJd5c4c – This is a high-card hand. Play will be based on keeping high cards on the draw to try to make a high pair.
- AsAd8c4h2s – This is a pair-based hand. Play will be based on keeping the pair of aces and trying to improve on the hand.
- JcTs9h8c4d – This is an order-based hand. Play will be based around discarding the 4d and trying to make a straight.
- AcJc7c6c4h – This is a suit-based hand. Play will be based around discarding the 4h and trying to hit a flush.
Note that some of these hands have shades of other types of hands. In the last two hands, for example, players could also make a high pair if they get a card of the correct rank. The primary type of hand, however, is still order-based and suit-based, respectively.
Difficult High-Card Hands in Video Poker
There are two types of difficult hands that you can be dealt in video poker. The first, and the one you’ll see the most often, is the high-card hand. The simple fact of the matter is that, even though they represent the hands that are the lowest in the poker hand ranking system, they are the most difficult to learn how to play because of the subtle differences that can change the right play from one hand to the next and the anti-intuitive nature of the correct strategies. Players should put a lot of work into learning to play high-card hands well because they make up a lot of the hands that you’ll see in the games overall.
Hands With Two Ways to Play
The second type of difficult hand, and the situation we’re going to focus on here, is when there are two or three perfectly reasonable ways to play. This usually comes down to situations where there are two different ways that you could classify a hand.
For example, suppose you have AsAhJh8h4h. One option is to play this as a pair-based hand and keep the pair of aces. The other option is to play this as a suit-based hand and keep the four hearts in hopes of making a flush. Knowing the right play in this situation actually comes down to the specific type of video poker that you’re playing. In some games, it can be correct to play it as a pair-based hand. In others, it can be correct to play it as a suit-based hand.
In either case, no matter what style of the game you’re playing, your first step has to be to identify that you’re in one of these difficult scenarios first. Here is a brief list of some of the most common difficult spots of this nature that you’ll run into:
- Pair + flush draw
- Pair + straight draw
- Straight draw + flush draw (but not a straight flush draw)
- Three to a royal + pair
- Three to a royal + flush draw
- Three to a royal + straight draw
You will have to learn the rules that govern handling each of these situations for the specific game that you’re playing if you want to move beyond the bare basics of strategy for that game.
Moving Into Advanced Territory
After you learn the basic rules for the difficult situations you’ll see, like what we’ve surveyed above, then you’re ready to move into the more advanced topics. This comes down to what the exceptions are to the rules that you have learned so far. Because those exceptions are very game-specific, there’s no convenient way to cover them all in one place. There are dozens of games and several rules with several exceptions in the genre.
However, we will give one example here that’s probably the most common exception to a rule in all of video poker.
First, we have the rule in Jacks or Better that in situations where you have a small pair (meaning a pair that doesn’t get a payout; tens or lower), and you have an open-ended straight draw, then you should keep the small pair. So if you had 66543 with no flush draw, then you would keep the 66 instead of the 6543.
The only exception to this rule is when you have the specific hand KQJTT with no flush draw available. In this situation, it’s actually slightly better no average to keep the straight draw instead of keeping the pair of tens. The reason for this is the the straight draw KQJT has a lot of extra chances to make a high pair since there are three kings, three queens and three jacks that can make a high pair with a 1x payout in addition to the four aces and four nines in the deck that can make the straight.
You can see that there is a solid reasoning behind this exception, but it takes a lot to get to the point that you know all of the exceptions for all of the rules for a particular style of video poker.
Video poker strategy is a complicated subject with a lot of depth. While you can learn the very basics inside of an hour or two, if you want to really maximize your payout rate and your chances of gaining an advantage against the casino, then you have to really put the work in and learn a lot of in-depth strategies. This involves starting with the basics, learning the rules for playing difficult hands and then learning all of the exceptions to all of the rules for the specific games you want to play.