What is “advantage play” when it comes to video poker? It means you’re playing the game in such a way that your expected return over time is a net positive financial gain.
The most straightforward way is to find “beatable” machines at which you hold a statistical advantage over the house. Unfortunately, casinos aren’t fond of running beatable games, so these are probably going to be too few and far between to be reliable.
The other method is to play at an expected loss over time, but keep that loss amount so small that the freebies (“comps”) the casino is giving you for your play more than compensate for the money you expect to lose. Though casinos like to make this a little harder by the year, it’s still very possible with video poker, since the game has such an inherently low house edge.
The following steps break down the whole process as simply as possible.
1) Understand the House Edge
If you’re not familiar with the concept of the house edge, it’s vital to understand it first. Everything else about advantage play centers on this concept.
The house edge is the amount the casino reasonably expects to make off of each of their games, over the lifetime that game is on the floor. For example, if a game has a 90% house edge, the casino expects to keep 10% of the money fed through the game over time. The game would usually be described either as having a 10% house advantage, or a 90% payback rate.
Video poker has a variable house edge because the skill of the player is a factor. For each set of cards dealt, there is a mathematically optimal way to play them. Video poker houses usually express their edge with the assumption that the player will play the game correctly. For example, you might see a banner over a bank of machines advertising “99.8 % payback.” That assumes the player makes the best possible decision with every hand. If they don’t, they are adding anywhere from a fraction of a percent to a few full percentage points to the house advantage.
Even when misplayed, video poker still usually has a lower house edge than the casino games that require no skill, like slot machines and keno. When played correctly, the house edge can often be whittled down to less than one percent. And in sporadic cases, some machines pay back slightly more than 100%.
The house edge can be hard to calculate at some games. It isn’t with video poker. You can see the pay table on each machine, and the pay table is all you need to know what the house edge will be. There are a couple of dozen popular varieties of video poker at every casino, and the house edge can easily be found online simply by looking up their names.
2) Know The Most Favorable Games
Games that have the most favorable possible pay table are referred to as “full pay.” The best rates vary from game to game. New players often gravitate to Deuces Wild, because it has the highest possible full pay rate ever seen at a casino (100.8%). Full pay Double Bonus and Double Double Bonus also just top a 100% payback rate. The next best game, full-pay Jacks or Better, cuts the casino advantage down to less than half a percent (99.56%).
If you’re just concerned with winning money over time, then hunting for full pay tables is going to be your game. You’ll have a tough time tracking them down on casino floors these days, however. And when you do find them, the comp rate on them is usually reduced (or they may offer no comps whatsoever). You also almost always have to place the maximum bet to get the most favorable payback percentage.
If you’re playing to profit by way of comps instead, it’s going to be all about finding the least-bad pay tables that are convenient to you, those that are good enough to give you a small expected loss that is offset by the comps you’ll gain. It’s important to know if the casino comps differently for different types of video poker games because you’ll need to factor that expected value into your calculations.
Among video poker enthusiasts, video poker pay tables are often expressed using the multipliers paid out for a full house and flush, sometimes with the addition of the straight. For example, full pay Jacks or Better is usually abbreviated as 9/6 or 9/6/4. Full pay double bonus poker is 10/7.
Deuces Wild is somewhat trickier; the key number to identify a full pay machine is the multiplier for a four of a kind, which should be 5, combined with a straight flush payout of 9 (9/5). Most machines will have a payout of 4 for a four of a kind instead, but a slightly more substantial payout for the straight flush (10 or 11, so 10/4 or 11/4). Despite the increase in the latter, the overall house edge still increases, because a four of a kind is much more common than a straight flush.
Hopping between casinos to check all of the pay tables would be insanely time-consuming. Players usually gather at online forums to share information on the best pay tables they’ve spotted in the wild recently. Two of the most prominent sites for this are vpFREE2 and the Videopoker.com forum.
3) Learn Perfect Strategy
Before you start learning a game, there are two critical points to understand:
• Each type of video poker (Deuces Wild, Jacks or Better, etc.) has a different optimal strategy
• The strategy for a particular game can also change depending on the pay table
That is why most players opt to specialize in one specific game and just look for the best available opportunities.
Learning strategy is merely a matter of memorizing whatever the statistically best play in each situation is. Since there is a fixed best decision for every set of circumstances, it is possible to create a card or chart that serves as a cheat sheet. However, unlike the strategy cards for blackjack, these can get large and sprawling in a hurry. It’s no problem to refer to one while playing online, but brick-and-mortar casinos may not allow them.
The preferred method for learning a game is to get a good trainer. A trainer is computer software (or a mobile app) that simulates video poker and tells you whether or not you played each hand correctly. Over time, you’ll simply memorize the correct play in the more confusing or counter-intuitive situations.
4) Factor in Comp Value
If you’re strictly hunting for full pay tables that give you an advantage, you don’t need to worry about this step.
Playing to offset losses with comps is going to be the more realistic scenario for most people, however. To do this, you need to know what casinos are offering, and how that translates into added expected value (EV) for you. That is the trickiest and most complicated part of video poker advantage play, as the casinos are usually tight with at least some of their comp and promo information.
You can divide comps into two rough categories: predictable comps that you can look up, and unpredictable comps that will require some inside information to devise a plan.
Predictable comps consist of:
- Points earned for specific wager amounts (i.e., you always get 1 point for every $2 you wager at video poker, similar to credit card rewards which is one advantage credit cards have over APMs)
- Temporary promotions (in which you get more points for specific game types, entries into tournaments, or a gift for a certain amount of play on top of your earned points)
- Sign-up bonuses for new players
- Listed benefits gained by reaching higher tiers of the players club
Comps that require some networking to learn about (and might be somewhat arbitrary) include:
• Periodic mailers and email offers
• Things that a casino host is authorized to provide after a player reaches a certain threshold
• Benefits that upper-tier members of the players club can usually get when they ask, yet aren’t formally listed anywhere
Casinos are notorious for not announcing temporary promotions on their websites. You’ll want to check their primary social media accounts to keep up with everything they put online (Facebook and X.com are usually good enough). You can only learn about some promos by actually visiting each location and seeing signs up for them, however.
The offers made to established players are usually only something you learn about by talking to other players. Meet people at the casinos and check online forums to find out what they’ve been getting at their various levels of play.
Calculating what each comp adds to your expected return isn’t an exact science. You can get a percentage number adjustment from points, but other comp types are relative to how much value they have to you. For example, if you spend much of the year traveling in an RV, free campsites or hotel stays will have greater value to you than to the person who just flies into Vegas or their alternative of choice for one vacation per year.
5) Build a Bankroll That Can Weather Variance
To be brutally honest, video poker is something of a “rich get richer” game. That’s because you’ll need to start off with a pretty healthy bankroll to absorb natural variance.
Variance consists of the inevitable “hot” and “cold” streaks, or patches of statistical outlier play. If you’re cold for too long and don’t have a sufficient bankroll, the casino takes everything you have, which is how they make their money off of otherwise savvy VP players.
With enough play, you’ll always revert somewhere very close to the expected payback percentage. You have to have the funds to hang in there for that long, however. So how much do you need?
A good rule is to have four times the amount of a royal flush win on hand at the stakes at which you plan to play. Most players don’t feel comfortable with less than $5,000 available at 25 cents per hand, and $15,000 at $1.25 per hand.
Unfortunately, the most favorable pay tables are usually in the high limit rooms. There has been a mass exodus of good pay tables at low denominations from casino floors in recent years. If you want to bet $1.25 or less per hand, you might have better luck poking around the online casinos, where competition for players is much more fierce at present (brick-and-mortar casinos are focusing more on finding new revenue streams than competing for massively dwindling gambling dollars).
Making the Best Play
Video poker advantage play ultimately comes down to a whole lot of scouting and networking. Once you’ve learned how to read pay tables and play with ideal strategy, you probably won’t forget that aspect unless you go many years without playing. You’ll always have to be scouting and researching to keep up with constantly-shifting casino terms, temporary promotions and game offerings.